At the weekend Bear and I travelled all the way into beautiful Carmarthen countryside to visit a litter of Bernese Mountain Dog puppies. We had researched so many breeds, researched training plans, pros and cons of the breed, things to watch out for in old age, and important things to know about the parents of the litter. As I have the most experience with animals in general, and dogs more specifically, than Bear, we went through our responsibilities, budget, priorities, and realistic expectations of what we could give – because ultimately that’s exactly what happens when you get a puppy: you get a new responsibility and it’s important you live up to the standard required.
We chose a Bernese for a number of reasons:
- They are GREAT with families. Originally they were breed as working animals to pull carts. They would also look after the family and would very much take on their owners as their pack. They have this inherent love of their family which means they are well known for looking after small children (and animals). Despite their size they are gentle with little one’s and the maternal/paternal instincts are pretty obvious when you spend time around them. As I am pregnant, and we want a large family, having a family dog was extremely important.
- In connection with the above, a large dog (for us) was better than a small dog. Small breeds often come from lines that were bred for hunting, ratting, etc and so although I would never suggest this makes them inherently dangerous, it means they may well be more likely to react badly to a baby being introduced to the household. Of course, with any animal around young children you have to be careful, and I don’t want to downplay this at all, but we felt that the Bernese original purpose was far removed from this attitude to small animals or children.
- Bear and I are not small people. For the first birthday of Bear’s I bought him a teddy bear, but as it needed to be in proportion to Bear it was… large, very large. It is currently 3 times bigger than our ~8 week puppy. This made it pretty obvious that we needed a large dog, if only to dispel the concerns that we might not see her under feet. It may seem like a strange reason, but when you’re 6ft 4 a large dog doesn’t seem quite as large as it might be if you were 5ft 4.
- Despite their size they are surprisingly slow dogs. Unlike a Collie or Labrador they are unlikely to literally run mile loops around you on a walk (and I have experience that with both Collie’s and Labradors). Although still intelligent and willing to play and learn new tricks, they are also just as happy pretending to be a (rather large) lapdog. One breeder I knew described one of her puppies went to a truck driver; she said it was the perfect life for a Bernese because they get plenty of attention, chances to run about, but also are completely happy with their nose out the window smelling the world going past. Bernese’s are also at risk of hips problems, so although exercise is great (particularly when it includes mountains and hillsides) you also need to be careful about the types of exercise. Too much after eating can cause stomach/gut problems, and stairs or high jumps will often exacerbate hip problems in old age. All these things gave us confidence that two short but brisk walks a day, plus some playtime, would work out for our young pup, and we could work up to slightly longer trips, particularly at weekends.
- A far lesser reason than the others, but they are GORGEOUS dogs. My loveable little puppy also has this little black teardrop shape right on her nose, which suits her so well. With big soft bodies of fur, big brown eyes, and oversized paws, she is basically another bear in our family. How could you not love that!?
To be fair and balanced, here are some good reasons not to get a Bernese:
- They are big dogs. Being female ours will be slightly smaller than the males, and if she follows her mum she’ll probably be about the same as a Labrador. However, with big comes strong and without proper training and a Bernese really understanding who is boss they can get out of hand. One story I have is a breeder calling my parents after they got our first Bernese. She was worried because one of the litter had been returned, had been out of control and sadly had to be put down. She was terrified that it might be something in the whole litter – it wasn’t. Bellamy, our dog, was kind and gentle and well-behaved. Sadly his brother had been given as a gift to a 9 year old boy who just couldn’t cope with this boisterous dog. Once the dog knew they could get away with anything and act as “Alpha”, things got bad. It is extremely important to understand how your actions will influence your pet. If you put the time and effort into basic training and then really creating an environment of dog-friendly but not dog-controlled, things will be fine. If not, you will notice the consequences, but the likelihood is your dog will feel them. Owners very rarely get punished for raising badly behaved pets – the pets get the blame.
- They do malt. They have a beautiful thick coat which if you don’t groom them will start to coat your house. Its not their fault, and their fur serves an important purpose of protecting them from cold and the sun, so nor is it a great idea to cut or shave it. If the idea of hair on your carpet repulses you then maybe a different breed is best for you.
- They are social animals. For my family that’s great, but if your hoping that you can just come home at night and have a happy dog at your feet, it might be great for you and rubbish for a Bernese. They enjoy being close to their masters, and around other people. Just imagine your nicest, most outgoing friend, being left in a room by themselves while you went out to have fun… cruel right? Yup. Right now ours is the perfect size and temperament to go in a nice pub garden with, happy to snooze in the shade, but also very happy to get cooed over or snuggled up to by perfect strangers that notice them across the grass. Once she’s big enough to sneak a nose to the table to smell food that might change, but she’s loving the cuddles so far.
