Time to go back to basics

- by Jude Simonds (Coliburn Bernese, UK)

The Bernese ‘community’ is undergoing major changes. The Bernese, as a breed is undergoing major changes. Change can be a good thing – without change we cannot grow and develop and improve. But not ALL change is good. Change, for the sake of change, can be inhibiting!

The advances in technology means that more than ever before, pedigree dogs and those who breed, own and promote them have opportunities and choices that our forebears could only ever have dreamed of. Bernese breeders from different continents can now easily communicate with each other at the touch of a button, and the Internet has allowed huge amounts of information to be easily and freely accessed. Bernese can be exhibited in many countries far from their country of residence. Those who wish to widen their bloodlines have never had it so easy to make contact with other breeders and arrange to move Bernese around the world. But there has been a dark and sinister side to this ease of communication – the exploitation of Bernese Mountain Dogs as a commercial asset – a commodity. Of course there needs to be an ongoing interest and demand for the breed otherwise breeders would clearly have NO way of placing puppies they bred. But, the demand for the breed has not gone unnoticed by business minded folk who just see Bernese as the current money-making opportunity.

The auctioning of Bernese Mountain Dogs in the USA has been a horrifying revelation to Bernese enthusiasts across the globe. Not only are we disgusted that these dogs are sold to the highest bidder, but to find out that breeding stock has been accumulated in order for puppies to be mass produced specifically for the purpose of shipping to auctions and retail outlets has been a terrible shock. Other multi-breed commercial suppliers and outlets have sprung up, and they “specialise” only in breeds that sell well with a good profit margin. Many breed enthusiasts have asked “How could this have happened”? The simple answer is – some breeders have ALLOWED it to happen through being less than careful when placing their puppies. Of course, confidence tricksters are good at their job – they have to be, in order to get what they want and any breeder could be fooled into selling a puppy to someone whose motives are not what they seem. But, even so, warning signs of varying degrees often become apparent during initial enquiries and yet some Bernese breeders seem to disregard the ringing of ‘alarm bells’ and throw caution to the wind. And, as always, it is the dogs who ultimately suffer.

Some might argue that anyone and everyone has a right to own a Bernese, and to do what they like with it. In theory that might sound OK, but in practice it is not something that caring breeders should be happy to go along with. There are many motives for breeding Bernese Mountain Dogs. Some of us are besotted with this breed and regard it as a passion, and the hobby of breeding grows from that passion. Others just recognise a demand that could be fulfilled as a golden opportunity to make money. We may never get back to the “good old days” of everyone knowing everyone, or whatever else that may have gone before, but the only way to stem the tide of commercialism is for the breed enthusiasts to try to slow down the exploitation of the breed. Breeders would need to take control, more selective control, of their own stock and make decisions as to where their puppies go and try to influence how the dogs are used.

The increase in websites offering large amounts of generalised breed information is to be applauded – BUT – maybe the information about specific dogs/bloodlines/breeders and their planned litter details etc has allowed things to become too impersonal. The widespread use of online puppy enquiry application forms may be seen as an efficient way for busy breeders to deal with enquiries, but is it really possible to decide whether or not to sell a Bernese to the applicant from just their written word? Efficiency initiatives and time saving devices are a welcome aid to our ever busy lifestyles, but unless we, as breeders, go back to TALKING to enquirers, building a relationship and trying to get to know them a little better, Bernese will continue to get into the wrong hands. We cannot remove all the dogs that are already on the puppy farm/commercial treadmill, but we can try to prevent more being sold to exploiters if we insist on more dialogue with our enquirers and not shy away from refusing a sale or a stud.

There are more and more breeders who have been unwilling to allow their puppies to go to homes where they are wanted solely as family companions. Some breeders even have sales clauses insisting that dogs are exhibited, or bred from, or owned in partnership with requirements which have to be fulfilled. Is it wise to commit individuals with little knowledge of the breed (other than simply wanting to live with a Bernese as a companion) to become more involved at your insistence JUST to further YOUR enjoyment of YOUR hobby? It is sowing seeds in their minds which may not grow into the breed interest you had quite envisaged. This is something that maybe should be reconsidered – if potential owners are finding it difficult to locate and secure a companion puppy, the dealers will corner that market. And they have already gone a long way towards doing so. Companion homes, even with spay/neuter contracts or restricted registrations are more often than not SAFE permanent homes – and that must surely be what we all want for our puppies.

