Chapter 1 - Secret Agent Berner
The secret meaning of the Bernese Mountain Dog standards
How to pick the right moment to launch The Bernese Mountain Dog Project
How to recognize a good breeder using the Sherlock Holmes Technique
When I first read the breed standards, history, and other info on the breed’s physical appearance and temperament, I didn’t think much of it. I mean, not that I didn’t care, but these things just seemed obvious. Working dog, from Switzerland, tri-colored coat, calm temperament, possibly aloof with strangers, details about the skull shape, the legs, blah-blaaah. Ok, I get it! Actually, I was far from getting it. I found out about their secret meaning only later. Are you ready to see what’s hidden behind the words? Here we go.
The Bernese Mountain Dog used to be a guard dog for the farms in Switzerland
This was happening at the end of the 19th century. Maybe you’re saying, “What? A guard dog? But he looks like a teddy bear. You’re kidding.” Anyway, that was my reaction. Well, it’s part of the breed’s history. But this trait still remains in the dog’s genes even to this day.
And do you know what that means? It means if you leave him at the mercy of his genetics, his trust circle might be the size of an inflatable baby pool. For the unsocialized Bernese Mountain Dog, those who aren’t in the trust circle, are on the suspect list. And he makes it his mission to scare away all suspects, like a dragon guarding the castle. What do I mean? I mean he barks at them with a voice that makes even a ship horn sound like a whisper in comparison, a voice that inspires even a slug to grow legs and shoes and start running.
But don’t worry, your puppy will have a humongous trust circle, because he’s in good hands, your hands. How do I know he’s in good hands? Well, I’m not Sherlock, but you bought this book, which tells me you’re a responsible person, you’re committed to offering your dog the education he needs and you anticipate a joyful life with your furry best friend. Nobody buys a book about dog education because they don’t care about their dog. Am I right?
So, in order for him to have a healthy trust circle, the Bernese Mountain Dog needs intensive socialization, at least in his first two to three years. Which means starting from day one, every day, you show him how wonderful people and their pets are. Men, women, children, dogs, cats, ferrets, parrots and other animals he might encounter. You show him how the world he was born in is only tickling, scratching, kissing, bones that rain from the sky and romping in the green grass. By the way, I recommend you read Susanne Clothier’s book, Bones Would Rain from the Sky. It’s not specifically about the Bernese Mountain Dog, but it will help you see the world from a dog’s point of view. It’s a book I couldn’t put down until I finished it. Ok, enough about socialization for the moment. We talk about it in detail in Chapter 6: Operation Terra.
That being said, no matter how socialized your dog is, he’ll always let you know when someone approaches the property.
The Bernese Mountain Dog is a herding dog
Even if he seems to be a couch potato, the Bernese Mountain Dog is happy when he can exert himself. This breed used to drive cattle for the farmers in Berne. It means when he grows up you can enjoy long hikes in nature. Depending on where you’re walking, you might encounter sheep out to pasture. I’d keep him on-leash around sheep and other running creatures because some Berners have it in their instinct to chase them. Not all Berners, but it’s good to know. If herding sparks your interest, you can even teach your dog to work sheep, goats, and cattle. Any structured activity channels his instinct in a constructive manner.
As a cattle herder, the Berner was bred to make decisions on his own. This is why he might seem stubborn, but it’s just an illusion. You can convince him to do anything with sweet talk and praise. He’s easy to train.
The Bernese Mountain Dog is a drafting dog
Translation: this dog is born to pull. He’s able to pull many times his own weight. Bruno weighs around 100 pounds and he’s a medium Berner. So teaching your puppy to walk nicely on leash is not just a priority, it’s a must.
Measured at the withers this dog is 23 to 27,5 inches as an adult
Add to that the size of the head and he reaches well above the knees. I mean, I’m 5 foot 8 and I don’t have to bend to pet Bruno. Which means you can’t just take the dog in your arms and run with him if you ever have to leave on the spot. And you also can’t physically stop him from doing anything. You need to convince him using words. This is why it’s essential to train together in verbal communication, to build mutual trust and most of all, to socialize him. Because again, if he’s happy to meet other people and their pets, he’ll always be a gentle friendly giant.
Finally, as with all big breeds, take care of his joints, shoulders, and hips. So instead of stairs, use an elevator. Instead of jumping, use a ramp, especially for activities he does regularly, like getting in and out of the trunk. And even if he’s the size of a pony, riding is forbidden.
The tail is fluffy and has a white tip
Bruno’s tail is almost 18 inches and it sweeps all elevated surfaces under 28 inches, and only their borders up to 36 inches. Surfaces higher than 36 inches are safe.
You won’t need to do this right away, but Bernese Mountain puppies grow fast. So make sure you have a plan for getting flower vases, plates, glasses, decorations on 28-inch surfaces or higher. Ideally 36 inches. And if you puppy’s parents are bigger than Bruno, higher than that.
