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What Were Bernese Mountain Dogs Bred For? Breed History Explained

Kit Copson

By Kit Copson

Bernese Mountain Dog sitting on grass

If you’re a fan of Bernese Mountain Dogs or have recently adopted one, it’s understandable that you’d be curious about how this hardworking gentle giant came to be. Bernese Mountain Dogs were bred as working dogs, particularly on farms, but there’s much more to the breed than this alone. Read on to find out more about the Bernese Mountain Dog’s long and rich history.

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The Bernese Mountain Dog is an ancient breed with around 2,000 years of history behind it. Roman soldiers were responsible for bringing the Bernese Mountain Dog’s ancestors to Switzerland in the first place, to Canton of Bern specifically, where the breed as we know it today came into existence.

The breed is derived from Roman Mastiffs and other breeds. It’s uncertain exactly which breeds were bred with Roman Mastiffs, but they were likely other flock-guarding and working breeds.

Bernese Mountain Dog standing on water
Image Credit by: Hebi B., Pixabay

Varieties and Appearance

The Bernese Mountain Dog is a member of the Sennenhund-type family of dogs along with three others. These four closely-related breeds were all developed in the Swiss Alps.

The word “Sennenhund” comes from the word “Senn” or “Senner”. This refers to the Swiss dairymen and herdsmen who worked alongside these dog breeds. The name means “dog (hund) of the Senn”. Swiss mountain dog breeds were drafted into the Swiss army in the early to mid-twentieth century to pull and carry heavy loads—dependability and perseverance are amongst the traits all four breeds share.

Bernese Mountain Dogs are pretty large, standing anywhere between 23 and 27.5 inches with males being larger than females. Males can weigh up to 115 pounds on average, whereas females usually weigh between 70 and 95 pounds.

They are long-haired and have a tri-colored double coat that is mostly black, but with white on the chest, paws, belly, and sometimes the tip of the tail. They also have brown on their legs, eyebrows, and lower face. The main difference between the Bernese Mountain Dog and other Sennenhund dogs is that Berneses have a longer coat that is smoother and silkier in texture.

What Were Bernese Mountain Dogs Bred For?

Bernese Mountain Dogs were developed as working farm dogs. Throughout history, they’ve pulled carts filled with goods, herded cattle, and have been diligent watchdogs over pastures. Their friendly but alert personalities made them perfect for guarding livestock and shepherding cattle around.

A strong and dependable breed, they were also used as substitute horses, delivering dairy products like milk and cheese. Hardy yet gentle in nature, many grew fond of their Bernese Mountain Dogs and they became companions as well as “colleagues.”

Bernese Mountain Dog lying on sand
Image Credit by: ArtTower, Pixabay

The 1800s: Near-Extinction

In the nineteenth century, the breed faced the possibility of extinction due to the development of machinery. As the demand for machinery grew, the Bernese Mountain Dog declined in popularity. Around the same time, other breeds were becoming popular in Switzerland after being imported, so farmers, dairymen, and herdsmen had more variety in the working dogs they chose.

Fortunately, a man named Professor Albert Heim, who was a geologist and passionate advocate for mountain breeds, began efforts to preserve the breed. In 1912, the “Grosse Schweizer Sennenhund” club was formed and dedicated itself to promoting the breeding of Bernese Mountain Dogs and other Sennenhund breeds.

With time, the Bernese Mountain Dog’s popularity grew and the breed managed to survive. Personality played a big role in avoiding its extinction—in the early 20th century, the Bernese Mountain Dog came to be known largely as a companion dog and show dog. In 1937, the American Kennel Club first recognized the breed.

Bernese Mountain Dogs Today

Bernese Mountain Dogs remain popular today as companion dogs, family dogs, and show dogs worldwide. They are known for being gentle with children and other pets if properly socialized, friendly, patient, and affectionate. Due to their size and energy levels, they need plenty of exercise and aren’t suited to apartment living. Remember, also, that they were bred in the cool Swiss Alps climate. As a result, the breed today doesn’t suit living in a hot climate.

If you’re thinking about getting a Bernese Mountain Dog, their adaptability and easygoing nature will likely have them settled down in no time. One thing to be aware of, though, is that Bernese Mountain Dogs sadly have pretty short life spans. They are estimated to live between 6 and 8 years on average, which is a pretty short time for such wonderful dogs to be with us.

The reason for the breed’s short life span is that these dogs are prone to an array of health conditions—cancer in particular. They also need a reasonable amount of grooming as, being a long-haired breed, they have a tendency to shed.

Bernese Mountain Dog standing by the lake
Image Credit by: uppfeldt, Pixabay

Famous Bernese Mountain Dogs

Some Bernese Mountain Dogs have become famous in recent years for the intriguing or touching stories behind their adoptions or for heroics like rescuing family members from fires. This isn’t surprising, given the breed’s reputation for strength, loyalty, and dependability. In 2015, a rescued Bernese Mountain Dog named Nico saved his people from drowning in the sea

Another Bernese called Bella pulled her owner—who was suffering from an ankle injury at the time—to safety when a house fire broke out. She was honored with a spot in the Purina Animal Hall of Fame. Irish President Michael D. Higgins is known for his fondness for Bernese Mountain Dogs, as is Ben Roethlisberger who brought one back from Switzerland in 2006.

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Final Thoughts

Bernese Mountain Dogs are famed for their versatility and solid work ethic, but also for their big hearts—it’s really no wonder these gentle giants have become popular the world over as faithful companions. We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the history of these lovely dogs and if you’re considering adopting one, you’re sure to get a true friend for life in a Bernese Mountain Dog!

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Featured Image Credit: Othmar Sigrist, Pixabay

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