The Saint Bernard, savior of the Swiss Alps, is one of the most readily recognized dogs. Though the legend of the St. Bernard’s devotion to rescuing people stranded in the Alps is true, the brandy barrel around his neck is just a myth.
History and Origin
As with most breeds, the true origin of the St. Bernard is shrouded in mystery. It is thought that the present day dog comes from a large, ancient, now extinct, breed known as the Asian Molosser. These giant dogs were bred to various other breeds brought by the Romans when they invaded Switzerland during the first few centuries A.D.
As time progressed, these dogs were used to guard the farms, herd the livestock and pull heavy items. Eventually, the breed became a common site at the Hospice, founded in 1050 A.D. by Archdeacon Bernard de Menthon. The purpose of the Hospice was to provide a safe shelter for travelers during their passage in the Swiss Alps. By the 1700s, these dogs were well known for their rescue work in the Alps. The monks would take the dogs with them during their searches for lost people. The dog’s ability to find lost paths and lost people is legendary. Once a dog found a stranded traveler, he would lick the person’s face to keep him conscious and lay on him to keep him warm. In addition to being heroes, these dogs were also great companions for the monks during the long lonely winters.
In the 1800s, the St. Bernard breed, then known as “Hospice Dogs,” was becoming weak and the numbers were dwindling. Due to inbreeding, their health was deteriorating. To correct this situation, the monks decided to use Newfoundlands to strengthen the breed. This outcrossing resulted in the first longhaired St. Bernard. This dog had the will and natural desire to rescue people but did not do well because the ice and snow clung to their long hair. The monks used the longhaired dogs as gifts to friends.
By 1880, the dog was officially named the St. Bernard. The breed’s popularity spread and by 1888, the Saint Bernard Club of America was organized. The American Kennel Club recognized the breed as a working dog.
Appearance and Size
The St. Bernard stands 25 to 28 inches from the shoulder and weighs 110 to 190 pounds. These dogs have large round heads, dark brown eyes and black noses. The round triangular shaped ears are set high on the head. The St. Bernard has a strong large body with a tail that hangs down and is carried slightly upward. The St. Bernard comes in two variations of the hair coat. The shorthaired coat is dense and lies smooth over the body. The rough-haired coat is longer and feathering occurs on the thighs and legs. The color of the hair coat is orange and white, red and white, brown and white or brindle.
The St. Bernard is intelligent and loyal to his owner. The breed is powerful, but gentle and seems to have a sixth sense in regard to impending danger, especially upcoming blizzards or avalanches.
Home and Family Relations
The St. Bernard is affectionate and friendly, making him a good household companion. They like children, but small children need to be supervised due to the breed’s large size. The St. Bernard is cheerful and needs a large amount of space to exercise. They drool a lot so be prepared for a potentially messy welcome. The St. Bernard gets along with other household pets, but needs to be supervised around the smaller pets. They love the cold weather, ice and snow. Because of their friendly nature, the St. Bernard doesn’t make the best guard dog but their size tends to scare away potential intruders.
The St. Bernard is easily trained and needs to be started at an early age. They are eager to please and do well in socialization and obedience classes.
The St. Bernard needs daily grooming of the coat. Symmetrical brushing works better for the longhaired coats because of the pattern in which it lies on the body.
The St. Bernard must be watched during hot and humid weather because they are prone to overheating. Recently, the popularity of the breed has led to some unscrupulous breeders producing dogs with some aggressive tendencies. Make sure you adopt your St. Bernard from an ethical and experienced breeder.
Common Diseases and Disorders
In general, the St. Bernard is a healthy dog with few medical concerns. However, the following diseases or disorders have been reported:
- Gastric torsion, also known as bloat, is a life-threatening sudden illness associated with the stomach filling with air and twisting.
- Hip dysplasia is a malformation of the hip joint that results in pain and lameness.
- Elbow dysplasia is the abnormal development of certain parts of the elbow joint during the growing phase.
- Ruptured cranial cruciate ligament is a problem that results from tearing of the cruciate ligament in the knee, causing lameness that may be severe .
- Osteosarcoma is a type of cancer that typically arises in the bones of the limbs, or the appendicular skeleton.
- Lateral patellar luxation is a disorder affecting the kneecap.
- Congenital deafness present at birth.
- Hot spots are areas of itchy moist skin irritation.
- Epilepsy is a seizure disorder that develops between the ages of 2 and 5 years.
- Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a serious heart condition that results in a large, thin walled heart muscle.
- Pyoderma refers to deep skin infections.
- Cutaneous asthenia – is an inherited disorder of the collagen synthesis the skin resulting in fragility and hyperextensibility of the skin.
- Lymphosarcoma (lymphoma) is a malignant cancer that involves the lymphoid system.
- Entropion is a problem with the eyelid that causes inward rolling. Lashes on the edge of the eyelid irritate the surface of the eyeball and may lead to more serious problems.
- Ectropion is a problem with the eyelid that causes eversion of the eyelid margin. It most commonly affects the lower central eyelid.
- Cherry eye is a prolapse of the third eyelid. Though not a serious injury and does not cause blindness, the prolapse can be irritating to the surface of the eye and cause persistent tearing or eye pain.
- Cataracts cause the lens of the eye to loose transparency and can result in blindness.
- Vaginal hyperplasia an exaggerated response of the vaginal tissue to estrogen during certain phases of the heat cycle. The vaginal tissue becomes swollen and may protrude through the vulva.
The life expectancy of the St. Bernard is approximately 8 to 10 years.
We realize that each dog is unique and may display other characteristics. This profile provides generally accepted breed information only.