Health Topics

UK Bernese Mountain Dog Death Survey


For many years running, our breed, like many others, had an ongoing Death Survey, in our case compiled by the late and much missed Dr Malcolm Willis. This list was populated by the people who contributed their dog’s details, as well information gathered from other sources such as magazine tributes to departed friends, i.e. information put into the public domain. In this way Dr Willis was able to give us an ongoing average age as a reference point. There was also a figure from a one off club survey run by myself and we have also had two Kennel Club Health Surveys giving input based on relatively small numbers.


These reference initiatives are now gone and their information has become outdated. We do not have a modern equivalent of the Death Survey so any information we have about the ages of death of our breed is becoming increasingly anecdotal and based on long gathered or overseas data. “How long do they live?” is a basic, regular, and not unreasonable, question asked by enquirers about our breed whether generally to the clubs, individuals or on breed information stands such as Discover Dogs at Crufts or in London centre. We simply do not have a validated and up to date figure we can quote and we are not generating comparative data for future use. We do not know whether things are improving or getting worse and we do not know with any authority whatsoever what our most significant causes of death are or at what ages they become significant. So, the club is launching a new Death Survey to be an ongoing process into the future.


Being able to give a valid reply to breed enquirers is, of course, not the only reason for a Death Survey, indeed it is more of a bonus reason when you consider all the potential benefits of such an initiative. Gathering the information in one place would enable us to collate things much more effectively and produce meaningful information to maybe assist us by gaining a good insight into just exactly what is happening in our breed in the UK.

Some other countries realised the value of death information many years ago and breed clubs have been collecting it for a long time. In some countries, it is even obligatory to submit such information about your dogs every year. We could simply ask people to record their dog’s death details on Berner Garde but this would not give us as much collated information as we can get from an independent list with UK details compiled to compare. Death ages submitted to this survey will be added to Berner Garde.

Although they are extremely useful in their own right, this is not just about ages at death but also reasons when available. It is absolutely not just about individuals but compiling the ‘big picture’ to identify trends and patterns. It is not just about lines and familial connections but establishing the context of anything at all being noticed against everything else.

If you are aware of the possibilities around the ‘Histio’ situation, as outlined in the December 2016 club magazine or elsewhere on this web site, it will hopefully become abundantly clear that, even if for this reason alone, there is a need to start recording our breed’s deaths. Histio remains a serious blight on our breed with a proven hereditary factor which plainly means it can be tackled by breeding practises. The ever developing DNA test has a part to play but equally so does basic analysis of our deaths. One of Histio’s main threats is that it frequently goes unrecorded and the problems it causes get misdiagnosed, often as ‘probably cancer’ or sometimes as ‘the wrong cancer’. Therefore sometimes the only evidence of it’s possible presence is a peak in connected early deaths which simply cannot be found until you start recording all deaths. The French breed club for example did this years ago with a massive research project resulting in a single family tree with over 900 dogs on it. This clearly showed connections between affected dogs and lots of deaths that were not actually diagnosed as Histio at the time. However, looking at the bigger picture showed that at least a good proportion must have had the disease implicated in them.

If we do not collect information we will never know if it has anything to tell us. There could be obvious lessons just waiting to be found and the fact there just may be nothing forthcoming should not stop us looking. However, even if nothing significant is discovered about possible Histio influence or anything else specific for that matter, the absolute barest minimum we will (obviously) get is a much more accurate and up to date average age at death.


Some may even find this concept distasteful but it is an essential aid to improving the future of the breed. Studies of deaths play a part in human medicine and health care planning around the world and help medics to pick up on trends. It is about recording death but the information relates to life as we have to learn from today to improve tomorrow. We have to start by realising there are things we can and should be monitoring with a view to improving our breed. You cannot start to look at ways to address possible problems until you look for the details and establish as any facts as you can. Anecdote and ‘gossip’ can have no part in any meaningful decision process.

How Will it Work?

The plan is that this will be a list of UK Bernese Deaths published within this health section of the club’s web site. Details of dogs will be listed in a straightforward way and available to all. People consciously contributing to the list will obviously form the majority of the content but also other information that has been put into the public domain by the dog’s owners could be included. This could be taken from commemorative adverts in club publications, social media announcements or contributions to the Gone but not Forgotten section but what will not be on the list will be anecdotal, non confirmed information that does not originate directly from the dog’s owner (or breeder). Contributor’s personal information will also never be published on this list, just that of their dogs.

