As kids growing up in the 1970s, my brothers and I would spend our Sunday mornings in church, followed by a big breakfast and plenty of television viewing. One of the shows we looked forward to most was a locally produced children’s program that featured puppets, cartoons and guests from Elvis Presley to Frank Purdue. The show was called “Captain Noah and His Magical Ark.”
Captain Noah was a real hero to creative kids like me. His television show encouraged us to “listen with your eyes” and to “sing everything you see.” (Hey, it was the psychedelic ‘70s after all.) The show’s famous guests may have been familiar to our parents, but it was the local Philadelphians who visited the show that we kids usually found the most interesting.
I particularly remember an episode that featured a large and colorful dog. The woman who’d brought her dog onto the show was telling the Captain about her dog’s Technicolor coat. She spoke with great enthusiasm about the specific placement of each of the dog’s three coat colors.
I was fascinated as I “listened with my eyes!”
The dog that we were introduced to was a Bernese Mountain Dog, one of four breeds from Switzerland with striking tri-colored coats.
Known as Sennenhunds in their homeland, each of these breeds, I later learned, was developed as an all-purpose farm dog to assist the herders and dairy farmers living in the Swiss Alps.
Like the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, the Entlebucher Mountain Dog and the Appenzeller Mountain Dog, the Bernese Mountain Dog historically worked as a general farm dog. The Berner, as the breed is sometimes called, is the second largest of the Sennenhunds and was used as a guard and cattle drover, and may have served as a draft animal, carting linen to market.
The breed has an ancient lineage, dating back to the mastiffs brought through the Alps by invading Roman soldiers. The Sennenhunds evolved within several administrative districts, including the Canton of Bern. For two thousand years, they performed a variety of essential tasks, contributing to the health and welfare of their communities. However, industrialization quickly eliminated their usefulness and by the turn of the 20th century the breeds were all but forgotten.
The Bernese Mountain Dog was still very likely used by weavers during this time, although its quality had greatly deteriorated. The Berners that remained were largely unrecognizable. Local fanciers began a search for quality dogs and used these animals to resuscitate the breed. Efforts to reestablish the Berner were successful, and in 1907 a specialty club was formed. Support from wealthy Swiss fanciers guaranteed the survival of the breed, ensuring the dogs’ usefulness as companions, if not working farm dogs.
Recognized by the AKC in 1937, the Bernese Mountain Dog gradually became better known thanks to its good looks, extreme hardiness and devoted character. The rich and colorful markings give this ancient breed an aristocratic appearance, and its faithfulness has helped to secure its survival to the present day.
Calm in nature, the modern Bernese is still qualified to pull small carts and competes in drafting trials sponsored by the breed’s parent club.
Tri, Tri Again
The breed’s striking coat grabs the attention of anyone who encounters this colorful and capable farm dog. As befits a dog from the Swiss Alps, the coat is “thick,” according to the AKC breed standard, and “moderately long and slightly wavy or straight.” Presented naturally, the breed is shown without “undue trimming.” An extremely dull luster or a curly coat is not desired.
The coat of the Berner possesses a “bright natural sheen” as described by the standard. The ground color is “jet black” with markings that are “rich rust and clear white.” Colors are suitably saturated in this dapper and distinctive breed.
Like the other Swiss breeds, the markings of the Bernese Mountain Dog are distinctive and their desired placement is precise. The rust color should appear over both eyes and on both cheeks “reaching to at least the corner of the mouth.” Rust also appears on all four legs, both sides of the chest and under the tail. White should appear as a blaze on the head and a band over the muzzle, on the chest where it typically forms an “inverted cross” on the tip of the tail and on the feet.
The placement of the markings is ideally symmetrical. The standard indicates, “Markings other than described are to be faulted in direct relation to the extent of the deviation.” White on the feet cannot extend above the pasterns, and white legs and a white collar are considered serious faults.
Dogs are to be disqualified from competition in the breed ring if they possess any ground color other than black.
Draft and Drover
As a general-purpose farm dog, the Bernese Mountain Dog historically performed a variety of chores around the family homestead. A guard used to manage small herds of cattle, the breed’s large size and sturdy construction provided the strength needed to work in the mountainous villages of Switzerland.
Dogs are 25 to 27½ inches at the withers and bitches are 23 to 26 inches. “Dogs appear masculine, while bitches are distinctly feminine,” as referenced in the General Appearance section of the standard.
The body of the Berner is “full” and “sturdy bone is of great importance.” As a breed sometimes used as a draft animal, the neck is “strong, muscular and of medium length” and the chest is “deep and capacious.” To be able to pull carts from farm to market, Bernese Mountain Dogs needed to possess “broad and firm” backs and “strong” loins.
When not working, a calm nature and an innate watchfulness make the Bernese Mountain Dog a reliable companion for the entire family if properly trained and socialized.
The breed’s expression is described by the standard as “intelligent, animated and gentle.” No doubt those tri-colored markings add much to the breed’s appealing head and expression, but it is the eyes that announce the Berner’s self-confident, alert and good-natured temperament.
Dark brown in color and slightly oval in shape, the eyes of the Bernese Mountain Dog suggest a steady animal that is devoted to its family while remaining “aloof to the attentions of strangers.”
The breed standard indicates the value of correct eyes in this watchful breed by addressing entropion and ectropion as serious faults that can irritate the eyes and cause long-term damage. And although it is not associated with any specific diseases in the breed, blue eye color is cause for disqualification in the conformation ring.
One of the features that distinguishes the Bernese Mountain Dog from its Sennenhund cousins is its “bushy” tail. Inserted off a “broad and smoothly rounded” croup, it should be carried low when the dog is relaxed and may be carried in an “upward swirl” when the dog is alert.
According to the standard, the tail “may never curl or be carried over the back.” To do so would suggest faulty construction as well as one of the other native Swiss breeds. To emphasize the point, the standard requires the bones of the Berner’s tail to “feel straight,” and any kink is considered a fault.
Although its distinctively symmetrical markings may initially introduce people to the Bernese Mountain Dog, it is the breed’s versatility as a useful companion that assures it a place in the homes of modern-day dog lovers.