The coat is double, long and tri-colored
The Berner sheds twice a year, once in spring and once around his birthday. Double coat means rigorous brushing once a week, and normal brushing every other day. I don’t usually wash Bruno, I only brush him. Except when he rolls into something yucky or if he touches wet paint.
A long double coat also means vacuuming every day. Or not. Because who has the time to vacuum every day? Otherwise, his hair is easy to remove because it just lays on surfaces, or it makes little fantoms in the corners of the room, but it doesn’t weave itself into fabrics like short hair tends to do.
It also means the Berner prefers a cool climate. But he can adapt to hot summer if you provide him with lots of fresh water, air conditioning inside, natural shade outside and if you only do walks during the cooler part of the day. And no, it’s not a good idea to shave him, because the coat helps him regulate his body temperature.
He’s a faithful dog
It means he forms a strong bond with his family and wants to do everything together. He’ll follow you everywhere, even in the bathroom. You can leave him home alone two to four hours without affecting his mental wellbeing. Of course, you start with a minute or two and you increase the time slowly as he learns to be ok on his own.
He’s a calm dog
It’s true. But many Bernese Mountain Dog owners doubt it the first two to three years. It’s enough to read a few posts in any online group of the breed’s enthusiasts, “My dog is one year and a half old and he still behaves like a puppy.” Well, that’s because the Berner has a longer childhood than other breeds. I think Bruno still behaved like a baby until he was three. So enjoy every moment of it and remember to take pictures!
Ok, now that we’ve covered the secret meaning of the breed’s standards, let’s see when’s the right time to launch The Bernese Mountain Dog Project. What’s the best season for getting your puppy and what age should the puppy be when you bring it home?
Puppies can be born all year round. But what’s the best season for your puppy to be born? Well, we can peek at his close relative, the wolf. Baby wolves are born only in spring. Which means they have enough time to get used to the new world surrounding them and to toughen up before their first winter.
Maybe you’re saying, “Hold on, you’re not seriously comparing the living conditions of a wolf with what I’m offering my puppy.” And you know what? You’re right. Your Berner is certain to have his food, shelter, love, health care, and safety assured. And maybe you’ll even let him on the couch and buy him a cake for his birthday, that’s how privileged he is. On the other hand, he has his own challenges to overcome. Like Guess The Right Toilet and Intensive Socialization.
Let me tell you a story. Imagine it’s November and you just brought your puppy home. At last, he’s here! You look at the thermometer. You tell yourself, “Well, I’ll just put on an extra sweater. Problem solved.” You call your puppy, you harness and leash him and you go outside. His bladder is so tiny he has to empty it almost every hour. When spring comes he’ll already know where his toilet is. And his bladder will hold all night. Meanwhile, you tighten your scarf so it’s snug around your ears. You look around you and you wonder, “Where’s everyone?” You feel a raindrop on your right cheek. Then another one. Luckily you have your umbrella. But now the puppy is all muddy. Nearby you hear a bell ring. The children from the elementary school across the street have finished classes. Some of them hurry to get in their parents’ cars, others have umbrellas their moms brought and stop to pet your puppy. Your little Berner’s smile reaches his ears as he pushes his head in their arms. When the party’s over you go home, wipe and dry the puppy with an old towel and let him sleep. After an hour or so he wakes up, you go outside again and repeat the story.
Now imagine the same story with a few tweaks. It’s May and you just brought your puppy home. At last, he’s here! You look at the thermometer. You tell yourself, “Today I’m wearing my red kimono dress and a light jacket.” You call your puppy, you harness and leash him and you go outside. His bladder is so tiny he has to empty it almost every hour. When autumn comes he’ll already know where his toilet is and his bladder will hold all night. Meanwhile, you take your jacket off. You look around you and it seems like everyone’s outside, you’re all enjoying the weather. An old couple smiles at you and pets the puppy. You feel the sun on your cheeks. Luckily you have your sunglasses. Nearby you hear a bell ring. The children from the elementary school across the street have finished classes. Some of them hurry to get in their parents’ cars, many of them stop to pet your puppy. Your little Berner’s smile reaches his ears as he pushes his head in their arms. When the party’s over you go home and let him sleep. After an hour or so he wakes up, you go outside again and repeat the story.
My advice is to copy the wolves and wait for a spring puppy, especially from a socialization point of view. But it's your choice and now you can make an informed decision.
Regarding the puppy’s age, the experts recommend you leave the puppy with his mother and brothers until he’s eight weeks old. Because during this time:
- He feeds on his mother's milk, which is essential for his immunity
- He learns doggy communication rules
- While playing with his litter mates, he begins learning to control his jaws and therefore the intensity of his bite
- If you get your dog from a competent and passionate breeder, he also learns what he's allowed to chew on, where to potty and he also receives an important part of his socialization
And one more thing. You know how new parents take maternity or paternity leave to properly welcome their newborn? Well, I recommend you take at least two weeks of vacation to help your puppy settle in with his new family, to get used to his new home and to learn the rules of the house.
