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Saint Bernards are powerful, proportionately tall, strong and muscular, big boned and deep-chested. Males weigh from 170 to over 200 pounds and are over 27 inches at the shoulders.
Bitches weigh slightly less and are at minimum 25 inches at the shoulders. The original St. Bernard is short-haired; the long-haired variety appeared in the mid-nineteenth century.
Acceptable colors include white with red, red with white, and brindle patches with white markings. “Red” can vary from red to yellow-brown. Many have a dark mask over the eyes but this is not a requirement.
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Saint Bernard appears to originate from native dogs that have been present in the Alps for millennia. Roman armies crossed into Switzerland in the second century possibly bringing with them an infusion of Mastiff-type dogs.
These dogs form the background of today’s Swiss breeds, including Saint Bernard. As with all modern Swiss breeds, (including Bernese Mountain Dogs, Great Swiss Mountain Dogs, Entlebuch Cattle Dogs, and Appenzell Cattle Dogs) these dogs were used for a variety of duties including guarding, herding, and drafting.
By 1000AD, these ancestral dogs were apparently well known and referred to as “Talhund” (Valley Dog) or “Bauernhund” (Farm Dog) by this time. They came in a variety of sizes and shapes.
In 1050AD, Archdeacon Bernard de Menthon founded his famous hospice in the Saint Bernard Pass, 8000 feet above sea level, for travelers crossing the treacherous Swiss Alps. No one knows when dogs were first brought to the Hospice since early records were destroyed by fire near the end of the 16th century.
The earliest surviving written notation of the dogs is in 1707 and it implies that the dogs were well established at this point and their work was well known. The earliest paintings of the Hospice dog date back to two pictures done in 1695 by an unknown painter.
These paintings depict well built shorthaired dogs with long tails and dewclaws, type heads and nearly white: one is a mantle and the other is splash coated. From these portraits, it’s clear that these dogs were already established as a breed by this time.
Independent records suggest that these dogs were initially used as watchdogs and companions for the Monks. Since the Hospice was largely isolated from the rest of the world, especially during the long winter months, a distinctive strain of dogs doubtlessly quickly developed.
These dogs would have been bred to withstand the harsh winters, with a short, thick, ice-proof coat and well-padded feet for walking on the snow.
As the Monks took the dogs along with them on their trips of mercy, they probably also quickly found that their dogs were excellent pathfinders and able to easily locate helpless travelers lost and buried in the storms.
It’s likely the Monks started intentionally breeding the best of these dogs to assist them in their work, further refining this breed. And capable they were: in the three centuries of records available at the hospice, Saint Bernards have been responsible for saving well over 2,000 human lives.
Periodically, unusually severe winters depleted the Hospice’s stock of breeding dogs. Contrary to popular supposition, however, the dogs were quickly replenished from good animals in the lower valleys, many of whom were descended from surplus Hospice puppies of more populous years.
The Hospice dog has never been crossed with another breed except once in 1830 when the Monks tried a cross with the Newfoundland. The theory was that the Newfoundland was a dog of similar conformation and ability to the Hospice dog, and the addition of the long coat might improve their resistance to cold weather.
Unfortunately, the long-haired variety proved inferior to the short haired dogs as ice would build up in the long coat. Thereafter, long-coated puppies born at the Hospice were given away or sold to people in the lower valleys.
Shorthaired dogs were preferred in the mountainous regions of Switzerland and the longhaired ones became well established in the less harsh valleys.
Naming the Breed
By 1800, the “Hospice Dogs” and their work were well known, but as of yet, they had no other name. Probably the most famous dog in history, Barry, lived at the Hospice between 1800 and 1810; he is credited with 40 finds and for years afterward, Hospice dogs were sometimes called “Barryhunds” in his honor.
The English who had imported some of the Hospice dogs as early as 1810 to invigorate their Mastiffs, referred to these dogs as “Sacred Hounds.” In Germany, “Alpendog” was proposed in the late 1820s.
Daniel Wilson referred to the “Saint Bernard Dog” in 1833, but it was not until 1880 that the name was officially recognized for the breed by the Swiss Kennel Club.
