History and Care of Saint Bernards
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
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
Saint Bernard appears to originate from native dogs that have been
present in the Alps for millenia. 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 the 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 short haired dogs with long tails and dewclaws, typey 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, the Saint Bernards have
been responsible for saving well over 2,000 human lives.
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
longer coat. Thereafter, long-coated puppies born at the Hospice were
given away or sold to people in the lower valleys. Short haired dogs were
preferred in the mountainous regions of Switzerland and the long haired
ones became well established in the less harsh valleys.
Naming the Breed
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 afterwards, 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 1820's. 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
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 the 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
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 1890's, he
continued to guide the development of the breed and the breed club until
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.
The Saint Bernard In the US
after 1883, theater goers 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.
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
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 continued revitalization of the breed. By the 1960's, 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.
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 the Saint
Bernard. The SBCA has active committees, dedicated to helping you enjoy
your Saint Bernard, as well as helping the Saint Bernard lead a long,
health, 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 the 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 the Saint Bernard and who agrees to abide with 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.
Characteristics and Temperament
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 be 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 faimily, 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
their 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.
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
exercise, 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
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
(from the Saint Bernard Club of America, used with permission)
How much do they eat?
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 are
somewhat smaller at about 26-28 inches at the shoulder and typically
range from 120-140 pounds.
Are they good with children?
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
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
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 a offensive degree.
Are they good watch dogs?
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?
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?
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?
fresh water (especially in Summer), a well balanced diet and thorough
brushing weekly, the necessary immunity shots and lots of common sense
is all that is necessary.
Should I get a male or female?
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?
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?
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 that 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.
Return to Table of Contents
Bernards, as 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
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. If worried do
not buy the puppy, or have a vet immediatly test your puppy.
with any large or giant breed, care must be taken not to over feed or
oversupplement 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
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.
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.
addition, as with other breeds of similar size and type, the Saint
Bernard may be subsceptible 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 become ill.