Bernese Mountain Dog

Gemma Gaitskell
Dr Gemma Gaitskell (BVetMed MSc MRCVS, Royal Veterinary College, London)
Photo of adult Bernese Mountain Dog

Bernese Mountain Dogs are large, loyal dogs with a calm and docile character. They were originally developed in Switzerland as an all-round farm dog to look after livestock, guard, and also as a draught dog. Today they are best known as excellent companions and are a popular choice for family pets due to their good nature and trustworthy temperament with children. They have a thick coat, which sheds, but is easy to care for and should only come in tricolour colouring.

Although docile, the Bernese Mountain Dogs’ loyalty and size, along with their protective nature to their family can mean they make good guard dogs. They are generally easy to train with a willing character and have medium exercise requirements. As a large dog the breed has a relatively short lifespan and can suffer from several health problems, so it is important to select a healthy family line.

About & History

The Bernese Mountain Dog is a large dog which originates from Switzerland and belongs to the working group of breeds. It was first used as a multipurpose farm dog, herding and looking after cattle, for guarding and as a draught dog. The breed was the result of the crossing of Roman mastiffs with local Swiss herding dogs to form four Swiss Sennenhunds in the Swiss Alps with 'Sennen' referring to their alpine herdsman owners. The Bernese Mountain Dog is the only one of these four breeds which has a full coat.

At the beginning of the 1900’s the breed was established more formally in Switzerland and became well known throughout the country and in parts of Germany. Today the Bernese Mountain Dog is largely considered a family dog and is well-known around the world for its loving character and good nature and is a popular choice for a family pet.


Bernese Mountain Dog Large Photo

There is only one accepted registration colour for the Bernese Mountain Dog with the UK Kennel Club, which is tricolour. This consists of a largely black coat on the body with reddish-brown markings on the face, legs and chest and a large white area on the chest. White paws and tip of the tail are desirable.

Bernese Mountain Dogs are large, sturdy dogs that should measure between 58 and 70 cm at the withers; females should be slightly smaller than males and their should be a distinct difference between sexes. Their height at the withers should be marginally less than the length of their body in a ratio of 9:10, giving a compact, somewhat square look. The depth of the chest should be half of the total height to the withers.

The breed has a powerful, moderately long neck which leads to strong, sloping shoulders which join an upper arm that lies flat and is also muscular. The front legs should be straight with short, compact feet. The body should be compact with a wide, deep chest and a firm, but flat back which leads to a well-rounded back end. The back legs should be broad, muscular and powerful with straight hocks. The tail should have a good covering of hair, giving a bushy appearance and it should be well-carried but not curled over on the back.

These dogs should have a sturdy, flat skull and muzzle with strong jaws and a perfect scissor bite. Their lips should not be excessive, but they should have some flews (the hanging part of the lip). The Bernese Mountain Dog has dark brown, oval eyes and should have no excess skin around the eyelids. The ears should be high set and triangular in shape, falling forwards onto the face, and lying flat when at rest.

The Bernese Mountain Dog should move with a long stride, while the back legs provide impulsion. Movement should be well balanced at all speeds. The breed favours a trot but is also able to be fast and agile when necessary.

Character & Temperament

The Bernese Mountain Dog is a docile, confident breed that is fearless with a good nature. The breed is very loyal, devoted to its family, as well as reliable and tolerant with children. It is affectionate and enjoys being part of the household and usually gets on well with other animals, as well.

Their loyalty and devotion in addition to their size means they can make good guard dogs although they should not be aggressive and in the presence of their owners should be placid with strangers. The Bernese Mountain Dog does not typically suffer from separation anxiety, although avoiding this as with all dogs is a matter of proper training and ensuring they are not regularly left alone for long periods of time.


Photo of Bernese Mountain Dog puppy

The Bernese Mountain Dog has a good nature and willing character and is motivated by food, which can help, despite the breed generally being easy to train. This is partly due to their past as working dogs, and means that training recall is not typically a problem. The breed is also quick to learn when it comes to house training, especially when they have adequate access to outside space.


The Bernese Mountain Dog does not have a very long life expectancy – they can live up to 10 years, but their lifespan averages around 7 - 8 years. In the UK, it is strongly recommended that female dogs should not have puppies under the age of two and Kennel Club Assured Breeders are required to participate in the following schemes:

Hip Dysplasia (HD)

This is a condition where the hips of the Bernese Mountain Dog develop in an abnormal way. Several different problems and abnormalities are encompassed by the term but they can all lead to joint problems and osteoarthritis in older dogs.

X-rays of the hips are scored by experts in dogs that are at least a year old. The lower the score, the fewer signs of dysplasia that are present. Although HD is transmitted genetically there are also environmental factors that can influence the condition.

Elbow Dysplasia

Elbow dysplasia is a condition where the elbow joints develop abnormally, which eventually leads to joint problems and arthritis. There is a large genetic component in the condition and, ideally, only dogs given a score of 0 should be used for breeding purposes.


Histiocytosis is a type of fast growing cancer which can occur in different body tissues. Histiocytes are a type of immune cell, which usually help the immune response. In Bernese Mountain Dogs, this is the most common type of cancer to occur.

There are two different forms of the disease – one which is aggressive and causes death in a short period of time and another which causes bouts, where severity and the tissues affected can vary. At the time of writing, there is no definitive treatment for the disease.

Degenerative Myelopathy

This is a spinal cord disorder which causes a loss of coordination in the back legs. Symptoms gradually become worse over time until dogs are unable to stand. The age at which dogs are affected the rate at which the disease progresses can vary. A genetic test is available.

Eyelid Problems

Eyelid problems include: Entropion and Ectropion, where the eyelid rolls inwards or outwards, respectively. Both conditions eventually lead to corneal problems. If left untreated, these can lead to sight problems.

Treatment revolves around treating the secondary corneal problems with antibiotics and or artificial lubrication. If the problem is severe, surgery is often needed to correct it and prevent further damage to the eyes.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Bernese Mountain Dogs need around an hour to an hour and a half of walking a day, and some of this time should be spent off the lead. They are generally calm, but were bred as an outdoor dog so should be provided with sufficient exercise to keep them happy and prevent them becoming overweight. They do not tend to have great stamina but enjoy bursts of activity.


The Bernese Mountain Dog has a soft and silky, but at the same time dense, insulating coat that can shed heavily. They do not need any specialist grooming and brushing a couple of times a week at home is enough to keep their coat in good condition.

More regular brushing may be required when shedding is at its heaviest in spring and autumn. Some dogs may be prone to ear problems so it is advisable to check their ears regularly and seek veterinary advice if they appear irritated or dirty.

Famous Bernese Mountain Dogs

There are not many Bernese Mountain Dogs in popular culture, but a few examples include:

  • Hannah from the children’s books A Beach Day for Hannah and A Snow Day for Hannah
  • Shep from the film Good Boy!
  • Benson from the book A Boy Who Got A Bernese Mountain Dog
  • Hola from the book Bad Dog: A Love Story
  • Smelly and Harvey Milkbone from the television series The New Normal


Some popular Bernese Mountain Dog cross-breeds include:

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