Breeds 101: Meet the Saint Bernard

Today’s featured pup in the “Breeds 101” series is the Saint Bernard. These beloved giants are known for their inquisitive and sweet nature but are prized for their rescue abilities.

Although exact origins are hard to pin down for these working dogs though they are believed to have originated in the late 1600s in Alps between Italy and Switzerland. Bred by the monks living in the hospice and monastery, founded by Bernard de Menthon, the breed started out as companion and watchdog during the frigid winter months. In the 1700s the dogs transitioned over to rescue work. Saint Bernards seemed to have an innate sense to locate and retrieve stranded travelers, this can still be seen in the breed today.

According to the American Kennel Club breed standard, the Saint Bernard is “powerful, proportionately tall figure, strong and muscular in every part, with powerful head and most intelligent expression. In dogs with a dark mask the expression appears more stern, but never ill-natured.”

These members of the working group stand 28-30 inches (males) or 26-28 inches (female) and weigh 140-180 pounds (male) or 120-140 pounds (female). The average lifespan is 8-10 years.

The Saint Bernard is a powerful, yet caring breed that has been used for treacherous mountain rescues; today they are often found being a guardian and companion in many family homes.

Saints can be seen in a variety of color combinations including: brindle grizzle, brown & white, mahogany & white, orange & white, red & white, rust & white, white & brown, white & orange, and white & red. They also commonly seen with a black mask marking.

In the 2020 most popular breeds list put out by the American Kennel Club, the Saint Bernard ranks 52nd out of 195 breeds.

Today there is both a long haired and short haired variety of the breed. Prior to 1830 though, there was only a short haired variety. The long haired version came after two years of incredibly harsh weather and decreasing numbers of Saint Bernards. Crossing other long haired breeds of dogs with the Saint Bernard eventually resulted in the long haired variety we have today.

Either coat type will benefit from regular brushing, but especially so during biyearly shedding seasons. Brushing plays an important role to reduce the likelihood of matting in the long-hair variety. As with every breed, nail trims are also important part of grooming maintenance.

Saints are a very versatile breed in what activities they enjoy. The are very family oriented though so whatever is chosen, they would like to do it with their owners. A long walk, play session, hiking, or cart pulling are all great options, these pups don’t thrive if just thrown in the back yard alone.

Starting training at a younger age can be beneficial for a variety of reasons. Early socialization and training are always helpful in getting a well behaved dog but with a dog as large as a Saint Bernard starting while they are smaller can definitely prove easier to handle than full grown. Generally this breed is very eager to please but if left alone too long, undesirable behaviors can occur.

As with most larger breeds, bloat can be a health concern to watch for. Other health issues that require screening include: hip and/or elbow dysplasia, eye disease, cardiac examination, and degenerative myelopathy. Saints should also be watched when transitioning between extreme hot and cold weather as this can cause distress, though the Saint Bernard can handle the heat as long as there is shade and access to free choice water.

A common image in pop culture features the Saint Bernard with a brandy barrel around its neck. It was believed this brandy was given to stuck travelers to help them stay warm. According to the monks at the hospice, this is just a myth. This famous painting was created in a painting by Edwin Landseer in 1820 which was then turned to an engraving in 1831 by Charles Landseer.

Easily recognizable in pop culture the Saint Bernard can be found staring in multiple movies. One popular franchise is the Beethoven movies. In a very different role, in a Steven King novel, turned movie, the Saint Bernard is featured as Cujo.