Breed of the Month: Saint Bernard

Saint Bernard With Owner Barry Brault

Description: The Saint Bernard is a giant muscular dog. The ears sit higher on the head and are droopy. The tail is broad, powerful, and long. Its nose and lips are black, it possesses a short broad muzzle, and has dark colored eyes. This dog has long legs. Coats are predominately white with brown, fawn, black, and brindle markings. The face and ears are typically black or brown in color.

History: The Saint Bernard dog and the Saint Bernard Pass are both named after the founder and Augustine monk, Bernard of Menthon. In 980 A.D. Bernard of Menthon established the monastery and hospice along a treacherous 49 mile long pass in the Swiss Alps which is located 8,000 feet above sea level.

Experts believe that the Saint Bernard dog can trace its ancestry to approximately 1660 A.D. when monks at the Saint Bernard Hospice started to breed the dogs. However, these first Saint Bernard dogs didn’t resemble the dogs of today, as these dogs had shorter hair, were smaller in stature, and had a longer tail.

These dogs were primarily used as rescue dogs, assisting lost and injured travelers. When Napoleon and his 250,000 soldiers crossed the alps between 1790 and 1810, soldiers professed the heroism and courage of the Saint Bernard dogs that helped save the lives of many comrades.

In the winters from 1816 to 1818, many of the rescue dogs were killed due to severe weather and avalanches, which nearly killed all the dogs at Saint Bernard Hospice. Consequently, the remaining Saint Bernards were bred with Great Danes and English Mastiffs to rebuild the strain of dogs.

Around this time, monks bred the stock of Saint Bernard dogs with Newfoundlands in attempt to create a Saint Bernard that could withstand even colder temperatures and more vicious storms. What they created was a Saint Bernard with long hair which collected snow and ice, eventually weighing down and incapacitating the dog. It was an experiment in futility and the remaining long haired dogs were given away to farmers in the valley of the Swiss Alps.

For over 200 years the Saint Bernard dogs have saved over 2,000 travelers of the Saint Bernard Pass. The most recent rescue by a Saint Bernard rescue dog occurred 1897 when a dog tracked down a lost twelve-year-old boy who nearly froze to death along the pass.

Although the Saint Bernard has since been replaced by more modern and effective means of rescuing lost and stranded travelers, a few of the dogs still inhabit the Saint Bernard Hospice as a tribute to the breed.

Size: Males and females: 25–27 inches at the withers, weighing 110–200 pounds.

Temperament: The Saint Bernard is a very friendly and easy going dog. This breed is slow moving and tolerant of children however, their large size and ability to knock over small children may make them somewhat of a danger. Since Saint Bernards get big fast, socialization and training at an early age is a must. While this breed is typically very affectionate and friendly, any kind of behavior issues can become extremely difficult to overcome with a dog of this size. Even a strong adult man can have difficulties in handling a Saint Bernard. Overall, this breed is loyal, loving, and mild mannered which makes them a good family pets.

Typically the Saint Bernard is friendly towards all humans but their giant size and deep bark can be intimidating for intruders, making them a moderately good guard dog.

Grooming: Depending on the type of Saint Bernard, the breed can either have a short coat or a long coat. Whether the dog has a short or long coat, the dog will shed heavily twice a year. Comb or brush this dog frequently to minimize shedding and bathe only when necessary.

The Saint Bernard is prone to watery eyes which will need to be washed frequently to avoid tear stains.

Health: The Saint Bernard grows at very fast rate and as a result, faces some health consequences. If not properly exercised and fed, growing adolescents can experience bone deterioration. Osteosarcoma or bone cancer has also been observed in Saint Bernards. Along with most other larger dogs, hip and elbow dysplasia as well as bloat are common amongst this breed. One major issue in the breed standard are the eye conditions entropion and ectropion, where the eye lid folds inward or outward. Saint Bernards are genetically susceptible to the heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy where the heart becomes enlarged and and loses efficiency in pumping blood.

Exercise: Like all dogs, the Saint Bernard requires a daily pack walk and exercise. Saint Bernard dogs live comfortably in an apartment as they are fairly inactive indoors. Puppies grow large quickly and due to their growing bones, shouldn’t be over exercised. Short play sessions until the age of two years old should be adequate.

Lifespan: About 8 to 10 years.

Trivia: Barrry, a Saint Bernard living at the Saint Bernard Hospice between 1800 and 1812, is credited with saving the lives of over forty travelers.

The 1992 comedy movie Beethoven featured a Saint Bernard of the same name. The book and film Cujo portrayed a rabid Saint Bernard named Cujo. While the book Peter Pan portrayed the dog Nana as a Newfoundland, the animated movie portrayed Nana as a Saint Bernard.

While many movies and cartoons portray Saint Bernards with a small cask of brandy around their necks, no dogs were ever documented as having wore these casks; this is likely a work of Hollywood produced fiction.