The format of the published list will no doubt develop for a while whilst we evolve the optimum layout and information. So if you have any comments or thoughts please feel free to forward them.

Which Dogs are required?

ALL BMD deaths should be submitted, young and old, well known show dog, working dog, breeding dog or family pet or ‘all of the above’, health related or accidental death, temperament issues, cause known or unknown, confirmed cause or only suspected. EVERY SINGLE BERNESE IS VITALLY IMPORTANT to this list. Every Bernese ever born is obviously directly related to at least two breeding dogs so every single one has something to say about the breed.

In order to make the list as relevant as possible we welcome retrospective dates and details of deaths from more recent years, say from 2010 onwards in particular, but all dog’s details are important. If people can contribute any dog’s details from the recent, or even not so recent, past it will make the list more meaningful in terms of the parents and grand parents of today’s dogs and it will also help the list grow to a meaningful and interesting size much quicker and give us some instant ‘older’ data to compare today’s details against.

Why is Context Important?

We have to look for hereditary influences and subsequently identify, and aim to reduce, the problems they cause but also put anything arising into context so this is another extremely important reason why absolutely as many dogs as possible are important. So, even if you do not have a cause of death, please let us know the other details and your comments. If you feel your dog died of ‘old age’ then this too is important to know. Partial information can still be of value so let us know what you can.

By way of explanation, say we had 100 dogs reported as died before they were 5 years old. If this were out of just 150 dogs reported in total we clearly have an issue to look into. If however, another 500 were reported as dying peacefully from ‘old age’ we instantly go from two thirds in this category to just a sixth, maybe still not a great situation but a much different picture. Similarly, if it was reported that 90% of dogs reported died of cancer this sounds terrible but if the average age of these dogs was above 10 years then, whilst we would still want to improve, this would not be viewed as badly. This is why context is absolutely vital and why absolutely as many dogs as can be recorded are required.

So, whatever age your Bernese was when he or she died and whatever the reason, even if you don’t have a reason, please, please, please report it to this survey. Going forwards please remember this initiative when the sad time comes to say good bye to your Bernese. Every single Bernese has a part to pay in contributing to the bigger picture. The more people contribute details the more representative the list will be.

What is Required?

A deliberate policy is that very easy information is required to keep things simple sand encourage response so please give the details as fully and honestly as you can. It is fully appreciated that there is much more that could be asked for, for example about lifestyles, diets, habits, medical history, vaccinations, treatments, etc but the important thing at this stage is to encourage engagement.

Even partially completed details may still be of value so, please, still send in what you can about your dogs. If you do not know the full kennel name, for example, give us what you can or maybe the breeder’s name as we might be able to complete things for you.

A call to your vet to quickly look at your dog’s record may be helpful to easily confirm exact dates of death, and even birth if you need it, but even if you only have a month and year of death this will be accurate enough (and the 15th of the month can be used as a reference point).

If you do not have a definite cause of death but do have some idea of what might have happened please feel free to express these thoughts, just make it clear it is not a confirmed cause of death. It may be your vet’s opinion rather than a confirmed diagnosis but whatever you have can be of value in building the bigger picture.

As long as we can identify your dog from the information given, his or her parents will be added to the list from KC records. If you wish to give more information than the bare minimum requested you can do this in the free text space or continue separately.

The Future

As a new initiative there is of course an element of ‘wait and see how this develops’ and how well supported it will be. It is hoped that it will become a routine practice for all owners and all ongoing BMD deaths will find their way onto the list. If so it will become an important continuous comment on our breed as well as a source for data for various initiatives to help our breed.

Exactly what is done with the information, beyond publishing on this web site, will depend on many factors. The scale of the response and amount of information offered will always be significant but mostly it depends on what, if anything, the data appears to be telling us. There may be sufficient indication of something occurring often enough to seek further expert advice and involve veterinary specialists or professional genetic analysis. It could provide a basis for further clinical investigations or a further, more focussed survey involving lifestyle or other environmental factors. There may be clear trends to relay back to the Bernese community or general indications about developing problems. There are many possibilities but at the very least, we will definitely be able to have a year by year average age at death figure for on going years and gauge whether we are making any progress or not.

