Saint Bernard

Breed At A Glance


Loyal, patient, and extremely gentle

Life Expectancy
8-10 years

Average Height
25-28 inches

Average Weight
110-200 lbs

Coat Color
White with markings in tan, red, mahogany, brindle, and black

Coat Length/Texture
Two types: rough and smooth (rough is slightly longer), both are water-resistent

Shedding Propensity
Seasonally heavy, twice per year

Also known as St. Bernard, Saint Bernhardshund, St. Bernhardshund, Bernhardiner, Alpine Mastiff

General Temperament

The Saint Bernard is widely regarded as a gentle giant. Devoted family members and extremely patient with children, they can make wonderful companions. They get along well with other dogs and family pets. Despite their sorrowful expression, St. Bernards are genial and good-natured dogs. They are very mellow and benevolent creatures who crave a tremendous amount of love and attention from their owners. They can even suffer separation anxiety if left alone for extended periods, becoming quite destructive.

Saint Bernards are intelligent and eager to please, so they are usually easy to train. But training needs to begin early due to this breed’s massive adult size. Owners should establish basic obedience and manners as early as possible so that the dog is controllable as an adult. They can be somewhat unruly in the house if not properly socialized from puppyhood.

This breed can make a good watchdog, as they will bark to announce the arrival of visitors, but they are much to sweet for actual guarding. They are relatively inactive indoors and function best in a home with at least a small yard, although they can do well in an apartment if they are given enough walks. In addition to search and rescue work, they are quite strong and can also excel in cart pulling.

Breed History

The origins of the Saint Bernard are somewhat cloudy, but it most likely developed from a cross between the ancient Asian Molosser (brought to the region by Roman legions) and the local alpine farm breeds of Switzerland. Whatever it’s origins, it was well established when the famous Hospice in the Swiss Alps was founded in the year 1050 by Archdeacon Bernard de Menthon (also known as St. Bernard de Menthon). The hospice served as a refuge for the treacherous pass between Switzerland and Italy, but was destroyed by fire in the late 1600’s, so the earliest recorded presence of the dog there was at the beginning of the 1700’s. It is believed that the hospice monks brought some local dogs to the hospice to function as watchdogs and companions, and due to the remote location, began breeding the dogs together. They took the dogs along on their trips of mercy and quickly discovered the animal’s strong sense of smell and prowess for search and rescue. When the dog found lost or helpless people in the snow, they would lay with them for warmth. One of the other dogs would then return to the monk or to the hospice for help. It is thought that the St. Bernard dog is responsible for saving as many as 2,000 lives.

Body Structure and Composition

The Saint Bernard is a very large and strong breed. The head is broad and the muzzle short, with proportionately-sized ears that lay flat against the head. The skin on the face hangs loosely, giving the dog a propensity to drool when it eats and drinks. The body is squarely proportioned and the back straight all the way back to the haunches. The tail is carried low with just a slight curve on the lower third. They have large and strong feet with well-arched toes, which are ideal for navigating snow and ice.

Medical Information

Due to it’s quick growth rate, this breed is prone to several bone-related medical conditions. Hip and Elbow Dysplasia are prevalent in Saint Bernards; with these conditions, the head of the bone no longer fits firmly in the “cup” provided by the socket, causing lameness and arthritis-like symptoms. Osteosarcoma (bone cancer) has been found to be hereditary in this breed. Wobbler disease, a cervical vertebrae condition that causes an unstable or “wobbly” gait, also exists in some St. Bernard lines; this disease is also known as cervical vertebral instability, cervical spondylomyelopathy (CSM), or cervical vertebral malformation (CVM). Responsible breeders will have parents certified by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) prior to breeding.

Some Saint Bernards lines are plagued with eyelid problems, such as entropion (eyelids folded inward) and ectropion (eyelids turned outwards). Ectropion can cause conjunctivitis and overactive tear ducts, and entropion can cause pain in and around the eye, sensitivity to light, and decreased vision if the cornea is damaged. These conditions can be corrected by surgery. Look for Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) certification in the parents before purchasing a puppy to avoid these problems.

Their massive size makes Saint Bernards susceptible to a condition call bloat, also sometimes called Gastric Dilation Volvulus (GDV). Excess gas trapped in the dog’s stomach causes “bloat,” and twisting of the stomach (volvulus or “torsion”) causes or is caused by said excess gas. GDV is an emergency condition requiring immediate veterinary treatment. Feeding a dog two or three meals daily, instead of one large meal, can help to prevent GDV. (Some suggest that feeding the dog from a raised platform may also help.) St. Bernards can also be prone to heart disease, epilepsy (recurrent seizures), and skin conditions or allergies.

It is important not to over-exercise a Saint Bernard puppy due to the risk of injury to their fast-growing frames. It is equally important to not overfeed an adult due to the risk of obesity and related problems.

Anecdotal Information

Saint Bernards are often portrayed with small barrels around their necks, presumably carrying brandy to help keep rescued people warm until help arrives. According to the monks at St. Bernard’s pass, this is an inaccurate depiction of the dogs, and they have never worn such casks during their work.

The title dog in the Disney film Beethoven is an unruly St. Bernard.

The novel Cujo by Stephen King, and the film of the same name, is about a fictional rabid Saint Bernard who terrorizes the town of Castle Rock, Maine.

In the Peter Pan films, the character of “Nana” is a St. Bernard, although in the original text the dog is a Newfoundland.

A Saint Bernard named “Gumbo” is the team mascot for the New Orleans Saints (National Football League).

A dog named Barry, who lived at the famous hospice in the Swiss Alps, reportedly saved more human lives than any other St. Bernard (between 40 and 100 people). A monument has been erected at the Cimetire des Chiens, a famous pet cemetery in France, and Barry’s body was preserved and is now on display in the Natural History Museum in Berne.

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