A Mountain Man’s Mountain Dog

People purchase and adopt dogs for countless reasons.  Companionship.  Comfort.  Exercise.  Socialization.  The list is long.  For most, bringing home that first dog is as much a statement about the dog as it is oneself.  The research that goes into that first pup is lengthy and often centers around the viewpoint of the future owner’s lifestyle.  Do I live in a home or an apartment?  Am I in a warm or cold environment?  What kind of time can I dedicate to my future dog?  These are all fantastic questions and quite necessary in choosing whether a dog is right for you.  But they miss one glaringly obvious question that many first-time dog owners omit from their research.

How will your dog’s breed effect the next 10+ years of decision making?

I am a mountain man.  At least that’s what I have been telling myself every day for the past decade or so – really ever since I realized I was able to grow a beard that did wonders for the shape of my face (it’s something about the jaw line I think).  Since that moment I have decreed that I shall forever be a man of adventure, a man of the wild, a bearded, burly mountain man.  You laugh, but I have the wardrobe to back it up.  Just look in my closet and you will see a slew of plaid button ups, a veritable cornucopia of masculine leather boots, and a generous smattering of burly vests.  My shelves are decorated with candles with names like: Loam, Leather Man, or even, and I’m quoting here, ‘Going To See A Man About A Horse.’  There is even an old 1920’s restored wood hafted axe in the corner of my living room that I purchased from a barn-store in northern Minnesota and spent days sanding and oiling to get it back to its original luster.  I have books on living in the outdoors – anything from a field survival guide to Jack London’s stories of braving the northern wastes.  So you see, I am a mountain man… at least I thought I was.

As a mountain man, you could say I was obliged to get myself a mountain dog.  The rough manliness of my trail-inspired look would be completed, topped off if you will, only by the presences of the rugged countenance of man’s best friend at my side.  When you run out of plaid pattern shirts to buy, a matching dog is all that is left to round out your look…obviously.  And only if that man’s best friend is a mountain breed.  Let’s be serious, no other dog would do.  I needed a dog that could survive in the cold tundra of the western suburbs, a dog that would bravely tackle the wind swept peaks where the plows had created piles of snow behind my building.  As adorable as a Labrador or Golden Retriever may be, they simply didn’t have the aesthetic I was going for – too friendly, not enough of the loner tendency that can only be cultivated in the wild.  Beagles or pugs didn’t have the size I was looking for – after all, a monstrous mountain required a monstrous dog.  And the cut of my boots quite plainly says nothing less than 3,000ft would do.  And no matter what I was told about Australian sheep dogs, the idea of keeping up with their rigorous exercise regimen was always a mark against them.

No, a mountain dog was what I needed.  It’s in the name after all.  That big MOUNTAIN resided right there before the DOG.  Well, I think you know the rest of the story already.  I present to you, Dawson, the Bernese Mountain Dog.

Now, you have heard me speak of the many things I have learned in the months since Dawson came home with me.  You have heard about his ways of communicating, the limits of his fluffy body armor – whether he is or is not dish washer safe is still undecided- and even an entire two pages about his feces.  But let me tell you the biggest lesson I have learned since that fateful day I decided to bring home my bundle of terrible fur.  I have learned, (long wistful sigh with faraway look in my eyes) I am not a mountain man.  Not even a little bit.  Not even close.  If there is anything I have learned from having Dawson it’s what being a true mountaineer looks like.

I began to suspect I was not the man I thought I was when this season’s cold finally set in.  I quickly ran to the thermostat to adjust the temperature.  But what occurred to me was that Dawson was seeking out all the spots in the house he found coolest – tile floors, against the dishwasher and anywhere else he could feel a draft.  But his love for the cold didn’t truly show up until our very first snow storm.  Living in the Midwest means we can sometimes get pelted with snow and cold and its usually during those times that this mountain man turns to a good movie about surviving the wild while I bundle up under a blanket and sip on hot cocoa with both whipped cream AND marshmallows – don’t judge.  Dawson wasn’t having that.  I found myself pulled outdoors far too often for my comfort and usually right after I had just boiled up another mug of the chocolaty good stuff.  Once outside, Dawson refused to come in.  The cold was his playground.  At first I found it invigorating.  This was what I had asked for after all.  I dressed the part, more flannels and matching boots, and joined him in the cold.  That was, until the temperature got to 0, then -10, then -20.  At -20 degrees you think a lot about human skin – its fragility, the interesting way it changes colors so quickly, how things like ice and snow feel strangely warm when you take your gloves off to scoop up your dog’s poo in a doggy bag and how nice and warm that doggy bag can feel full of fresh poo – again, don’t judge me.  But the freezing temperature never phased my dog.  Not once did his fluffy tail droop.  When I could finally coax him back indoors, he would run across the living room and beg to be let out onto the patio to sit in the snow and pace back and forth watching the cars go by below.  Yes, he LOVES the cold.

