BREEDING BERNESE MOUNTAIN DOGS
In a world which is already grossly overpopulated with dogs - pedigree and cross-bred - wanted and unwanted - your motives for wanting to add to the Bernese population should be examined. Breeding Bernese is a very enjoyable hobby, but it is not without its problems, and heartache is often experienced by enthusiasts. Owners need not have intelligence or experience to breed dogs; the dogs manage very well without our interference in most cases. But whether you plan to breed one litter or a number of litters over the next few years, the responsibilities are the same. I have often heard people say: `I'm not a real breeder, I just wanted to have some puppies from my bitch.' Real breeder or not, whatever that may mean, the task should not be undertaken lightly.
Across the world, many dog-lovers are attracted to the Bernese for his undoubted qualities. Breeding from a Bernese bitch may only appeal after a period of ownership, or it may occur where a breeding prospect is consciously sought. Either way, it is a long-term project: the puppies from a single litter remain a responsibility for the breeder long after they have been sold into new homes and ownership. Breed rescue organisations may well exist, but that should make no difference to the breeders' true responsibility of looking after everything they have decided to bring into the world. Even if you own the most wonderful specimen of the breed and are keen to embark on a project of breeding, you will not be able to do so for the benefit of the breed or your own dogs, unless you have the time, facilities and resources. Too many novice breeders panic when puppies remain unsold after the usual time for them to join new families; the feeding costs and extra work involved in caring for and training these growing youngsters can be a burden.
Pedigree dog breeding, involving a large breed such as the Bernese, is not a paying hobby on a small scale. Certainly, there will be an income of cash when puppies are sold, but this has usually been spent, plus more, in keeping your bitch and paying vet fees, as well as the costs involved with the actual litter. Income received from the sale of puppies will offset some of your costs, but it is immoral to breed puppies for sale purely to finance your own dogs. You need enough money to rear a litter until it is four or five months old, if necessary, and to pay for a caesarean operation or any treatment needed during a difficult whelping, and for any advertising, before you proceed any further with your breeding plans.The facilities needed for rearing a litter are a matter of opinion. Some breeders will want to rear the puppies in a kennel with access to an outside run or pen; others will want to have the puppies in the house, for a time at least. Puppies need space to run and play, and if kept in an area which is too small, they will become bored and soiled.
I have kept the consideration of time until the last, but in fact it is one of the most important aspects of breeding. Adult Bernese need a lot of attention from their owners, and puppies' needs are tenfold in this respect. Newly born puppies need to be watched carefully when with their mother, to prevent accidents. When they are weaned, they will need to be taught how to eat and to be washed afterwards! As they become more aware of their surroundings, puppies need human contact to develop the natural Bernese temperament. As they grow older, puppies need to be taught how to behave in the house and out-of-doors, and socialisation cannot be hurried nor taught too well.
If you have the happy situation whereby you are confident that a litter of Bernese could be accommodated within your home, then you must embark upon a course of educating yourself further about the breed. It is not enough to be keen and willing to learn. The knowledge you have now is worth twice that which you may acquire in future. I do feel that an apprenticeship within the breed should be served before going ahead to breed. We all hope that we will enrich the breed with the puppies we decide to bring into the world, but reality often disappoints us. Even the best laid plans can bring about an unexpected result, but you cannot expect a good result without knowledge and planning. People can always cite a case when a very mediocre bitch was mated to a reasonable dog and a wonderful Bernese was the result. This does happen, but is little help to the breed; and for a long-term project, you will soon learn that one-off Bernese never make good foundation stock for the future. The tired old tale that `we are breeding for the improvement of the breed' is oft repeated but rarely meant. True knowledge is needed to help the breed progress and that means knowledge not only about individual dogs but also about bloodlines and compatible families. We all had to start somewhere and much is learned from experience; but a good foundation in Bernese matters is as necessary as learning the Highway Code before taking a driving test.
ASSESSING BREEDING POTENTIAL
Owners who are keen to breed and who own a bitch must ask themselves several questions and answer them truthfully. No matter how often one is tempted to be economical with the truth to others, nothing will be gained by trying to fool yourself.
