Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Nature of a Berner

"The main business of the dogs on Bernese Farms has always been to be good watchdogs. These farms were built at a distance from each other, each one situated more or less in the center of the land that was cultivated by the farmers family. A dog that announced strangers (man and other animals) which approached the farm or the nearby meadows was essential for the security of all the living creatures there." (attributed to Margret Baertschi at

In a culture that focuses on appearance, I suppose it is not at all surprising that berners are attractive to people because of their beauty. But a berner is not a stuffed dog or a yard ornament -- they were bred for a particular purpose and all the wishful thinking in the world will not change DNA.

I have found that many people are surprised when their berners turn into crazed barkers at the sight of a stranger or strange dog -- really? What exactly do you suppose a farm watchdog ought to do? Roll out the welcome mat? Show the intruder to the family silver? This is not a breed that was developed to love everyone -- why should we be surprised and upset when they don't?

On the other hand, it is hard to have a dog that honors her heritage by barking at strangers and strange dogs who dare approach the home or the beloved family; this is especially true when one lives in close confines with others. It is not unreasonable to want our dogs to be quiet and ignore strange people and strange dogs who approach our home -- but it is also not at all unreasonable that a dog bred to be a watchdog is going to bark and carry on.

I think people forget that dogs were bred for specific purposes, and this "hard wiring" does not go away with training or wishing or punishing -- it is just as much who a dog is as their outside appearance. And this means that as much as we want a certain kind of dog because they are pretty, that dog may not be the right breed for us.

Mrs. Maize is the most perfect dog I know -- she truly loves everyone -- but she is the first to bark when the UPS truck heads down the driveway or a stranger comes to the door. This is HER "farm" and when something new or strange (or fun) happens, she is hard wired to let us know about it through barking. And then she runs out and leans happily on the new person -- barking an alert is not the same thing as unfriendly.

I think about barking as expression, and decided that if I was not allowed to ever express myself, I would go crazy. And so I think barking is okay -- it is how dogs "talk" -- and it is a safe (albeit noisy) way for them to communicate. I do want it under some control though so allow the alert, and then thank everyone and suggest they be quiet; this typically works, especially when silence is rewarded with cookies.

My dogs' alert barking does not bother neighbors because we don't have any that are close, but it wasn't always that way. When we lived in Utah, we lived on a busy corner in a neighborhood filled with families -- that is a lot of strangers, human and canine. Living where I do now makes me wonder how/why I dealt with the stress of having watchdogs in a busy neighborhood!!

I managed it, of course, but it wasn't optimal for anyone -- including the dogs, and I see this now. But the reality for most people is city life so what does that mean for life with a berner?

I think a berner can be managed in a city but that there are some things that are important. First, one MUST recognize the innate "watchdog" qualities of a berner and not have unrealistic expectations of the dog. Second, the dog needs to be well socialized and trained to have an "off" button with regards to barking -- a "that's enough, thanks" switch. Third, it is unrealistic to expect most berners to be quiet in a yard when people and dogs are going by since they are hard-wired to alert -- and since they do not send text messages as alerts, it is going to be loud, which neighbors do not appreciate -- and so I think a berner left home alone is best kept inside. Fourth, a city berner especially needs exercise -- mental and physical -- on a regular basis. These are working dogs -- they need jobs so either you give them one or they will find their own (or go crazy).

I am sure there are other things that help but those are the ones I think are especially important. I like friendly dogs and I have them -- but my friendly dogs are likely to bark at you when you come over -- heck, they bark at me when I come home! Dogs bark -- and when we are willing to stop talking, I guess we can ask them not to bark.

And a watchdog is going to keep watch -- there are breeds that were bred to love everyone and everything, but a berner is not one of them. The Breed Standard absolutely allows this when it says that a berner, though she should never be " or shy..." may indeed "...remain aloof to the attentions of strangers."

And what does aloof mean? Here is a definition from a dictionary: "Distant physically or emotionally; reserved and remote". And so a berner who does not wish to be petted by a stranger is not a freak and may not be shy either -- staying distant from strangers fits the definition of "aloof".

None of this is to say that I do not think we need solid, confident temperaments in our dogs -- we do. And I know that a friendly, loving dog is much easier to live with and so that should be our goal as breeders. But I want to make the point that a berner is a watchdog -- we cannot change that reality, and it comes with certain behaviors we should expect from our dogs -- and some of these behaviors -- like barking at strangers and/or strange dogs -- can be challenging, especially in a city.

I think most things in life can be handled, but it helps to have realistic expectations. And so anyone interested in a berner needs to know about their history and their purpose so it is not surprising when the dog barks at the letter carrier -- she is just doing her job (the dog and the letter carrier :) And if alert barking is a big problem -- well, they have a breed for that -- basenjis.


  1. Thank you. Drives me crazy when people think my dogs have a temperament problem because they bark. And both my girls bark at everything. I think they just like to talk. :)

  2. As always - soooo well put, especially the "aloof" part.

    Thank you for reinforcing the qualities of our breed, sometimes we forget...

  3. This is probably one of the reasons why I love bernese mountain dogs. They are really reliable and you can entrust your house to them. I know it's annoying when they start barking but that is what they were bred for. They are usually mistaken for toy dogs, it's just that, they're big but mainly they used to be farms' watchdogs.

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  5. Mary Jiel, bernese mountain dogs can really be good as watch dogs. They are very trainable and well behaved. They are also good as home dogs.

  6. Our Berner , Sawyer, only barks when he wants to come in the house. However, I have a recent problem with him barking to come in, but then refuses to step in the backdoor for fear that I will clean his he sits outside and barks madly! Guess we didn't train him well enough to listen to our commands...sigh!