He also loves the climb.  Go figure.  The Midwest is not known for it’s mountainous landscape.  The largest hill near me  is actually a giant landfill beautifully covered with trees and grass.  There is little in the way of climbing opportunities for my mountain dog – or so I thought.  When you’re a mountain dog, everything is an opportunity to climb.  From the benches that line the sidewalk of my town’s main street, to the small walls along that sidewalk to the … “hey, get off the kitchen table”… yes, my own table.  Once the snow began to pile up it gave Dawson countless opportunities to climb.  A sudden snowstorm resulted in a 20 foot pile of snow in my parking lot that Dawson was eager to pull me to the top of.  Once there, he lay down and stared at the kingdom below that I imagine he believed to be all his own.  As for me – my beautiful manly leather boots were full of snow, scarred with salt stains, and my flannel shirt was soaked through.  I was a shivering mess.  Dawson just smiled up at me.  If Jack London could have seen me he would have shaken his head.

Dawson is lucky I love him as much as I do.  Because of him I have had to change my wardrobe.  My boots, less manly, are certainly more waterproof.  And, while I may still have my beard, I have trimmed it down to a more respectable level that doesn’t scream wilderness but still flatters my jaw line, of course.  But all of these adventures with Dawson have taught me a valuable lesson about owning a dog.

You see, I did a lot of research on Bernese Mountain Dogs before Dawson came into my life.  I read everything I could– training, breeding, temperament, and activity.  I felt I understood the lifestyle I was committing to by bringing home an animal that has been bred for hundreds of years to work on mountains pulling carts and carrying farm equipment.  But let’s be honest.  I live in a warm, cozy apartment above a cute downtown street with adorable restaurants and the closest I get to anything resembling farm-life is when I pick up fresh produce from the market outside on Sunday’s in summer.  And while I may have the right clothes, hats, and boots to look the part of a mountain man, the truth is I am much more suited for cute outdoor dining under umbrellas with Edison lights above than I am the cold exposed peaks of the Swiss Alps.

Breed specific behavior is not a joke.  I am fortunate – as is Dawson – that Girlfriend and I work from home and absolutely love him to death.  Because of that we can spend hours of our day – and I do mean hours – dedicated to training, walking, running in the woods, and letting him climb anything and everything he can.  This isn’t the case for many owners.

During the recent pandemic – ugh, I know, I’m making this about Covid – the rate of pet adoption increased by hundreds of percentages.  For many, this was terrific news. What was more often ignored was the rate of returned pets.  The number of dogs being dropped off by owners who were not equipped, ready or able to handle their new dog rose at almost the exact same percentage.  Most owners think that breed-specific behaviors can be managed, trained out, or even ignored.  I assure you this is not the case.  Your dog’s breed matters as my poor neighbor can tell you.  His new hound has got a set of lungs on him that wakes up the entire building.  The whole of the second floor tip-toes past his door to keep him from waking up and setting off the bark-alarm.  My neighbor has stopped apologizing long ago but now just walks down the hallway with a look of defeat and blue rings around his eyes that says he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks.  I see owner’s dressed in jogging attire trying to run down streets with their toy-breeds in tow, their little legs a blur as they attempt to keep up with their owner’s long stride.

Owning a dog is beautiful.  A dog becomes an integral part of your life in mere moments for most of us.  As a new dog-owner however, I beg you, do your research carefully.  Don’t ignore what your dog’s breed tells you about the dog.  While I would never go back on my choice to get Dawson, I can tell you I would have bought waterproof boots a lot sooner.