The Bernese Mountain dog, lovingly referred to as a Berner, is a member of the working group of breeds and is one of the largest breeds of dogs out there. This gorgeous dog can range in size from just under two feet to nearly two and a half feet to the shoulder and weigh anywhere from seventy to one-hundred and fifteen pounds. He is loyal, loving, sensitive, and always wants to be with you. He can be shy around strangers but will warm up to a kind word and praise. Because of his size, however, it is very noticeable when he leans on you. While not trait specific and not a standard, the Bernese Mountain dog is known to lean on those he loves and even sometimes on someone he has just met. In some breeds, this can be a sign of his expressing his dominance, but it is not common for the Berner to try to dominate. The only real complication of his leaning is that he could knock someone down, and will undoubtedly leave a trail of hair on clothes.
The Root of the Behavior
It is documented that the Bernese Mountain dog has been working on Swiss farms for more than 2000 years. Thought to be originally bred with a cross of a farm dog and a Bull Mastiff, the Berner loves to work and serve. He originally spent his days pulling carts, driving cattle, and protecting his family. The Bernese Mountain dog is known for his white Swiss-cross on his chest and beautiful tri-color coat of white, black, and a golden brown. He has a heavy coat which serves him well in the winter but can be a hindrance in the summer. It also lends to heavy shedding. He does need a good amount of exercise since he is a working dog, but a good walk for thirty minutes a day should suffice. His breed is known to be gentle, sensitive, and easily trained. He can be stubborn but responds well to affection, praise, and treats. And he loves his people. Even though he is rather large, he will squeeze himself into tight spaces just to be close to you. And he will lean into you, even as far as putting all of his massive 100 plus pounds against you.
There are some more dominant breeds that according to various trainers and behavioral therapists will lean on you to show their dominance. By leaning on you, the dog is invading your space as well as claiming you as his territory. Breeds such as the Perro de Presa Canario, Boerboel, American Bulldog, Husky, Bull Mastiff, Alano Espanol, Groenendael, Schanuzer, Koolie, Griffin, Irish Terrier, and Chesapeake Bay Retriever are all known to have a slightly dominating alpha personality. A dog that is more of an alpha breed, or just tends to run more alpha than most, may be leaning on you to remind you who is boss. However, it is more often believed that a dog leans on you to make a connection or for actual physical support. While the Berner can fall into the guard dog grouping, he is rarely an alpha. As a pack animal, he simply likes to be with his pack and you are his home and happy place. There is a greater chance he is leaning into you for security purposes, to remind himself that you are with him. It is also proven that a dog releases ‘feel good’ brain chemicals when he is in the presence of his beloved owner. Many believe that dogs have learned that physical contact feels good, and that in leaning into you he is strengthening his bond.
Encouraging the Behavior
Socializing and training your Bernese Mountain dog are essential to having a happy home. Without socializing, he can become skittish and anxious around others. Without training, he can become willful and with his size, that can be an issue. Leaning into you because he is afraid or acting aggressively is not okay. However, leaning into you will likely only be a problem if he is knocking you down or you do not like having his hair all over you. You know your dog’s personality, if you do believe he is leaning in to remind you that he is the boss, then the behavior will need to be extinguished as soon as possible. When he approaches you, try to put yourself in a position where you can move away quickly and easily. As he leans in towards you, move out of his way. Do not speak to him, look at him or touch him in any way. Once you have some space, tell him to sit and then approach him on your terms and give him a lot of affection and praise.
Berners are sensitive and cannot handle a harsh word or reprimand. Admonishing him will not only hurt his feelings but will also reinforce the lean in behavior. By ignoring the behavior and then praising him for a different and more desirable behavior, you are teaching him that you are the boss. But again, as he is not an ‘alpha type breed,’ if you sense he is leaning in to bond and be close you can take different measures if you wish to have the behavior removed or changed. Similar to if he is trying to dominate, as he approaches stop him but turn towards him and command him to sit and stay. Then reward and praise him for obeying and lavish your love and affection. You are teaching him to come to you for affection, but to respect your boundaries. This is especially important if he is leaning on children or elderly and is causing them to fall over. All of your commands need to be gentle and loving, and you must remain consistent, as the one time you let him lean will be all it takes to re-establish the unwanted behavior.
Other Solutions and Considerations
A Bernese Mountain dog has a lot of fur that will shed. If the lean in bothers you because you end up covered in hair, you have several options. You can stop him from leaning in as mentioned above, you can look into purchasing one of the many fur and lint removers on the market and simply keep it handy, or you can make sure to brush your Berner every two or three days and bathe him every three months or so to keep his coat clean, shiny, and decrease the shed. If you have not purchased a Berner yet, you can also consider getting a Bernedoodle, which is a Bernese Mountain dog bred with a Poodle. This will allow for all of the wonderful temperaments of the Berner with a lot less hair. And then, he can lean away.
While some dogs may lean on you to establish dominance and remind you who is boss, that is not a common characteristic among the Bernese Mountain dog breed. This large working breed has a heart as big as his 100-pound body, and when he leans in he is most likely just trying to get as close as possible to you and release some feel-good hormones. If you do not want him to lean on you, train him to be close to you but remain sitting beside you without putting his body weight one you. Remember to be gentle with him, as his feelings can be easily hurt. If you struggle with setting boundaries for your pup, consider hiring a trainer to assist you in showing your Berner was is and is not acceptable with you.
Written by a Black Lab lover Zoe Byer
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 04/17/2018, edited: 01/30/2020