Saint Bernards (also sometimes shortened to St. Bernards) are easily recognizable for their mountainous size and distinct features. There is much to learn about these dogs before you welcome one into your family and household. Read on to learn all you need to know before adopting a Saint Bernard.
The Saint Bernard dog breed is the perfect example of a gentle giant. Their bark is truly worse than their bite, and people are often surprised at how kind and loving this breed can be. Even though these dogs have been around for hundreds of years, they have changed their appearance and name numerous times.
Close to when they first made an appearance, Saint Bernards were short-haired and strong, but they were not quite as large as they are today. To maintain the Saint Bernard line and help improve some of their attributes, these dogs were bred with other extra-large breeds such as the Newfoundland, Great Pyrenees, Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, Bernese Mountain Dog, Great Dane, and English Mastiff. Today Saint Bernards can be short or long-haired, and their coat is white with red markings that can come in various shades.
Originally, Saint Bernards were called Talhund (meaning valley dog) and Bauernhund (meaning farm dog). They worked in Swiss villages by helping out farmers with various tasks. These dogs also earned themselves the names of Saint Dogs, Noble Steeds, Sacred Dogs, Alpendogs, Alpine Mastiffs, and even Barry Dogs (or Barryhunden) after the infamous Saint Bernard named Barry. Near the middle of the 19th century, these dogs gained their permanent name from the Saint Bernard Monastery and the Saint Bernard Pass.
The Saint Bernard breed originated in the beautiful, mountainous country of Switzerland. The first written records of these dogs can be dated back to the early 1700s. However, various paintings and drawings that depict this breed can be dated back even further.
Around this same time, Saint Bernards began living and working at the Saint Bernard Hospice, located in the Swiss Alps near the end of the Great Saint Bernard Pass. Being a treacherous pass that people would use to cross the Alps when traveling between Switzerland and Italy, it was not uncommon for travelers to get lost or stuck in the snow. Although it is believed that monks at the monastery originally used Saint Bernards as companions and watchdogs, the monks were quickly surprised at these dogs’ other talents.
It turns out that Saint Bernards had a knack for finding people lost on the pass. After discovering this natural gift, the monks began taking the dogs out with them every time they went on the pass. In no time, the Saint Bernard breed was becoming known for their search and rescue skills. Throughout the Saint Bernard Hospice history, these brilliant dogs were credited with rescuing more than 2,000 lost travelers, with one dog, named Barry, being known for saving over 40 people.
Although these stats alone are impressive, what is even more shocking is that Bernards never had official search or rescue training from the monks—instead, the older dogs would teach the younger dogs what to do. It comes as a little surprise why the monks began breeding these dogs.
Wanting to help keep the dogs warm while they trekked in the blistering conditions, the monks crossed their short-haired Bernards with the long-haired Newfoundland breed. Although the monks achieved their goal of creating a long-haired Saint Bernard, the longer coat became more of a hindrance than an advantage. The long hair ended up collecting more snow and ice, which weighed the dogs down. From that point forward, whenever the monks found a long-haired puppy in a litter, they would either sell or give the dog away.
By the 1800s, Saint Bernards were making their way to other countries, including England and the United States. In hardly any time at all, Americans fell in love with this new breed, and these dogs quickly climbed the rank to be one of the most popular dogs in the States.
Near the 1950s, people stopped using the Saint Bernard pass, which meant that Saint Bernards were no longer needed for rescues. Nonetheless, the hospice still housed many dogs due to the monks wanting to carry on with tradition. Around the early 2000s, the dogs were relocated to their new home in the Swiss town of Martigny. Every summer, these dogs are temporarily relocated back to the hospice so that they can greet tourists. The nearby French town, Rosières-Montvalzan, even holds an annual celebration of the Saint Bernard breed.
Saint Bernards are often depicted to have a barrel of booze hanging around their neck, but this is actually a misconception. This was brought about by a 17-year-old English painter named Edwin Landseer. Around the 1820s, he painted a piece called “Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler,” which shows two Saint Bernards—one with a barrel around the neck—rescuing a man from the snow. So the myth was created.
Taking the time to train your Saint Bernard is an essential part of being a Bernard parent. Training should begin the very day you bring your puppy or dog home. Setting aside daily time for training is also a wonderful habit to establish. When it comes to training your Saint Bernard, you are also working against time. Saint Bernards grow at incredible rates, and your little puppy will most likely outweigh you in the blink of an eye.
As you can already imagine, handling a rowdy, untrained 140-pound dog is not a situation anyone wants to find themselves in, so establishing good behaviors and habits while your dog is still “small” will be best. Some recommended items to teach your dog include the commands sit, down, stay, heel, and drop it. Of course, house training may be the first puppy lesson, but don’t forget about crate training.
Crates are an excellent resource that can help protect your dog when you are away from your home, it can ensure that there are not chewed up or peed on items, and crates can become a safe space for your canine. To help save you a step (and some money), it may be worth your time to skip buying a small crate for your Bernard puppy and instead invest in an extra-large crate size.
Going hand in hand with training your dog is to properly socialize them as well. Socialization can involve many items and situations, but it mainly boils down to familiarizing your dog with items that may be unfamiliar to them. Fantastic socialization options include introducing your dog to other dogs, people, and children. It’s also helpful to introduce your dog to new environments, including walking in different neighborhoods, hiking new trails, and visiting various parks.
