The Saint Bernard was bred to guard the grounds of a monastery in the Swiss and Italian Alps. They would also to help find travelers who might have got lost or injured. They are gentle giants, patient and calm with children, and friendly when socialized.
Male adults reach a height of 28 to 30 inches, and females a height of 26 to 28 inches. Males weigh 140 to 180 pounds at maturity, and females 120 to 140 pounds.
Saint Bernard dogs are thought to be descended from the Molosser type dogs, which Romans would have brought to the Alps during the days of the Roman Empire. These large dogs would have been used to guard farms, herd livestock, hunt, and help with search and rescue.
In 1050 A.D., a monk called Bernard of Menthon started a hospice at the Great St. Bernard Pass. This was a route from Switzerland to Rome and one of the three highest road passes in Switzerland. The aim in establishing the hospice was to clear the area of robbers and to make a safe way for pilgrims travelling to Rome. Monks would treat travellers who had been injured on the journey there, and give them food and drink.
The first documented Saint Bernard dogs were bred at the hospice to help with search and rescue. The clouds would often come down on the mountains, and there would be snow and avalanches, making it easy to get lost or hurt. The dogs were trained to go out from the hospice and find people who had missed the markers that showed the route. Legend has it that some dogs would carry brandy in a small keg around their necks. This was so that if they found an injured traveller, they could stay with them and give them the brandy to help keep them warm. Then the other dogs would go back to show the monks where to find him. They are said to have rescued 2000 people from avalanches in the Alps.
The classic temperament of a Saint Bernard is gentle, friendly and patient. However just like with other dogs, they need early socialization to ensure that they don’t veer toward either timidity or aggression. They had a surge in popularity during the era of the Beethoven movies which featured a Saint Bernard. This meant that some breeders would breed them without paying attention to their temperament, so some lines may be more aggressive than others. If you are buying a puppy, make sure you get it from a reputable breeder. Try to meet the parents first and make sure they have even temperaments.
These giants can have a stubborn streak, and with such a large size, it is vital that they are trained to be obedient early on. Otherwise walking them will prove to be a problem! As puppies they tend to be clumsy and may cause some chaos. But as they get older they calm down and like to lie around the house, although they also love to play outside – especially in the snow.
The Saint Bernard is a giant dog, with a thick neck and broad muzzle. Their coats come in colors of red, red and white, or white and brindle, of which there are both shorthaired and longhaired varieties.
With their giant size, Saint Bernards do not do well with hot weather and can develop heat exhaustion or heatstroke. To help prevent this, you can make sure they don’t exercise when it is hot, and always provide fresh water and shade for them. On the other hand they can do very well in cold weather, and love nothing more than a romp in the snow, or pulling children on a sled. They are not a good breed choice for apartment living because they are so large. They are people lovers so should not be left alone for too long, as they may become destructive.
If bred correctly and socialized well, Saint Bernards are a very friendly breed. They have a nanny-like reputation with children, because they are patient, gentle and will put up with a lot of behavior. You should still teach children how to treat them properly though, and to not go near them when they’re sleeping or eating. The biggest danger for children is that they can be knocked over by your dog’s giant size, and small pets may also get stepped on. They will probably bark at strangers, but are unlikely to be aggressive towards them.
The Saint Bernard sheds a lot and drools a lot, so if you like to have your house very tidy and clean, he may not be the best pet for you. You should generally give them a brushing three times a week. They can be bathed as needed, and outdoors might be the best place for this because of their size. If they get tear stains around their eyes, these can be wiped with a damp cloth. Their ears should be cleaned and checked regularly, and their teeth brushed weekly. Nails can be trimmed monthly unless they are worn down from activity.
Saint Bernards are eager to please, so they aren’t too difficult to train. However it is very important that you do train them early on, because of their size once they get to be an adult. Early socialization and obedience classes are vital to help them become well rounded and well behaved. Treats and positive training methods should work very well.
Despite their size, Saint Bernards only need a moderate amount of exercise. Half an hour of play time or a long walk every day is usually fine. However they will also happily go on a hiking or camping trip with you, and also enjoy pulling children on carts or sleds. They do well in activities like carting and drafting. It’s important that you don’t let them jump off furniture or out of vehicles while they are in the puppy stage of life. Excessive jumping while young may cause problems such as Hip Dysplasia.
A high quality food should be selected for your Saint Bernard, to ensure he has the best chance at a healthy life. They are prone to bloat (Gastric Dilatation Volvulus), so try to avoid exercise around mealtimes, and give them more than one meal a day to help prevent this from happening.
When you first bring your puppy home, keep him on the same food as your breeder fed him and transition him over gradually if you are planning on giving him a different food. This will help prevent stomach upset. Puppies should be fed three to four times a day with a diet specially formulated for large breed puppies.
If you dog has allergy issues you may want to consider trying a grain free diet. Itching and diarrhoea may be symptoms of a food intolerance or sensitivity. It is best to consult your veterinarian if you see this happening, who may recommend switching to a very simple diet for a few weeks to see if it clears up. Other ingredients can then be introduced slowly to see what was causing the problem.
Recommended daily feeding amount: 5 to 6 cups of high quality food daily, divided into two meals.
The amount of calories every dog needs is different depending on their metabolism, activity level and age. Be careful that they don’t become overweight as they get older and slow down. Exercise is still important even though they might be more reluctant.
Common Health Concerns
Because of their large size and deep chest, Saint Bernard dogs are prone to bloat. This happens when too much air enters the stomach, causing it to twist and cut off the blood supply to vital organs. It is a life threatening condition, but can to some extent be prevented by avoiding exercise around mealtimes and feeding multiple small meals a day.
Other health concerns include Hip Dysplasia, Elbow Dysplasia, Osteosarcoma (bone cancer), and several eye conditions. Eye disorders include Entropion and Ectropion, where the eyelid turns either inwards or outwards. Saint Bernard dogs may also develop epilepsy, eczema, and Dilated Cardiomyopathy. This happens when the heart muscle becomes thin and can’t contract as it should. This can cause heart failure. There is no cure, but rest, diet and medication can help manage the condition.
Saint Bernards are often purchased without any clear understanding of what goes into owning one. There are many Saint Bernards in need of adoption and or fostering. There are a number of rescues that we have not listed. If you don’t see a rescue listed for your area, contact the national breed club or a local breed club and they can point you toward a Saint Bernard rescue.