1. Does your bitch come from bloodlines which have sound, healthy, typical Bernese in
2. Is she good enough to breed - with particular emphasis on temperament, soundness and type?
3. No Bernese is perfect, but does she have faults in greater numbers than attributes?
4. Does your skill as a breeder, and her breed qualities, make her an asset for the breed as far as you cafe predict?
5. Has the health and soundness of your bitch been evaluated? In the UK Hip Scores and Elbow Grades are relevant and you should also consider whether screening for other health issues would be wise.
More and more Bernese puppies are bred every year, some good and some not so good. It is obviously more difficult to place puppies when there are lots of litters looking for good homes, so what can your Bernese offer the breed that is not already on offer from a more experienced, established breeder? None of us can claim to have been an expert at the start.
Breeding dogs is an on-going,learning process and I am sure that the majority of realistic breeders would agree that there is always something new to experience and learn. No matter how much you love your Bernese as a companion, it might not be good enough to breed from. If faults appear which are unacceptable - then those producers should be withdrawn from the gene pool.
THE BROOD BITCH
1. Her pedigree and ancestors: Before looking at any individual, it is important to know what faults and virtues are to be found in as many of her relatives as can be seen and researched. Some faults, especially those which affect the well-being of the individual Bernese, are more serious than those which are cosmetic. But any fault which recurs is to be avoided in future breeding. Some faults are widespread throughout the breed, and if these same faults appear in a great number of your bitch's ancestors, then there are two points for further consideration.
i. If the condition is so widespread, why should you worry about it since most breeders are in the same position?
ii. Is it feasible to try to acquire a bitch who is not likely to be carrying the same fault?
Your answers to these questions will indicate whether you are a breeder who can be respected or someone who just wants to breed pretty Bernese puppies. Bernese are a wonderful breed, but there is certainly room for improvement in both type and soundness. Every breeder should have this in mind and be aiming high with each planned mating.
In the UK, there is a high incidence of foreleg lameness within the breed. A survey carried out some years ago highlighted some worrying patterns, and the geneticists' report indicated that the problem could be inherited to some degree. Owners with dogs suffering from this weakness can be given advice but it is little comfort for them to be told that the puppy's father and grandfather had the same problem. Even if both improved after treatment, this is not the way to help the breed progress. Veterinary science and surgical techniques have improved tremendously over recent years, and it is quite right that any dog should benefit from new developments to reduce suffering. But these new advances should not allow breeders to be complacent. It is not enough to simply correct defects - they should be bred out.
2. Your bitch's individual qualities: The most important characteristic of a Bernese is a good temperament: that means biddable, intelligent, calm and steady. Excuses are often made: `She was dropped as a puppy', `she was once frightened by a man', and any number of other reasons as to why the bitch behaves as she does. Behaviour can be influenced by events and feeding, but for the most part puppies will learn from their dam's reactions, and whether her characteristics are hereditary or not, she will pass on her attitudes to her puppies. If she is very excitable or apprehensive, the puppies are likely to be the same. So a brood bitch should have a perfect temperament above all else. She should be absolutely sound and should have a history of good health and fitness. Any bitch which has received surgery to correct osteochondritis dissecans or entropion or any other debilitating defect should never be considered for breeding. The hip status of your bitch may affect your final decision, but there are no set rules as to what is acceptable or not on an individual level. In some european countries there are rules regarding what hip grades are allowed for breeding, but in the UK and the USA it is up to the individual to decide. The breed average is published in many countries and ideally your bitch's orthopaedic status should be below or very near to the breed average.
The ideal brood bitch should be broad and sturdy, although feminine. She should also be within the breed standard for height - although many small bitches are bred from - and she should have substance. Her head should be broad and kind, with correct eyes and teeth placement. Her markings should be classic - middle of the road with no exaggerations. In the past there has been a tendency for over-marked Bernese to do well in the show ring and consequently to be used for breeding. This has brought about an increase in over-marked puppies. The markings are important but it must be remembered that this is only one aspect of the breed. If I had the choice of an under-marked or an over-marked bitch, who were the same in every other respect, I would choose the under-marked every time, as she will breed correct markings more easily. The original Swiss standard called for slight-to-medium white blaze, and too much white on legs and neck and around the anus was mentioned as an undesirable fault. Breeders should concentrate on this and discard personal preferences. No bitch is perfect. Any bitch is bound to have her faults; but she should have that definite look of quality. Anything less, and she should lead a happy life as your companion only. Breeders can justify using any and every Bernese for breeding, but the breed deserves only the very best, even if that means personal disappointment.