As a combination of training and socialization, your dog can grow into a kinder, well-rounded personality, and chances are they will also develop a more mild temperament.
For the most part, Saint Bernards enjoy being trained and learning new tricks. These dogs are often described as smart people-pleasers, although you shouldn’t be surprised if your pooch has a little stubborn streak. Some tricks to help keep your dog attentive is to keep training sessions short, remain patient, use happy tones, and reward your dog with praise—treats can also go a long way.
If you prefer to maintain an immaculate and orderly house, a Saint Bernard may not be the ideal dog for you. Due to their lower hanging jowls, these dogs tend to drool, and when they shake their head, extra drool may go flying. Some Saint Bernard parents find that carrying around a towel or dog-friendly wipes (or at least having one handy) is a decent way to clean up any doggy drool. You can even be proactive about minimizing drool by wiping your dog’s mouth after they eat or drink.
If you don’t mind a little extra drool or hair in your house, then a Saint Bernard may be the perfect dog for you and your family. This breed typically gets along great with other animals, and they adore spending time with children. In fact, many Saint Bernards will “babysit” young kids and have a nurturing instinct towards them.
Be sure to supervise your dog’s interaction with young children—these dogs can easily knock kids over. It’s also helpful to teach kids of all ages how to interact with a dog appropriately. This includes not pulling on the dog’s tail or ears and not getting in the dog’s face while they eat. Make sure that kids also know not to climb on or ride your Saint Bernard. Although these dogs are nearly the size of a small pony, this type of rough play could injure your dog or cause them to react to the child negatively.
Being a friendly and fairly sociable dog, Bernards aren’t fazed by frequent visitors, however, they have been known to bark or become defensive of their family when people approach the house.
Common questions pet parents have about the Saint Bernard breed include,
It is no hidden fact—Saint Bernards are large dogs. Typically categorized as an ‘extra-large’ breed, Saint Bernards, on average, can weigh anywhere from 100-200 pounds. Males generally stand between 28-35 inches in height and females between 26-31 inches. Although these are the common measurements for this breed, each dog is unique and may be larger or smaller than the average.
Yes, Saint Bernards do shed, and they especially become heavy shedders during the spring and autumn seasons. While long-haired Bernards may tend to shed more than their short-haired counterparts, you can still expect both coat types to drop hair about your house all year round.
Bernards are not a hypoallergenic dog breed, so steer clear if you suffer from dog allergies. Even short-haired Saint Bernards still tend to shed, and since they have an abundance of hair, a decent amount of dander (which causes the allergy) will still be present.
Overall, the Saint Bernard personality is built on friendliness, love, and an eagerness to please. These large, playful dogs can make for a wonderful addition to nearly any family, especially one with kids.
Although it takes a few years before Saint Bernards are fully mature, both mentally and physically, their initial growth rate when they are puppies is impressive. In fact, Saint Bernard puppies grow so quickly that during the filming for “Beethoven’s 2nd,” they had to use over 100 puppies to play the part of just four puppies.
The grooming routine for a Saint Bernard is fairly standard. Whether short or long-haired, your dog’s dense coat will need brushed multiple times every week. They will need a bath about once a month, but depending on how dirty your dog gets, you may be able to spread baths out even further. Their nails will need to be trimmed whenever you can hear them clicking on the floor.
Your Bernard’s ears should be checked regularly for any bad odors or redness, which could be the sign of infection—cleaning the ears regularly can help prevent infection. It’s additionally in your dog’s best interest to brush their teeth multiple times a week. For recommendations on dog-safe grooming products, be sure to talk to your veterinarian. Not only can they recommend great products, but they can also show you how to properly clean your dog’s teeth and ears without causing your dog any pain.
Saint Bernards are not overly energetic dogs, but they still require daily exercise. Typically one or two short walks a day is enough, but every dog is different, so yours may need more exercise. This breed is susceptible to becoming overweight, so even if your dog refuses to go on walks, try encouraging them to a game of fetch.
Believe it or not, Saint Bernards do not need to live in an equally large house, but they do require a nice sized yard or outdoor space. Before going on a walk or going out in the yard to play, it’s always best to double-check the temperature. Bernards do not tolerate the higher temperatures well, and they can quickly become overheated. On the other hand, don’t be surprised if your Saint Bernard wants to spend as much time as possible outside whenever the temperature drops and it starts snowing.
Due to their large size and fast-growing rate, Saint Bernards can run the risk of developing bone and joint issues, such as elbow or hip dysplasia. To help avoid these possible risks, it’s important to provide your dog with an age-appropriate and nutritious diet. It’s also necessary to minimize intense or extended exercise until your Bernard’s bones are further developed.
Saint Bernards are additionally prone to other health conditions. According to our claims data* the top five issues that affect this breed are,
To help stay on top of your dog’s health, it is best to schedule them for regular veterinary appointments. Not only do routine checkups allow your veterinarian to be more familiar with your dog’s wellbeing, but in the instance that an issue does arise, it can hopefully be caught early on.
On average, Saint Bernards have a lifespan of 7-10 years. Like many other giant breeds, their life expectancy is shorter than smaller breeds. A dog’s lifespan can be affected by many factors, including their diet and exercise routine, living environment, and other health problems.
*Internal Claims Data, 2014-2019
The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.