The history and standard of the Bernese Mountain Dog
In the course of time, the sport of dogs has developed a way to judge and evaluate its breeding stock. Each breed has a set standard by which it is judged. The standards are generally purpose driven, and, depending on the breed, sometimes fashion driven, the latter not being preferred in a working dog. Standards of dogs from non-English speaking countries may suffer from inaccuracies or misunderstanding in translation to English. For instance, what one culture understands as a guard dog, another understands as a watchdog, and yet another understands as a watchful dog. It is to be noted that Swiss farms are very different from American farms.
In the case of the Bernese Mountain Dog, the AKC standard was originally a direct translation from the FCI standard at the time of recognition, 1937. The first BMDCA revision, made in 1980, and the second, made in 1990, reflected changes in the FCI standard as well as incorporation of AKC requirements. Major changes included raising the height on the lower end and adding a section on movement.
The historical essence of the Bernese Mountain Dog is that it has been a farm dog of the midland regions of Switzerland, mostly around the city of Berne. In that capacity, it was primarily used as a companion and watchdog to the farmer and his family. It alerted his owner to unfamiliar visitors. It may have been used as a dog to pull a cart. A large dog, well-muscled and with sturdy bone, was needed for this task. It may have been used to accompany cows to pasture but not for long distances as dogs which work on a range. As most Swiss farmers had a small number of cows, the dog was not required to manage large herds. The BMD was not a herding dog for sheep and goats as these animals were not kept usually on Bernese farms except in very small numbers. In other parts of Switzerland especially in the alpine regions such tasks were done by smaller, quicker dogs such as the Appenzeller and Entlebucher. The temperament of the Bernese Mtn. Dog was never to be sharp or shy.
The history of the breed, therefore, is one of a watchful farm dog. Those fanciers who wish to have conformation dogs or obedience or draft or agility or tracking or herding dogs would be wise to heed the heritage of the breed and mind that this is not a breed of any one specific sport but is a Swiss farmer's companion.
Additional Background on Bernese Farms from Margret Baertschi
The term "farm" or "farm dog" does not mean the same thing when used for Swiss or Bernese farmers as when it is used in the USA. The farm in the two countries/continents are two very different things. In order to get an idea what the duties of a farm dog on a farm around Berne were like a hundred years ago one must have seen a Bernese farm and understood its functioning.
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. The land belonging to a farm was from about 5 ha for the poorer farmers up to 15 ha at the maximum for the richest farmers. (1 ha (hectar) = 2.47 acres ) Up to about 1830 the farmers did not have a great number of cattle (cows), because they had no use for the milk. Their main income was from different kinds of grain: wheat, barley, oats etc (maize was unknown). The cattle and some sheep, horses and swine moved freely around the houses and in the nearby forests. The crops were fenced to save them from being eaten by the animals. The cattle did not have to go far.
Only after about 1840, when the cheeseries were built and farmers could sell their milk at a reasonable price, the farmers started to have more cattle (about 6 to 15 cows at the maximum and some heifers and calves), so many as they could nourish on their land. Poor people (day-laborers) kept a few goats instead. At the same time the farmers started to keep the cattle in stables, not only in winter but all the year round, also in summer. This means, that there was not a lot of driving to be done on the farm itself. The few sheep (maybe 6 to 10) that were also kept on some farms could move freely in the nearby poorer parts of the land that were not cultivated and in the forests. It was the butchers who also kept dogs to drive the cattle they bought on the farms to distant places were they were either slaughtered or sold to other merchants.
Emilio vom Jauntal