If you have decided that it would be wise to purchase a well-bred puppy with the intention to breed in the future, then even more time must be taken to choose a puppy with the best potential than when buying a puppy as a companion. You will gain experience by owning your first Bernese, and this can be put to good use. Visit as many shows as you can, not just to log the winners but to look at the individual dogs and note those that are of the type you admire. Some prolific breeders will have a large number of dogs in the show ring, while other stock appears more rarely. This should have no bearing on your final decision, as it is the quality of foundation Bernese which is of prime importance. Buying from the most successful show kennel may be a ticket to instant success but it may also prove a hindrance when selling puppies, as you will have similar stock to many others. Personally, I have always thought that it is vital for the breed to have a number of breeding colonies from different genetic backgrounds. If an undesirable genetic defect appears, as in the case of Hypomyelinogenesis in the UK, there still are a number of quality dogs from which to breed, and the affected lines can be avoided, if desired. Having said that, there is nothing to be gained from being different just to make a point. The over-riding principle to bear in mind is that only Bernese of excellence should be bred from.
Once a suitable breeder has been identified as having the typical, healthy Bernese that you so wish to start breeding with, then patience will probably be needed. Your ideal puppy may not appear for some months, but it is important to wait for the right puppy, and not just take any one that comes along from your chosen bloodlines. The breed will not deteriorate if your breeding activities are slightly delayed. Be sure to state your hopes and plans for the future when booking a puppy. Then, if you have done your homework and research thoroughly, pray for luck and good fortune, because you still have a long way to go.
THE STUD DOG
Many owners of male Bernese may be attracted to the idea of breeding, but without the hassle of rearing and selling puppies. It is commonly thought that a sexually aware dog will be an excellent candidate for stud use. How wrong this can be! A sex maniac is no good to anyone, and the dog will most likely become unhappy in the long term. If you do want to become involved with the breeding scene, then you must consider the following questions:
1. Will you take responsibility for the offspring from your dog if the breeder is unable to? Could you help with rehoming or could you look after another dog temporarily when you already have a male in the house?
2. Are you prepared to risk a change in attitude from your Bernese if he becomes too assertive or hyperactive because you used him at stud for reasons which were of more benefit to you than him?
3. Are you experienced enough to know if your Bernese has something to offer the breed for its development, or is your dog similar to many others?
4. Are you under the impression that you will become influential within the circle of breed enthusiasts? Or do you think that owning a stud dog is an easy way to make a healthy income?
In an ideal world, the breeder of puppies should take responsibility for ensuring that these Bernese have a happy and settled future. However, sometimes breeders cannot or will not assume responsibility for the wellbeing of dogs they have bred which cannot stay with their original owners. Surely the owner of the sire of the litter is second in line for this responsibility? If you could not offer help by taking an unwanted Bernese in, would you be prepared to help with rehabilitation costs? Most Bernese males, if carefully reared, are well adjusted and delightful companions. The risk that his temperament may be altered by stud use warrants careful consideration. Introduction to sexual activity could change his attitude to everyday Happenings drastically. I am sure that there will be some people who do not understand why I say this. It is true that some dogs experience no change in temperament at all, remaining the same calm and placid pets they always were. But these dogs are usually owned by sensible people, who have a very real relationship of trust and respect before introducing their dog to stud activities. Once a change in attitude occurs, the damage is done and may be irreparable. Relaxed dogs can become constantly aware, perhaps leading to hyperactivity. The normally obedient dog may find that his new-found instincts are much stronger than his responses to his owner's commands. Scent marking can become a major pastime - in your house as well as during walks. Loss of condition can occur due to frustration caused by a lack of visiting bitches for service. Even the scent of local bitches in season will cause more fretful anxiety than before the dog was used as a sire. Misplaced sexual attention to people can also occur, most frequently directed towards children and menstruating women. Sexual attention to other male dogs may also be exhibited, and resentment can cause fights between dogs. Few dogs are used at stud frequently, unless they are of outstanding merit. Such a male is likely to be satisfied sexually and so is less likely to exhibit problem behaviour. But it is possible that the first bitch may be the last, and if he becomes sexually frustrated, then you as the owner will have to cope.
