The Fluffy-Pawed Gentle Giants!
We’ve all see Michael D. Higgins’s two huge beautiful Bernese Mountain Dogs. Their large size can make the already petite man look positively elfin in comparison. His dogs frequently steal the show and rightly so- they are a very handsome breed of dog with a fabulously rich history!
Bernese Mountain Dogs are actually part of a larger recognised group called the Sennenhund. There are 4 breeds included in this group- the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, the Bernese Mountain Dog, the Appenzeller Mountain Dog and the Entlebucher Mountain Dog. The Bernese is the only one of the 4 aforementioned breeds to have a long coat. Their distinctive markings often carry some variation of the famous black, white and rust colour. Their characteristic eyebrows and sweet, cheeky grin make them a very attractive breed.
Bernese sometimes have two very noticeable markings. One is called the “Swiss Cross” and is a white cross on their chest, the other is called the “Swiss Kiss” and is a white mark found behind the neck. They tend to have prominent dew-claws and sometimes they can have an extra dew-claw or toe, although most breeders remove these.
If you are sensing a pattern with some of the breed names mentioned above, that is because they all originated in Switzerland and the Alps. In fact, in most locales in Switzerland, the Bernese was originally called the Dürrbachhund, because of the large number of them present in the town of Dürrbach.
They also have roots in Roman mastiffs, who were used as guard dogs and in war. This genealogy can be seen in the large shape of the head.
Despite their big and somewhat intimidating stature, they were very popular as farm dogs, used to guard livestock and property. Another job they had was to drive dairy cattle long distances from farm to alpine pastures for grazing.
One particularly sweet nickname was given to the breed by locals. They became known as “Cheese Dogs” as they were often tasked with pulling small carts full of milk and cheese. In fact, in some clubs, they hold carting competitions for Bernese to this day!
In the 1900s, fanciers fell in love with the breed and the first breed club was established in 1907. Their popularity exploded and in only 3 years, there were 107 dogs registered with the club, however the American Kennel Club only recognised them as a registered breed in 1937.
Bernese are extremely popular around the world, especially in German-speaking countries. Their placid, good-natured temperament is a huge draw of the breed. They are generally very self-assured and eager to please but can sometimes exhibit a stubborn streak when the mood takes them. It may take them some time to warm up to strangers but when they do, they are very friendly dogs. Bernese are extremely affectionate and do very well in households with children. Bernese Mountain Dogs are very protective of their families and a number of them have been involved in various rescues over the years.
For example, one Bernese, Bella, saved her owner’s life when she pulled him from a burning house. Her owner had limited mobility and openly acknowledged that without Bella’s help, he would not have survived.
In an even more astonishing feat of bravery from this wonderful breed, in 2015, a 3 year old, recently adopted Bernese called Nico saved two people from being swept out to sea by a Californian rip current. Nico pulled a woman out of harm’s way, then ran back into the ocean to save her husband. Nico had apparently heard the woman crying out for help and bolted from his owners, who were gobsmacked as he had never had any water training. His owners had only adopted him less than 3 months previously!
These wonderfully sweet, brave dogs are growing in popularity and I think we can all see why!
– By Peigi Conneff