Order out of Chaos
In the late 19th century, the development of the breed had become somewhat haphazard. Many breeders in the low valleys were not breeding true to type; the dogs being exported to other countries were often not good specimens, and the St. Bernards becoming established abroad were often widely divergent from the original stock.
In some countries such as England, the Saints were crossed with other breeds to produce thinner and taller Saint Bernards. To address this state of affairs, the Swiss Kennel Club (Schweizerische Kynologische Gesellschaft — SKG) was formed in 1883 to promote the best interests of Saint Bernard.
This, in turn, led to the International Congress in Zurich of 1887 that drew up a breed standard which all countries except England (which used its own standard) accepted.
Heinrich Schumacher (1831-1903) was at this time a respected authority on the breed. He had been deeply involved with it since 1855 when he began his own lines with the express intent of recreating “Barry”.
With the assistance and approval of the Monks, he quickly established high-quality strains of the breed which he both exported and used to improve local stock. He started up the first stud dog book.
While he retired from breeding dogs in the 1890s, he continued to guide the development of the breed and the breed club until his death.
While modern-day developments with trains have lessened the need for the Monks’ search and rescue efforts, the Hospice continues to maintain these dogs for companionship and to honor their close association with the Hospice’s history and traditional work.
Saint Bernard In the US
Sometime after 1883, theatergoers in America were held spellbound by a giant dog called a Saint Bernard.
This dog, named Plinlimmon, was the first Saint to have any impact in the U.S. Born on June 29, 1883, in England, Plinlimmon was later brought to America by an actor who showed him in theaters throughout the country.
He won dog shows in 1884, and Best St. Bernard in 1885. During this time, other dogs of English origin were imported, and the breeding of these dogs flourished. However, as previously noted, the English dogs at this time were not true to type.
In 1888, St. Bernard Fanciers gathered together and originated the St. Bernard Club of America (SBCA) and it recognized the International Standard of 1887. However, US breeders were satisfied with the English type, creating a great paradox.
They now had the International Standard but had dogs from England, which did not conform to the International Standard.
The SBCA was reorganized in 1897, and again in 1932. During this period of time, breeding was mostly handled by dog dealers with little knowledge of type. The American St. Bernard had become an amalgam of English, German and Swiss lines.
However, several Fanciers quietly imported German and Swiss dogs to be integrated into breeding programs. These few Fanciers recognized the dichotomy of breeding the English dogs while being committed to the European Standard.
They opened the way to correct type of the St. Bernard in America by believing that the original type would eventually succeed.
These German and Swiss imports did their jobs, and the revitalization of the breed in the US began. One vitally important factor in the continued breeding of the correct St. Bernard, and now a primary low of breeding, is that dogs of outstanding character and quality had a considerable amount of smooth blood in their immediate pedigrees.
It is well documented that temperament is rapidly lost by continued breeding of only the rough coated St. Bernards.
Since 1945, the majority of imports to the U.S. have been the smooth coated dogs, both male and female, so important for the continued revitalization of the breed. By the 1960s, the smooth-coated Saint had been accepted in America as an essential and equal partner with the rough coated Saint.
Saints today are recognized by all major kennel clubs, including but not limited to the American Kennel Club, the Kennel Club of Britain, the Canadian Kennel Club, the FCI, the Swiss Kennel Club, and more.
The Saint Bernard Club of America
The Saint Bernard Club of America, Inc. (SBCA) dates from 1888 and is one of the oldest breed clubs recognized by the American Kennel Club. A non-profit organization, it is dedicated to the welfare of Saint Bernard.
The SBCA has active committees, dedicated to helping you enjoy your Saint Bernard, as well as helping Saint Bernard lead a long, healthy, and happy life.
For example, to promote the intelligence and strengths of the breed, the SBCA’s Working Dog Committee supports activities including drafting and carting work, obedience and agility. The SBCA also encourages the selective breeding and showing of Saint Bernard.
At the same time, it has a national Rescue committee to help place Saints without homes. Membership is open to everyone who is interested in Saint Bernard and who agrees to abide by the objectives of the club.
