Let me say straight at the onset that this page is not intending to go into details about the intricate details of the schemes and exactly how the scoring is constructed as that is well documented elsewhere not least the official web sites of the Kennel Club and the BVA, links to which can be found below.
The hip and elbow schemes are health checks for our breed, this sounds obvious but many people don’t really think of them as such, they are something most responsible breeders in our breed undertake so automatically nowadays that they aren’t really thought of. They are just part of the routine. If you are a puppy buyer and the parents of any prospective puppy are not hip scored then you really should ask why and probably walk away. Hip scoring in its present form has been a routinely accepted part of Bernese culture for such a long time that there should be no puppies from non hip scored parents. A few dogs may not have UK hip scores but will have been scored overseas and thus not show on the British system but these can be accepted. Dogs not scored at all are the real problem. There were a few issues with the elbow scheme, which was pioneered with our breed, but since these were sorted out the vast majority of dogs have their elbows scored at the same time as their hips which only has the obvious advantage of only requiring one anaesthetic to be administered. Thus for recent litters you would usually expect elbows to be scored in the parents as well as hips but their may be a few gaps in the pedigree when it comes to elbows scoring.
Put simply hips are split into 9 categories which are assessed by a specialist panel from a single X ray of the dog’s hips taken after the age of 12 months. Some of these categories relate to the formation of both the femoral head and the pelvic socket and others to the correctness of the fit of this ball and socket joint. Each of the categories is scored for each hip and the scores added up. The maximum score per hip is 53 so the absolute highest score possible is 53 left and 53 right giving a total of 106. As the scores reflect negative features and the amount they deviate from a perfect healthy hip the highest scores indicate the worst hips, so a 53:53= 106 would be the absolute worst case scenario. Since the introduction of this scheme in the mid eighties our breed average score has been fairly settled at about 16, or in more recent years 15 total and as the number of dogs recorded increases (last figure 4,434 BMDs scored) the average will vary less and less as it is harder to influence. This means a slight improvement, as seen in recent years, is really significant, however, it also means that any drop appearing will be seriously worrying. On the continent hips are usually graded A, B, C, D or E with A being the best score. Whilst many schemes score like this some countries have reputations for being easier to obtain the higher grades but if looking abroad you generally will be looking at A or B grade as much lower would often not be available at stud anyway.
Yes it is true that a few of the categories have a slightly subjective element to them. Some rely on clinical accurate measurements of angles and can be said to be objective but others depend on a degree of interpretation by the assessor. However, this does not mean that it is not worth contributing because your score can vary depending on who assesses it. The really good scores tend to be less variable and the higher scores are the likeliest to vary but by only a point or so. This is more likely to make an virtually irrelevant difference in score between a hip being a total of for example a 23 or a 25 than any variation of any significance. A hip which should score in this area is not going to score a 10 or a 40 instead depending on a good or bad day.
Both HD and ED are polygenic diseases which means they do not have a simple straightforward cause and consequently it is impossible to exactly proportion “blame” when they do occur and cause pain, limited mobility and possibly consequent premature death to a dog. However, a definite component is an hereditary disposition and the only way to reduce both the initial incidence of these diseases and the severity of their symptoms is by accounting for this in sensible breeding choices. This is where the schemes come in with their scoring to give breeders an idea of the likelihood any particular dog will pass on HD or ED to its offspring. Whilst they might have an odd one with other benefits to contribute, responsible breeders would not have a predominance of higher scoring hips or, even worse, unscored dogs, in the pedigree of any dogs they breed.
