AKC Gazette Columns

AKC Gazette - October 2003


While owners and breeders love to sing the praises of this handsome Swiss breed, as majestic as the Alps of his homeland, a person inquiring about owning a Bernese will discover that these dogs may not live as long as one would wish. Sadly, the life span of Bernese Mountain Dogs is often less than 10 years, with an average between 7 and 8. A dog living into the teen years is unusual. Despite that, those who have the privilege of owning a Berner consider the breed so companionable that they are willing to risk the dog having a relatively short life. There is amazing breed loyalty among pet owners, who replace one deceased Berner with another repeatedly over the years. The children of such families, when grown, very often select a Berner, as one put it, "to raise my kids."

The possibility of a relatively short life span prompts the question, Why? Research reveals that cancer is the most significant cause of death in BMDs. (In fact, it is a major cause of death in all dogs.) Two types of cancer, histiocytosis and mast cell, have been identified as hereditary in Bernese Mountain Dogs, with the mode of inheritance most likely being polygenic (involving many genes). Be informed, but not intimidated. "Knowledgeable, conscientious ""breeders are confronting the problem.

Improving longevity in Berners includes the selection of breeding pairs that present, as much as possible, a background of long lived dogs. This is not an easy task, as the parents and grandparents of the dogs under consideration may not yet have reached the vulnerable ages of 6, 7, and 8. Often the realization that particular dogs will reach those glorious golden years comes too late to be fully utilized in a breeding program. Conversely, choices may be made that are later shadowed by cancer striking a dog in the immediate ancestry. Nonetheless, pedigree selection for longevity is a vital component for life-span improvement.

The old standbys of line breeding and inbreeding to lock in type and all the lovely qualities of the dogs involved in such a program are only as strong as the dogs in question. For Berners, this must include considerations of longevity and health clearances.

Another breeding strategy is to make outcrosses of bloodlines to widen the gene pool. Such a strategy does require selection of an outcross line with some longevity. Again, information on life span unfortunately is not always available. Knowing as much as possible about the dogs in a pedigree is invaluable, not only in making choices for longer-living dogs but in maintaining and improving type, temperament, and orthopedic strengths of the anticipated progeny.

Lastly, environment and nutrition are huge factors with regard to longevity. The ramifications of those factors are endless, not only for canines, but for humans as well.

All I know is, I'd like a Berner at my side as we confront the challenges of living longer. In thinking of the time we have with our cherished Berners, we chiefly appreciate not how long they've lived, but how well.

We salute the memory of OTCH Swiss Stars Welcome Waggin', UDX, TD, OA, ,June 18, 1993-January 17, 2003, the breed's first OTCH, lovingly owned, trained, and handled by Trisha Koetter.

- Julie Crawford, 26391 May Twilley Rd., Delmar, MD 21875