Now that you know when to get your puppy, let's see how to choose a breeder. Maybe you're saying, “Wait wait wait wait, a breeder? How about dog shelters?” Well, I thought you'd ask this. You see, when you get the dog and you don't know his past, we're not talking about education anymore. We’re talking about re-education. And the re-education of a dog is enough material for another book. In this book, we’re only handling the simplest case: a puppy you know everything about, even before he was born.
Let me present to you The Sherlock Holmes Technique to recognize a good breeder. So imagine you did your Internet to research, you asked for advice in Facebook groups and on forums, you talked with a positive dog trainer in your area, and now you have a list. A list with the finalists. The best Bernese Mountain Dog breeders. You pick up the phone and start calling them. Like a detective, you ask smart open questions and read between the lines. Here's what the conversation with the breeder of your ideal puppy can look like, the best possible scenario, in my opinion.
Good evening, may I speak with Mr. Goodone?
Speaking. Good evening.
I'm calling you with a few questions regarding your Bernese Mountain Dog puppies.
Of course. Please go ahead.
Are your puppies is socialized?
Ah, I’m glad you asked. Yes, all our puppies are socialized. We are a small breeder and we're very proud
of our work. And let me confirm that indeed, besides the dog’s health, socialization is the most important
for a Bernese Mountain Dog.
Okay. Since we’re talking about the dog’s health, what can you tell me about this litter’s parents and
grandparents? Are the grandparents still alive? And if not, why did they die and at what age?
Both parents and grandparents are perfectly healthy. We only visit the vet for vaccines. All
the family tree had strong and healthy shoulders, hips and joints. The great-grandparents died when they
were 12 years old. We also keep in touch with most of our clients and we know our puppies usually live to be
at least 12.
Excellent. Talking about genetical traits, can you please talk to me about temperament.
Of course. All the dogs in the family tree have proven an exemplary temperament. Confident,
docile. You might not know this, but when you get a puppy from us, you have a lifetime guarantee.
What do you mean a lifetime guarantee?
It means you can return the dog to us anytime and we’ll give you the money back. Because the well-being of
our dogs comes first. This is why we keep in touch with our clients. To make sure the puppies we breed are
good quality and to offer you support. In the beginning, we keep in touch quite often, once a month. Then
once every three months, once every six months, and finally once a year or whenever you need us. And I'm
proud to tell you that all our dogs have maintained an exemplary temperament.
Very well. I'd like to get back for a moment to my question about socialization. You said you socialize
your puppies. I’d like to know more. How do you socialize them?
I see we have a serious candidate here, I like your questions. Well, first of all, the puppies live in the
house with us. So they’re used to the usual noises of a home: the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, the
TV, pots, pans and plates, noise from the neighbors, children's laughter and crying. Did I tell you we have
children? We do. And the neighbors’ children come to play with the puppies, too. We also have a cat. And
there's always someone coming in or going out, every day we have guests and clients. We also created a mini
obstacle course in our yard — which you'll see when you visit us, he-he-he. This is to get them used to all
sorts of surfaces. We have a ramp, a plastic tunnel, cones, and obstacles. On top of that, our puppies
already know Sit, Down, Stand and they’re also potty trained.
I like what I'm hearing, Mr. Goodone.
He-he-he. Wait, I haven't even finished yet. We also have a buggy. Every day we load the puppies and the
buggy in the car and go to the city. Then we walk the puppies in the buggy and everyone comes to pet them.
So they're used to the car and with strangers. And of course, we only sell you a puppy if you commit to
continuing this intensive socialization. We love our puppies, we don't just sell them to the first person.
We choose the best candidates to make sure they get the best home possible.
Very well; Mr. Goodone. I'd like to come to see the puppies.
Wonderful, let me explain how it works. Before fixing a date, we want to know if your personality and
lifestyle are compatible with a Bernese Mountain Dog. As I was saying, we want to make sure we leave our
puppies in good hands. So I'll send you a questionnaire in your email. Please fill it in and send it back to
me before the 20th of the month. We don't accept any more applications after that date. Then, if you're
selected we’ll invite you for an interview.
Great, here's my email address.” “Have a good day and good luck!” “Thank you and have a good day!
Now all that’s left is to see with your own eyes that indeed:
- The puppies live in the house with the breeder
- Their mom is a sweetie and their dad has the same temperament
- The paperwork proves the puppies’ health (health certificate, DNA tests) The breeder has positive client reviews
- The breeder is gentle and sweet with the dogs
And of course, that when you get the puppy you receive the contract, the warranty and the passport with the chip ID and the vaccines’ proof.