The earliest written history of the St Bernard harks back to the 1700′s, when the ancestors of today’s breed were guard dogs and cart pulling dogs at the Hospice of St Bernard in the Swiss Alps. They were also used to accompany the monks who risked their own lives to rescue travelers lost in the snowy mountains between Switzerland and Italy. However, this breed is thought to descend from very large Asian dogs which were brought to Europe by the Romans in the first few centuries AD.
These gentle giants were adept at finding pathways through the snow, and their acute sense of smell helped them locate lost people. They have been responsible for saving over 2000 lives during the last 300 years.
The St Bernard started to spread throughout the world in the 1800′s, eventually being recognized by the AKC in 1885.
Standing 27 inches or 70cm at the shoulder, and weighing up to 180lbs (81kg), the St Bernard is a big dog. Their head is large and powerful, and at the other end they have a long heavy tail. Between them, their body is strong and muscular, and covered with a white, red and white, or brindle and white coat.
There are two coat types in this breed. The long haired variety has a medium length, slightly wavy coat. The short haired St Bernard has a smooth coarse coat that lies close to their skin. The dogs share the same conformation in all other respects.
In spite of their intimidating size, the St Bernard is placid and not at all aggressive. Having said that, they will make use of their prodigious size if they are pushed. Because of their early role as guard dogs, they will watch over their loved ones, and bark if strangers are around.
These dogs are very patient with children, but they may inadvertently knock them over. They are happiest when their owner is pleased with them, so training is enjoyable for both of you. Indeed, obedience training is a must for these herculean dogs. They are not easy to handle because they may weigh more than their owners. This means they need to learn good manners from a very young age, when they are a more manageable size.
There are some health issues that can appear in the St Bernard.
Being a giant breed, they are prone to hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia. These conditions are also more likely to occur because the St Bernard grows rapidly to quite a large size. It’s important that potential parents are screened for these diseases before being bred. Also, it is important that a St Bernard puppy is raised carefully, so they don’t grow too fast and they don’t overdo the exercise while they are maturing.
Osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, is a common cancer in large breeds of dog, and the St Bernard is no exception. This is a particularly aggressive tumor, and doesn’t have a very good prognosis.
Wobbler syndrome, or instability of the neck verterbrae, may also occur in these dogs. This can cause a number of symptoms ranging from a sore neck to complete paralysis.
Eye problems are also prevalent in the St Bernard. Ectropion is a condition where the eyelids are turned outwards, leaving the eye exposed. The opposite, entropion, is when the eyelids are turned inwards, and the eyelashes rub on the cornea, causing pain and inflammation. Both conditions can occur in this breed.
As with all large deep chested dogs, bloat is always possible. This occurs when the stomach fills and expands, and even twists on its axis. The result is severe shock and possible death. To reduce this risk, St Bernards should be fed several small meals a day instead of one big one, and exercise should be avoided immediately after dinnertime.
The St Bernard is a relatively low maintenance breed.
Their coat needs only an occasional wash, and they can be brushed once or twice weekly to remove any loose hair. Grooming time can be a challenge with such a big dog to shampoo, rinse and tidy up, especially since they shed twice yearly.
If you don’t like drool, this is not the breed for you. These dogs produce lots of saliva and when they shake their head, you can end up wearing it. Most St Bernard owners carry a small towel and regularly wipe their dog’s muzzle.
St Bernards enjoy exercise, but they are not fast. Take them for a good walk every day, and that will be enough for them. They are not a breed that excels at fast activities such as chasing balls. They need soft bedding to lie on, because they are at great risk of developing calluses and pressure sores on their elbows, hocks and hips.
It is important to remember that a dog of this size will eat a lot, and their heartworm and worming treatments and flea control will be more expensive. Make sure your family budget will allow for this expense before deciding that the St Bernard is the dog for you.
Any dog that is the size of the St Bernard will need a lot of space, so a big back yard is idea. While they don’t always fit well in apartments, they will get by, if they are given the opportunity to exercise daily. They aren’t a very active breed and will happily snooze on the couch for hours at a time.
Gentle dogs, St Bernards are well suited to families, and they particularly enjoy the company of children. Like many of the giant breeds, they don’t have a long lifespan, and you’ll only enjoy the company of your St Bernard for around 9 years.