The various health evaluations, screening procedures and initiatives which have become popular in this breed are seen as all important, of PRIMARY importance to some, and yet viewed with rather more caution by others. Of course, anything which increases the chances of breeding and owning healthy Bernese is a positive step, but only if the schemes are used within context. It would seem that some of the dealers and import/export shippers DO use some of the schemes to certify their Bernese, and consequently these businessmen have been accepted into the Bernese community with open arms. Of course, dogs may benefit from screenings - but surely, the breed deserves much MORE commitment and care? Does having their dog tested for a condition, or an angle measurement, or attending a few shows REALLY make that owner/breeder someone to be recommended and embraced by other fanciers? It seems that a certificate can be waved in the air and that breeder is then seen as having acceptable credentials.

Now is the time for Bernese breeders and owners who take pride in the breed, and maybe even regard themselves as custodians of the breed, to make some tough decisions as to what their priorities are. No one has to sell a puppy to any particular individual. No one has to allow their stud dog to be used on any and every bitch presented for mating. More than any time before in the history of Bernese, we need to be selective about who we form alliances with. It’s just like granting them a franchise on your good name and bloodlines. Promoting our breed to the “prestigious” end of the market could be seen as an unnecessary oversell – and we have all seen the effects on other breeds that have suffered terribly from high exposure and over promotion. Walk around any puppy farm or puppy mill – there is your proof. Those pitiful individuals of previously exploited, high profile breeds don’t look so elite in those dire surroundings.

But of course, it is not only people we share our dogs with who we need to be selective about. We need to be more selective about our own Bernese too. We are seeing more and more judges reporting their disappointment and surprise at the unsoundness and poor construction of Bernese they see in the show ring. Ringsiders have been saying much the same thing for even longer. And, it is a worldwide problem. There is always going to be variation in quality and breed faults and virtues, but there seems to be little uniformity despite the length of time that Bernese have been bred in any numbers. It is a twofold problem; the faults exist in the breed population and the exhibitors of those Bernese see the severe faults or deformity, yet STILL believe their dogs are good representative of the breed standard and worthy of awards.

There is a saying which goes “Look after the pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” Our individual dogs are the ‘pennies’, and the ‘pounds’ is the Bernese breed. We cannot hope to make greater headway with the improvement of the breed unless we make honest, relevant judgements and become more selective when choosing which Bernese to breed from. Some faults will probably always be present to some degree – that is nature. And, in a man-made breed, nature will not let us get our own way – and we will never have that ultimate power to control life. For far too long, many Bernese breeders have relied on grades and award cards and certificates to be a means of defining and, they would have you believe, CONFIRMING actual physical soundness in their dogs. But, we know that grades/certificates/awards have NO direct correlation to degrees of actual physical and functional soundness. I have heard it described as the “Emperors New Clothes” syndrome, and there are definite similarities! Various evaluations could and SHOULD play a part in a breeder’s decision making, but the best two selection devices any breeder could hope for is the use of their eyes and the ability to be honest about what they see.

If we really DO want our Bernese to have good temperaments, sound construction and function, excellent breed type and all the other facets we so desire and admire, we need to make a concerted effort to reject from our breeding programmes those dogs who are not up to the grade. We DO know, and I’m sure you will agree that we all REALLY know when we see a Bernese who has a serious unsoundness, yet SOME breeders will still choose to breed from those dogs. Of course, we need to look at the WHOLE dog, and no dog is perfect, but it is a case of getting our priorities right – and we need to do it very soon. Just because a show winner looks good it does not mean he should be bred from. Breeders have to take a lot of information gleaned from other breeders and owners on trust, but we usually know, deep down, when there is an issue involved - we really do!

When you come right down to it, dog breeders can try to justify anything and everything they do. And they DO! All the meetings and seminars and educational events count for little if breeders go home and use dogs which they know have serious faults. Unity amongst the worldwide Bernese Community cannot accomplish a truly sound, healthy future for the breed unless we start to address the important issues in our OWN breeding programmes with complete honesty – an honesty to ourselves at the very least. Investigating and adopting new scientific procedures which may aid the health and well being of the Bernese Mountain Dog as a breed is important – but before we get carried away with the latest new idea or fad we would do well to remind ourselves that the best starting point is back at the basics.

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