The club is also charged with maintaining the Standard for the breed in this country. Note that both the British and Swiss Standards differ from each other and with the AKC Standard.
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Characteristics and Temperament
Known as the giant dogs that rescue people in the Swiss Alps, St. Bernards are much loved as gentle family dogs with big hearts and friendly temperaments. But think seriously about it before you decide to bring one into your family.
Saints require as much love and devotion as they give in return. Their size alone dictates the need for basic manners and early obedience training.
The fact that they can rest their heads on the kitchen table demands that they are taught their limits.
Although Saints dearly love to be with the family children, their sheer size requires close supervision. They would never intentionally harm one of their small charges, yet a huge paw or powerful tail can accidentally knock a child over.
They are enthusiastic participants in any family activity and will sulk if not included. Saints seldom bark without good reason. They are good watchdogs and protectors of their family, but should never be thought of as a guard dog.
Because of their large size, you must pick out a puppy carefully, checking into his background for common health and temperament problems. In general, the breeder of the puppy should be able to provide you with proof of health clearances on the parents, and you should be comfortable with the behavior of the adult Saints at the breeder’s home.
It is also important to begin obedience and socialization training at a young age in order to assure they’re good manners. Despite their large size and their tendency to physically grow quickly, Saints generally are slow to mature mentally, and training should be guided with a gentle, but firm, hand and a good deal of patience and consistency.
A well-trained Saint is a joy to behold, and they love to please their human pack leaders.
Saint puppies grow at a phenomenal rate during the first year of life, increasing in size an average of three pounds per week. They eat somewhere between 6 and 12 cups of high-quality dog food per day.
Puppy Saints should never be fed high protein puppy food, but rather they should be fed an adult formula containing 22-26% protein with 12-15% fat. High protein foods can cause the fast-growing Saint puppy to grown even faster, and thereby acquiring any number of bone problems.
It is important for a Saint puppy to eat at least two meals a day, to help ensure steady even growth during the initial growing period. Most owners continue this practice of two meals a day throughout the dog’s lifetime to aid in the prevention of bloat.
Because they are slow to mature, Saints should not be pushed too rapidly into formal and serious training for the strenuous activities of weight pulling, high jumping, and broad jumping. Their giant sized bones do not finish growing until two years of age.
Activities as simple as jumping in and out of pick up trucks can permanently damage a Saint’s soft bones. For this reason, a Saint Bernard should not be asked to jump or pull heavy loads before two years of age.
While adult Saint Bernards do not require a lot of exercises, they are better off with a long walk every day. They are willing and able to do much more than this, and their abilities as a working dog increase with good physical training.
When provided with good physical conditioning, Saints are powerful working dogs with plenty of stamina.
Most Saints love to play games and learn new things. Ask them to find you when you are hiding in a closet. Toss a tasty treat into the air and they will love to catch it.
They may not have quite as fast a “recall” as the Golden Retriever next door, but they will get the job done one way or another if you ask them to do so.
Some Questions You May Have About the Saint Bernard
How much do they eat?
A Saint Bernard will not “eat you out of house and home.” The fact is, a Saint Bernard can be raised and maintained on no more food than required for other large breeds. Since Saints are basically placid dogs, they generally require less food per pound of body weight than most smaller, more active breeds.
How much do they weigh?
Saint puppies weigh about one and one-half pounds at birth and grow rapidly during the first year, although it may take as long as three years before they reach full maturity. Adult males may reach a height of 28-30 inches at the shoulder and will normally weigh between 140 and 180 pounds.
Female is somewhat smaller at about 26-28 inches at the shoulder and typically range from 120-140 pounds.
Are they good with children?
Definitely. They have an understanding of a child’s way and are amazingly careful not to injure a child. They are excellent babysitters and companions. Naturally, a child must never be allowed to torment any dog, regardless of breed.
Are they easy to train?
Because of the size of the animal, Saint Bernards MUST be trained and this must be done early in their lives. Fortunately, Saints are eager to please and will begin responding to commands as soon as they understand what you want of them.
Do they shed?
Yes: twice a year, usually in Spring and Fall, they lose much of their coats to help them adjust to the changing seasons. For the remainder of the year, there is seldom any annoyance from shedding.