The more historic information we receive the more able we will be to make comparisons on different time periods and gauge if matters are improving or deteriorating.

At this stage there are lots of unknowns about how well the survey will be supported, and therefore about where it takes us, but the important thing is to make a start.

Depending on initial response the initial list should appear on this web site sometime in 2017 and then be updated regularly. Summary analysis will also appear periodically in other club publications such as the club magazine.

What Do I have to Do?

Please use the form you have received as a club member or download one from this web site. Complete this for your own dog(s) and post it to Mrs S. Green, 49, Carr Rd, Deepcar, Sheffield, S36 2PR or it can be scanned or photographed and emailed to the below address.

Alternatively, you can send the same details in an email without the form itself but please title your email “BMD Death Survey” Each form is double sided and can accommodate up to 3 dogs but if you can contribute more than three dogs’ details please copy the form or download extra from this web site. If you wish to write more comment than space permits on the form just continue overleaf or on a separate sheet.

However, probably the simplest way for most to contribute is directly on line as well via the link below.

Might Some People view such information negatively?

This initiative is simply about gathering information and establishing facts. If gathered and presented properly information itself is not judgemental. It is simply data to be looked at objectively, nothing more, nothing less.

Fortunately, most people are well capable of remaining objective about information and we hope that this list becomes so routine and matter of fact that everyone is able to contribute and look at it completely objectively. Any unnecessary negative reaction will only deter people from contributing.

It is entirely possible that some kennel lines may average out differently to others and this could be for a variety of reasons. Before we can even consider any actual veterinary or genetic influence it could even be that some breeders have been more ‘honest’ than others or simply more people they have sold puppies to chose to contribute and other may be more selective with the cases that do get notified to the survey. We cannot control this and will never know any of it for sure we can only ask for full and honest contributions. For the first few years of the survey the the key factor for the whole breed is to get as many dogs as possible entered int eh survey to make it as meaningful as possible. However, if your lines are significantly and consistently below the breed average then at least ask yourself why this may be as there can be many reasons. Yes, some of the reason may be the flaws with the survey which we may be able to work on and improve as they are identified but we have to try and establish what the actual situation is as broadly as we can. The simple truth is that the more dogs we have the less any ‘biasing’ will affect the overall picture as it will be a smaller proportion of the total.

It is inevitable that reality is always going to throw problems at breeders the same as it does in every walk of life and good breeders will respond positively when necessary. In some extreme circumstances this may even mean painful and brave decisions about their lines but responsibility to puppy buyers and the future of the breed should be a strong influence on decisions. Short term personal gain should never be the driver for decisions that have knock on effects for everyone in the breed’s future. The biggest failing is to be in denial, failing to discover and accept issues and therefore failing to react to them and consequently passively allowing them to get even worse. One of the simple aims of this initiative is to provide some valid and useful information to help people make rational decisions.

Already Contributed?

Thank you if you have already contributed details of your dog (or dogs) to this list. Even with such a simple low level of detail being requested it is not always easy to be completely frank and honest. So, I especially thank and appreciate those who have been very open about their dogs and contributed more than the minimum details. I also thank those who have really embraced the initiative and researched all their owned and bred dogs that they can.


Please take a few minutes to understand the potential importance for the breed of this list and if you do that you will realise how important it is to send in all your departed dog’s details. Not just the ‘good’ ones or just the ‘bad’ ones but all the ‘ones’ you can provide whether current or historical.

The form is very simple and will only take a few moments to complete for each dog so please don’t casually assume this request is for someone else’s Bernese and doesn’t apply to yours, because it absolutely does.

I know I am repeating the point over and over but it simply cannot be said too many times that EVERY BERNESE DEATH IS IMPORTANT to this survey so please send in as many of YOUR dogs’ details as you can, whether ‘recent’ or from the past.

Maybe if the page about ‘Histio’ on this web site is also read then people may understand a little more how important a Death Survey is to the breed.

If you have any queries about any of this please feel free to get in touch with me.

Thank you.

Steve Green
BMD Breed Health CoOrdinator