So what have I learnt in the first 5 days of owning a puppy with Bear? Well..
- You won’t understand just how much you love them already until something might be a risk to their health/happiness. When I found out that slugs carry lungworm and saw one in the garden I freaked. I watched her like a hawk and I was terrified that I might have put her in danger. I couldn’t bear it. I honestly cried over oblivious sleeping puppy at least 4 times in 3 days because she is so sweet and loveable and the idea of her being in pain is horrific.
- You have to put yourself first sometimes. We tried waking up in the middle of the night to let puppy out. After 3 nights of staying up/snoozing on the sofa until ~midnight, and then waking up again at 4-5am, and then again at 7-8am we were zombies and exhausted. Sleeping stuff you feel OK walking outside in also makes the sleep you get uncomfortable, and remembering your shoes gets harder by the minute. Yes, it’s good practice for feeding baby in the early hours, but it’s not that healthy when you burst into tears because your husband offers you a nap to catch up because he’s just so lovely. We decided that we would give pup the best routine we could, as many chances to go as needed, and as much praise when doing well as possible, but we were also going to sleep through the night and just deal with the consequences. Which leads to…
- You have to be OK with poop. A young puppy has very little control over their bladder and although they will try their very hardest, sometimes there will be accidents. Accepting this, taking precautions and keeping a routine is the best you can do, praising them when they do everything right. This was hard for Bear, but seeing how our little one tries to communicate and do her best, melted his heart and we’re incredibly proud with the progress she’s made (IN 5 DAYS!).
- Puppies chew things, just like babies/toddlers, and they do not mean to hurt you. I have gained a few scratches and she is getting a little better, but getting her attention on a stick, a frisbee, or a toy is the best you can do. She will grow out of it and then you can tell dog off for biting, but for now you just need to avoid putting your toes in range when it’s playtime!
- Puppies sleep far more than you would ever expect. Routine currently goes: Wake up, loo, food, snooze…….. walk, snooze……. snooze……… snooze……. loo, playtime/training, loo, snoooooooooooooze, food, loo, play, walk, play, loo, snooooooooze. They also love sleeping near you, or at the very least in a small dark hole they might find under a table/chair with a shoe that smells of you. Ours also sleeps at pubs, on laps, under feet, on feet, on car journeys, with her face in shoes, and I’m sure they’ll be more. It’s also hilarious to see how many tiny spaces and weird positions they are able to sleep in.
- Not everyone will understand (especially if you happen to be pregnant at the time) and that’s OK. It’s not their choice, their life, and if phobias are concerned you need to respect that. Dismissing worries doesn’t help but you don’t have to agree with everything either. Either the puppy themselves will win them over with cuteness and cuddles and loveliness, or they won’t, but ultimately they are now a member of your family and so only you have to love them.
- The companionship (when they’re awake) is priceless. I have to admit feeling low and lonely whilst being pregnant and nauseous and at home in a new place with not too many friends. However, this little ball of fluff has forced me out of bed, stopped me watching s*** TV as default, and given me this source of unconditional love which is teaching me so much about being responsible for another life. It has also increased the love (don’t be dirty minded!!!) between Bear and I. I can only hope that our Little Cub will do as much for us.
- Communication is very important. Bernese Mountain Dogs relate far better to positives than negatives (because they are so social) and so praising correct understanding of words/gestures/commands is far more worthwhile than telling her off. It’s also important to have consistency, so if Bear comes home and pup has learnt something new, showing him the command and result is important too.
Otherwise having a puppy is awesome. She has brightened my mood, given me more reason to go on regular walks, shown me a dozen lessons I should have known already but didn’t, made me understand love that much more, and proved to me intelligence is not just a gift given to humans. Although I worry and doubt myself, I don’t doubt how amazing she is – that’s pretty incredible. I wouldn’t suggest it to everyone but for us it was a great adventure, and hopefully make us better people as we live life with her.
It helps that we have at least 3 voluntary puppy sitters who adore her too. She’ll definitely be exploring a mountain or two before her first year is done.
- 10 Reasons Why Getting A Puppy When You’re Pregnant Isn’t Crazy (offbeatfamilies.com)
- Are you ready for a Dog? (thekennelclub.org.uk)