Breed Group: Working
The gentle, patient Saint Bernard earned its reputation as a rescue dog in the snowy mountains between Italy and Switzerland. Still a working dog, they need a job to be content. They are quiet indoors if their exercise needs are met. Puppies need only moderate exercise until their bones stop growing; short walks and brief play sessions are suggested until two years old. Any less exercise or long periods alone result in boredom and destructive behavior. If you work all day, this is not the breed for you. To avoid obesity, adults need at least one long daily walk and fenced play area. The Saint Bernard is very tolerant of children. But, small children should not be left alone with a puppy, as either one may accidentally hurt the other. Saint Bernards do well with other animals, especially when raised with them. Socialized, they are accepting of strangers; inadequate socialization lets their caution become suspiciousness or aggression. Their size and bark discourage most intruders making him a good watchdog. Their instinct to protect those they love makes him a good guard dog too. But, their protective instincts need to be controlled rather than encouraged. Saint Bernards slobber and drool, especially after drinking. With their propensity to shed, they are not for those who require a neat, clean house. They also snore loudly.
Large dogs and sometimes referred to as one of the 'gentle giants', they average 26 to 30 inches tall at the withers and weigh between 120 and 180 pounds. With their mountain heritage, it is understandable they like the cold, and not hot humid climates. There are two coat varieties: long-hair and short-hair. The short-hair version is the original; the long-hair, which is what many people envision when they think about a Saint Bernard, was bred in hopes it would provide better insulation for the dog in its mountain rescue role. It did not as the longer coat collected chunks of ice. Both coats come in all shades of red with white and shed heavily.
A Saint Bernard needs thorough socialization and at least basic obedience training, with additional training recommended. Start when the puppy is still small. Although they want to please, they have a willful, independent streak and may challenge you for dominance. Consistent rules and positive training methods are important. In warm weather, they tend to tire and over-heat more quickly than other breeds. Not for first time owner, the breed requires a home that understands their temperament and the demands a huge dog, many of which have medical issues, make on a household.
Hip Dysplasia plagues Saint Bernards with almost half of all dogs suffering from the condition. About 1 in 5 suffer from Elbow Dysplasia. Also of major concern are both the frequency and ramifications of Cardiomyopathy and Bloat. Seen less often is Wobbler Syndrome, Epilepsy, and Cancer, especially of the bone. Generally creating less challenging problems are Distichiasis, Entropion, and Ectropion, all of which involve their eyelids. With these potential health problems, buy only from the healthiest line you can find. The average Saint Bernard lives eight to 10 years.
The AKC ranked the breed 39th most popular. About 4,000 dogs are registered each year.
The Saint Bernard was likely created by breeding the Asian Molosser (brought by Roman armies to what is now Switzerland by 200 A.D.) with native dogs and used for guarding, herding, and drafting. When Archdeacon Bernard de Menthon founded the famous Hospice in the Swiss Alps for travelers crossing the passes between Switzerland and Italy, the large dogs of the area were used as watch-dogs and companions for the monks during the long winters. Then the dogs were discovered to have excellent pathfinding abilities, to have a sixth sense about coming storms and avalanches, and to have a highly developed sense of smell. Named for the monk that founded the Hospice, it is estimated that the rescue work of the Saint Bernard has resulted in saving at least 2,500 lives. One dog alone, Barry, is credited with saving between 40 and 100 lives.
These dogs are huge in both size and deed. Three of note have earned a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records. The heaviest dog, “Benedictine”, weighed 357 pounds, the same size as a large black bear. "Ayette’s Brandy Bear" moved the heaviest load (6,400½ pounds) on a cart at least fifteen feet in less than ninety seconds. And finally, “Careless Ann,” tied the record for the largest litter of puppies with 23. Orville Wright, Charlton Heston, and Betty White all owned Saint Bernards. The (US) National Breed Association is the St. Bernard Club of America.