However, it is not always as simple of using low scored dogs and ignoring all other factors. In an ideal world we would all be able to always use dogs with lower scores than our own and certainly always less than breed average but in reality we are breeding complete Bernese Mountain Dogs, not just hips or just elbows, and usually a degree of compromise in certain areas is required and this is where experience and knowledge come in and it can all become a matter of degree. Only dogs which score 0:0 hips could be said to HD free and there are very few of those around. Knowing your lines and looking for predominantly good scores is sometimes key and a good score in parents is not any guarantee of good scores in offspring as anomalies in scores can occur. For example, most people would rather use the one (not too) bad scoring stud dog with good scoring siblings, parents, grand parents great grandparents etc than use the one good scoring dog from a whole line of poor scores. Even so you would look to be combining this dog with good scoring lines, not one with a similar story. The perfect dog does not exist, (except in the eye of its owner!) and breeding is all about making judgements and then, taking responsibility for them. A good hip and elbow score is not a reason in itself for breeding a dog or bitch, standards in other areas, not the least being temperament, must be in place as well. If both the parents of any prospective puppy have poor scores then you should probably walk away, if only one of them does then ask for more information and look further back in the pedigree and go away and perhaps take further advice. If there are more than literally one or two high scores in the pedigree or amongst siblings of close relatives in the pedigree then this too is probably reason to walk away.
Every breeder in the UK is free to set their own standards in these areas and responsible breeders will make this a strong consideration in their breeding choices and if there is anything that needs explaining they will do so before you commit to a puppy without having to ask. Less responsible breeders, and we do seem to be encountering more of these, will be vague or non committal when you ask about these things or dismiss your question with a “everything is fine” type comment. Once you get your puppy home and it starts to limp a few months down the line it is a bit late to start checking up on such things and don’t forget the cost. Treatment for hip and elbow conditions can be expensive and perpetual and most insurances will not cover lifetime conditions. Do your homework before you make any commitment but bear in mind hips and elbows are just one factor to bear in mind and just because they are easily quantifiable into easily understood numeric form doesn’t mean they are the most important factor above all else.
Some countries have enforced very strict standards on allowing breeding above certain scores and most people who have visited them would agree that in general these countries have drastically lost other desirable breed features because breeding decisions have not been allowed to be taken in a balanced way. In essence breeders have been forced to breed good hips rather than aim for good Bernese Mountain Dogs but still taking account of hips. In the UK the vast majority of BMD breeding over the last few decades has voluntarily taken hip scoring into account and our breed average has improved and for a long time it was rare to hear of any clinical problems due to hips, nowadays this appears to be changing however and I get several calls about HD problems every year where a few years ago there were no such calls. The problem we have now is that there seems to be a number of irresponsible breeders taking no account of hips and elbows and all the hard work done over the last 25 years is under threat. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere most of these breeders and their dogs are not known to the show world or any breed clubs and so we have no control or influence over them.
Please do not make it easy for these people to sell their puppies and ask about hip and elbow scores along with other things. Make it clear before you visit to view a litter that you do not intend to commit to buy a puppy on this visit but will go away and think about it. Responsible breeders will mostly welcome this approach, indeed some may insist on it. If you are turned down for a visit on this basis then you will probably be better off not going anyway. There will always be another puppy somewhere else, don’t feel pressured to jump in and buy. It is better to take a little longer to find the right puppy than find out later you have made a mistake. A suffering puppy, crying in pain and struggling to move about will upset your whole family and cost you a lot of expense at the vet. Visit the puppies and ask about parents and grand parents and if hip and elbow scores are not forthcoming come away and check them out for yourself and if you are not entirely happy then take advice from someone independent before committing yourself. Don’t feel sorry for it and buy it anyway, even for a “reduced” price just to get it “out of there”. Some mercenary breeders will recognise this guilt and play on it to sell you the dog.
All the Bernese breed clubs in the UK are reviewing their Codes of Ethics in the light of increased emphasis in all areas health and so far all are decreeing that members should hip and elbow score all breeding stock.
You can find out the hip and elbow score of any KC/BVA scored dog via the Kennel Club web site on the following link, enter the dog’s name you are interested in but be very careful to make sure you spell it correctly.
If you become a breeder of Bernese please make hips and elbows an important part of your thinking but don’t get obsessive about them, they are important factors to take into consideration but alongside lots of others.