Do they drool?
Yes. Depending on the weather, the level of excitement, and the shape of the dog’s jowls, most Saints will drool on occasion. Technically, there is no such thing as a “dry mouthed Saint”, but most Saints do not drool to an offensive degree.
Are they good watch dogs?
The Saint’s size and bark will discourage most intruders, yet they will learn to recognize your friends and receive them cordially. If an intruder gets by the size and barks, your Saint may decide to lead the intruder straight to the family silver since they would much prefer to be friends to all.
The one exception to this is when a member of the family is being threatened. The Saint’s instinct to protect those they love becomes apparent at this time.
Why do some Saint Bernards have short hair?
The original Saint Bernards were all short-haired dogs. Over 150 years ago, the Monks in Switzerland found it necessary to bring some new blood into their breeding and interbred the long coated Newfoundland with the Saints.
Today, the influence of that breeding is still with us and we have both long and short-haired Saint Bernards.
How much exercise do they need? Can one be kept in an apartment?
Saint Bernards don’t need as much exercise as many other breeds, but a fenced yard should be provided so they can get whatever amount they require. The apartment dweller must be walked frequently to make up for the exercise they would otherwise take at their leisure. It is not a good practice to keep a Saint Bernard tied up.
How much care do they need?
Clean fresh water (especially in Summer), a well-balanced diet and thorough brushing weekly, the necessary immunity shots and lots of common sense are all that is necessary.
Should I get a male or female?
This is strictly a matter of personal preference. Both are equal in pet qualities. The male, being larger, is more impressive when first viewed. The female, however, must be considered his equal in all other respects.
Once you have made the decision male or female your choice will be the right one: you will have a loving pet and a most rewarding experience.
How do they thrive in the hot weather?
The dogs will do well as long as they have a cool dry place to nap and plenty of fresh cool water. They will cut down both their food intake and amount of activity. It must be remembered that going from an air-conditioned place into the boiling heat can be disastrous.
The abrupt change in temperature will be extremely hard on a Saint.
Where do I buy a Saint Bernard?
There are breeders in most areas who are sincerely interested in supplying you with a Saint you will be proud to own. To these breeders, a dog is infinitely more than just a commodity to be sold for profit.
Their interest is in the animal and matching them to the right home. They are anxious to assist you with care, feeding and answering your questions.
Saint Bernards, like many other breeds, can have particular problems which reputable breeders try to breed out. A reputable and knowledgeable breeder will be glad to discuss these and other health concerns with a puppy buyer.
Because of their large size, Saint Bernards are particularly prone to Hip Dysplasia, a joint disease that can eventually cripple dogs, depending on its severity. Data from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals shows a rate of approximately 49% of x-rays sent to them for diagnosis being evaluated as dysplastic.
As many x-rays are never sent into OFA when something is obviously wrong, the actual rate may be much higher.
As a result, you should insist on the parents of any puppy you are considering to be OFA certified. Ask to see the certifications and don’t accept excuses for a lack of OFA certification. Ideally, the grandparents and littermates of the parents should also have OFA certification.
As with any large or giant breed, care must be taken not to overfeed or over supplement young puppies. Too-rapid growth or excess weight can put undue stress on young still-growing joints and cause or exacerbate problems in the elbows or hips.
Consult with the breeder of your dog as to when it is appropriate to switch to an adult formula and monitor your growing Saint’s weight level closely. Saints continue to grow and mature for at least the first three years, there is no rush to get to full size!
As with most giant breeds, Saint Bernards commonly have short lives from 7-11 years. A few individuals may live longer, but shorter lives are the rule and not the exception.
You should check about other conditions that Saints can get, such as entropion (a condition of the eyelid) and epilepsy. Again, a reputable breeder will talk freely and candidly about these problems.
In addition, as with other breeds of similar size and type, Saint Bernard may be susceptible to problems such as heat stroke and bloat. You should discuss these conditions with your vet so that you understand what the warning signs are and seek immediate veterinary care should they occur.
With such a large breed, you must plan in advance what you will do should your dog collapse (for whatever reason) as they are too large to carry.