Stud fees may seem a welcome bonus to the household income, but there are also outgoings. A dog used at stud must be fed the very highest quality feedstuffs and he must be kept in the peak of condition. If he is to be used regularly, then periodic veterinary checks must be made to ensure that he is free from infection which may be passed on to visiting bitches or which might affect his fertility. To maintain his status you may need to take him to shows more often than you would like. Family plans may have to be changed to accommodate owners of visiting bitches, as the correct day for a bitch to be mated cannot be accurately predicted. Entertaining the accompanying family, all eager to watch the proceedings, may be a time-consuming and costly process, especially if the mating doesn't happen too quickly.
You may feel that I have not been too encouraging to novice owners who want their dogs to be used at stud. Correct! I have seen several owners left with a very different Bernese after he has experienced the joys of bitches. Apart from breed qualities, a very special kind of temperament is needed in a stud dog, and without that I feel that the gamble is not worth taking.
CHOOSING A MATE
Most novice owners of Bernese would be wise to contact the breeder of their bitch for advice regarding the choice of suitable bloodlines and of individual Bernese. An in-depth knowledge of pedigrees is more important than using a top winner because he is in demand - what may suit one bitch may not be right for another. If the breeder of your bitch has experience gained over a number of years, then. the best advice is bound to come from that direction. Some stud dog owners will be happy to suggest that their male is the ideal choice, and they may be absolutely correct. Listen to all the advice that is given, but the final decision is yours. You will be responsible for the puppies and answerable to their future owners, so you must be completely happy with your final choice of mate.
GENETICS AND BREEDING PRACTICES
Genes are the unique individual characteristics which are carried in body cells, and will determine, to a very great extent, how a dog will look and behave, although outside influences can also come into play. Genes are carried within the body on chromosomes and dogs have thirty-nine pairs of these. Each pair consists of one chromosome from the dam and one from the sire. Genes come together in a completely random selection in the fertilized embryos, which will explain why there is great variation between some littermates and between different litters from the same parents. Certain features of the Bernese involve several genes, and genes are not all equal. Dominant genes are those points which show up on an individual dog, and recessive genes are those which remain unseen until they combine with a similar gene at a mating and so become apparent in one or more offspring.
The only way to know what genes are carried by your bitch and a prospective stud dog is by researching into the characteristics of siblings, close relatives and any offspring already produced. A dog with a gay tail may always produce gay tails, but he may also produce a large number of correct tails. Two parents are needed for each puppy, and so knowledge about both is needed before any real conclusions can be drawn. Many of the faults seen in Bernese are thought to be produced by recessive genes: cleft palates, incorrect teeth placement, hypomyelinogenesis, to name but three. With the latter condition, some stud dogs have sired many litters before an affected puppy has been produced, and although a few owners still argue for the genetic inheritance of the condition, all the litters containing unaffected puppies would indicate that the dams may not have been carrying a similar gene. However, both the dominant and recessive genes are passed on to offspring, and so will continue in this stock.
There are many books on genetics which go into great detail for dog breeders. Genetics is not new - genes have always been involved with the breeding of any animal; but it is only recently that breeders have been encouraged to take a more scientific interest. Whether you decide to learn from books or not, you should certainly learn from observing your results: details of all dogs used for breeding and of each of the puppies produced should be carefully collected for future reference.
The three most common breeding practices are line-breeding, in-breeding and out-crossing. There are a number of conflicting views on the benefit of each, and explanations from different breeders may vary. But one fact is relevant to all breeding practices: only those characteristics which are present in the genes can be reproduced. Problems which are definitely inherited, such as an undershot or overshot mouth, can only appear if they are carried within the genes of the dogs which appear in the pedigrees of either or both parents. No breeding practice can be credited with powers which do not already lie within.
