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Purchasing a Bernese Mountain Dog Puppy
A guide for buyers of Berners
There are three main considerations in purchasing a Bernese Mountain Dog; temperament, health, and show qualities. For those interested in a family pet, temperament and health are most important. For those interested in a show dog, in depth study of the breed is advisable. Purchasing a brood bitch or stud dog requires an even higher level of care and the consideration of additional factors. It takes patience and persistence to find the right puppy. Rushing to buy the first pup available is typically the biggest mistake novice buyers make.
Defining what makes a good breeder is not as easy as it seems. Equally good breeders have different styles. There are also valid differences of opinion as to what constitutes a good breeder. The following is a composite profile of my ideal breeder.
To help organize your research, download and print the litter check form. A through breeder will have done all of the necessary research long ago so your task will not be as daunting as it first appears. In addition to the relatives found in the pedigree you should also inquire into the siblings and half siblings of your puppy if any exist from previous litters.
The breed standard calls for Berners to be: "alert and good-natured, never sharp or shy. The Bernese Mountain Dog should stand steady, though may remain aloof to the attentions of strangers." This description is generally accurate. The most common temperament problem is excessive shyness. This can be general or specific to a particular type of person such as men with beards. Aggressiveness towards people is rare. Some Berners are aloof to the attentions of strangers, however many are just the opposite.
When you observe a litter you will notice that the pups have varying personalities. Some are more outgoing than others. For a show dog this is a good trait. For an obedience dog, a more easy going temperament may be better. Some obedience trainers like a dog to be a little on the reserved side. A Berner who is truly shy is not appropriate, but can still make a nice pet when placed in the right home.
There are two steps to finding a temperamentally sound puppy. First research the pedigree looking for unsound relatives. Second, do a puppy aptitude test (PAT) on the litter, or better yet, get the results of a test that has been properly done by someone experienced in this area. For a recent review of PATs with enhancements see the American Kennel Club Gazette article By Dr. Gail Clark, August 1995, p. 62. The original Gazette article on PATs, based on work by Jack and Wendy Volhard, appeared in March of 1979 by Melissa Bartlett. A web page temperament test summary of this earlier article is available. A score sheet for this test is available in Appendix A of The Beautiful Bernese Mountain Dog by Russ and Rogers.
Bernese Mountain Dogs are prone to several ailments that have a genetic basis. Responsible breeders will thoroughly research a potential mating and be willing to share this information with you. Most of these illnesses are polygenic meaning that more than one gene is involved, and that the right combination of these genes is required for the disease to express itself. With polygenic inheritance (also called complexly inherited) a problem can skip a generation and lie hidden only to show up again in a later generation. For this and other reasons it is important to investigate all of the close relatives in a mating.
Known genetic illnesses
Investigating your puppy's pedigree for hip and elbow dysplasia is fairly easy. All reputable breeders X-ray their breeding stock and submit the films to either The Institute for Genetic Disease Control in Animals, GDC, or the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA). These organizations will read the X-ray and rate the dog. Dogs that pass are issued a number and those that do not pass are not. It is a simple matter to ask your breeder for these numbers. You should look at both parents and all four grand parents at a minimum. The best evidence of a dog's genetic makeup is the puppies it has previously produced, therefore you should check the x-ray results of dogs from earlier litters if they are old enough to have been x-rayed.
Checking for cancer and other problems is more difficult. The GDC maintains a registry for histiocytosis and mast cell tumors, however it can only have records from owners who have taken the time and gone to the expense to have biopsies taken and submitted. There are no registries for other common Berner ailments. One approach used by some breeders to improve longevity is to look at the life spans in the pedigree and to identify the cause of death in as many ancestors as possible. You should ask you breeder for this information although it will be difficult to verify.
A variety of heritable eye problems, including ectropia and entropia, can be detected by a veterinary ophthalmologist during an examination. The Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) will register dogs who pass this exam and issue a number. Unlike hip and elbow numbers however, the CERF number is only good for one year since some eye problems can develop later in life. Ask your breeder for these numbers as well.
Hypomyelinogenesis (trembler) is a recessive trait first seen in 1986 and since traced back as far as Duntiblae Nalle, a British dog. To date the disease has not been found outside the UK although carriers of the gene may exist anywhere. If two carriers are mated 1/4 of the puppies will get the disease and another 1/2 will be carriers themselves.
Autoimmune disorders appear to be very common in Berners, although I have not seen any authoritative statement that they are hereditary. These disorders may manifest themselves in many ways only some of which are understood. Problems to look for in the pedigree are:
Picking a show prospect is always a gamble, and even experienced breeders sometimes sell a puppy they later wish they had kept. If you are a novice, either let the breeder select your puppy for you or get someone with experience to help you. Even experts seek advice in picking out a pup. Dogs are judged according to a written standard , however, interpreting the standard is not easy. See the reference page for a list of books and videos that can help. A few general rules for picking a show prospect include:
Finally, you will never go too far off if you pick the one you fall in love with. No matter how your show career turns out, if you raise your pup right you will always have a faithful friend.
Most important, never buy a dog from a pet shop. There are few absolutes in the dog world but this is one of them. The brutal histories behind pet shop dogs and the disgusting ways they are bred are almost beyond belief. Instead, you should obtain your Berner or any dog from a breeder, rescue organization, or humane society.
There are several ways to find a breeder and you should try as many of them as you can. As you make your initial contacts, ask for additional names to call. With time and patience you can network your way all over the country and even the world. It is worth while to keep good notes of all your conversations and keep any written material you receive well organized. As you finalize your decision all of this information will be helpful.
Unfortunately, there is no sure method to find a superior breeder or dog. The national and local clubs can give you a start, but always remember that they cannot guarantee the services of their breeder members. Even a few good references is not enough to assure success. Finding a truly good dog takes hard work - there are no shortcuts.
Most breeders use a contract to formally state the conditions of the sale. There are about as many types of contracts as there are breeders but a few general trends are found. First, there is usually a distinction between pet and show dogs. At about seven weeks of age a breeder will evaluate a litter and select one or two show prospects - the rest will be designated family pets. A good breeder demands high quality homes for all of their pups, but if possible will place the show prospects with people who like to show. Pets are normally sold with a requirement that the owners neuter the dog at an appropriate age. Pets are sometimes sold with a "limited" registration from the AKC that prevents any of their offspring from ever being registered which may cut down on casual backyard breeding. Limited registration may be changed by the breeder to full registration at a later date which allows for more complicated contracts in which a breeder and owner can wait and see how a pup grows up.
There is a wide class of contracts in which the breeder retains some of the breeding rights to the dogs they sell. These may involve co-ownership or not. There is potential for abuse in some of these arrangements as people who simply desire a family pet become breeders by proxy without knowing what they are doing. If you are not ready to be a fully responsible breeder in your own right, then be wary of becoming involved in someone else's breeding plan. When problems arise you don't want to hear yourself telling a puppy buyer that you're just the "co-breeder" and you don't really have any answers. Finally, be very certain that you understand exactly what you obligations are in this type of contract.
Show dogs (and sometimes pets as well) may come with a guarantee that they will pass their hip and elbow x-rays. If they fail, the breeder may replace the dog or refund part of the purchase price - usually back to a pet price. More and more breeders are now requiring that all of their dogs be x-rayed for hips and elbows when they are old enough. This includes pet and show dogs since they all provide valuable genetic information which will help improve the breed in the future. Most contracts contain a buy back clause that requires buyers to sell the dog to the breeder or give her the right of first refusal if the owner must get rid of the dog. This is consistent with the principle that a breeder is ultimately responsible for the life of every dog they breed.