Line-breeding and in-breeding both involve mating animals which are related. Line-breeding usually refers to joining together two pedigrees which carry related stock of excellence in an effort to concentrate the qualities of one or two outstanding relatives. When breeding for a particular type, line breeding can help intensify the desired traits more quickly than mating together unrelated dogs. But the undesired traits will also be intensified, so great care must be taken to line-breed to outstanding Bernese and not just for the sake of following a trend. Many established colonies of Bernese and other breeds are recognisable by the consistent appearance of the dogs produced, and in most cases these dogs will be line-bred. The most common form of line-breeding is to mate a successful sire to one of his granddaughters or perhaps mate together Bernese with several common ancestors three or four generations back in the pedigree. Line-breeding is in fact a less intense method of in-breeding, but is perhaps a safer way to breed even if slower than in-breeding for fixing points.
In-breeding is the mating together of very close relatives - mother to son, father to daughter or even half or full brother and sister. The genes will be intensified, and in the hands of an experienced breeder, knowledge can be gained quickly about what traits are carried by any particular bloodline. Any kind of breeding is experimental; you can never completely predict the end result from even the best laid plans. If poor results appear, a particular bloodline can be abandoned, but there is still the placement of puppies to consider. In-breeding on outstanding Bernese is likely to bring about good results, but will also highlight the problems. Continual in-breeding is thought to reduce fertility and hybrid vigour, and so unrelated Bernese will need to be incorporated at intervals to counteract and, hopefully, to improve defects as they are recognised. In some breeds in-breeding is common, but in Bernese it is seldom practised.
Out-crossing is the mating together of animals which are completely unrelated, at least for the first four generations. If you trace pedigrees back far enough there will usually be common ancestors, but it is generally thought that the first three generations have the most influence on offspring. Complete out-crossing is sometimes practised for each generation, but within a limited gene pool this will prove difficult. Both line-breeding and in-breeding may involve out-crossing from time to time, but then the resulting dogs are bred back into the line. If a novice owner desperately wants to breed from a Bernese bitch who can only claim reasonable type and has an undistinguished family, then the sole hope for improving future generations is to out-cross to a Bernese from a proven quality background. Then each resultant litter must be carefully assessed to decide which breeding practice should be followed for continued success.
Whatever breeding practice is followed, a constant assessment of stock is essential for progress. Breeders must always remember it is not necessary to breed from every Bernese; those that are simply not good enough still have a place as companions. It is equally important to realise that there is no such thing as a perfect Bernese. There is no point in placing undue importance on minor faults as long as overall progress is clearly made with each generation. It would be a very clever and fortunate breeder who could improve every aspect of a Bernese in one generation.
BREEDING FOR TYPE
'Breed Type' is often spoken of, but seldom understood. Type is not easy to define, but is recognisable to breed enthusiasts who have taken the time to learn about and observe the breed thoroughly. Type is perhaps best explained as the characteristics which separate Bernese from any other large, similarly marked breed. It is the very essence of a true Bernese Mountain Dog.
Type is essential in every Bernese, as without it you do not have a real Bernese. It is possible to have a Bernese with several faults, but for it still be of excellent type, and it is also possible to have a Bernese without any outstanding fault but a distinctly lacking in type. One person's idea of type may differ quite considerably from another's, but type is easily recognisable in some bloodlines. A visit to a show or to a breeder may give the opportunity of seeing a number of related Bernese which may be similar: they may not all be of true type but they will show a family type. It is this family likeness that makes dogs from one particular kennel easily recognisable, and owners of such Bernese have not established these similarities by chance.
The only way to establish a type is to mate Bernese of similar characteristics for several generations. Line-breeding can bring this about quickly, but out-crossing will achieve the same result if a mating takes place between two similar Bernese. If each unrelated family is itself line-bred, then less variation in the resultant puppies will be seen. Breeding for a particular type is a most satisfying, but difficult, process. The goal of all breeders is to produce litter after litter with the same family likeness, establishing a recognisable and admired type.