Meet the Saint Bernard: Your Guide to These Gentle Giants

Updated December 8, 2021
Family and their Saint Bernard dog hiking on mountain

Meet the Saint Bernard, the heroic dog of the Alps. They are now known as large, compassionate companion dogs and can be wonderful family dogs if trained properly.

Origin and History of the Saint Bernard

Who hasn't heard of the canine savior of the Alps? The Molosser battle dogs of the Roman empire, which were mated with other dogs native to the Alps, are possibly the ancestors of Saint Bernards, although the Saint Bernard's origin is not completely known.

The Saint Bernard, named for the monk St. Bernard de Menthon, who is believed to have founded the breed, has been used as a search-and-rescue dog in the alpine pass between Italy and Switzerland since the 1700s. These dogs originally patrolled the Alps with their monk companions as they searched for hopeless travelers caught in the snow. It was here that the breed developed its legendary sensitivity for incoming storms and avalanches.

Later on, the dogs were sent out in teams of two to patrol the slopes on their own. Once they found a wayward traveler, one dog would try to rouse them and lie on top of them to provide warmth, while the other dog raced back to the monks for help. Today, these dogs still serve snowbound travelers, but they are just as likely to be family companions.

Characteristics of the Breed

Big Saint Bernard laying on the ground

Appearance

The Saint Bernard is a large dog with a massive head. The overall impression should be one of power tempered by intelligence. The breed stands 25 to 27 inches at the shoulder and weighs between 100 and 200 pounds. All things considered, larger members of the breed are more highly prized, as long as their weight is proportionate. This is not simply a fad for exaggeration, but in keeping with the job this canine was bred for.

The breed comes in two coat varieties, short and long. The short coat is the original type, but short should not be mistaken for smooth. The hair is thick and plush, providing excellent insulation against the cold.

The long coat was developed by cross-breeding with Newfoundlands. The thinking was that more coat would provide even greater protection from the elements, but just the opposite proved true. The longer ruff and fringes collected snow and ice balls, quickly weighing the dogs down and making them far less effective at their rescue mission. The monks returned to breeding for short-coated specimens, but the long coat always seemed to pop back up in succeeding litters and remains with the breed to this day.

Markings are very important with this breed. There must be white on the chest, feet, and tip of tail. It's also highly desirable to have a white noseband and shawl over the shoulders. A black facial mask is also acceptable. In addition to the white patterns, colors include:

  • Any shade of red
  • Golden browns
  • Brindle

Temperament

Saints are friendly and inviting, as befitting their origins as hospice dogs. They have a calm, pleasant demeanor and are known to be loving and ready to snuggle at any given moment as long as they have sufficient exercise.

The Saint Bernard enjoys a reputation as a gentle giant, but early training is necessary before these dogs reach full size. A 200-pound dog must be taught not to jump on people or pull on a leash if you hope to maintain control.

As a rule, these dogs are fairly slow and methodical in their actions and quite eager to please, so living with them is easier than you might expect. With kids, the easygoing Saint is compassionate and patient, if not always playful. They love to cuddle with children while reading or watching TV, but they can be a little too much for younger kids. They won't purposely harm them, but their large bodies could accidentally knock them over.

Although not particularly aggressive by nature, these dogs can make decent guard dogs, alerting their owner to strangers, and their sheer size is enough to intimidate most would-be criminals.

These dogs have loose jowls, and saliva does flow now and then, although this aspect was highly exaggerated in the movie Beethoven. Most owners keep a towel or two on hand around the house for quick mop ups, and feel the clean up is a small price to pay in exchange for sharing their lives with one of these wonderful, loving companions.

Exercise Requirements

The Saint Bernard does not require a lot of physical activity. They're not a good running buddy and don't perform well in hot weather. During warmer weather, Saint Bernards are prone to heat exhaustion and require plenty of shade and fresh, cool water. They can, on the other hand, go out in the cold and handle it better than most other breeds. That being said, whenever you start to feel cold, it's time for both of you to go inside to warm up.

Saint bernard dog Sitting outdoors

Training

Saint Bernards can be a more difficult to train than other breeds and aren't recommended for beginners. An untrained Saint can create havoc in your home, especially if they don't have sufficient exercise. Due to their size, they also tend to walk their owner rather than the other way around if untrained.

Using a pleasant and calm approach, you can train your Saint Bernard effectively over time. Establish ground rules early and be consistent in your demands so they know exactly what is expected.

Health

Unfortunately, there are a number of health concerns affecting this breed:

  • Entropion: A condition that causes the lower eyelids to roll outward
  • Gastric torsion: Also known as bloat, this is a painful and potentially fatal twisting of the stomach
  • Dysplasia: Degenerative disease of the hip and elbow joints
  • Heart disease: Can be caused by genetics or environmental instabilities
  • Wobbler syndrome: Malformation of the neck vertebrae that causes instability, indicated by a wobbling gait

Lifespan

Like many larger breeds, Saint Bernards generally have a more limited life span averaging about 9 years. Offer members of this breed a healthy diet, appropriate exercise, and veterinary care to maximize their life span.

Grooming

Both short and long coats require little more than brushing, especially during the twice-yearly shedding period. Bathing should be carried out sparingly, using a mild shampoo so as not to strip too much of the natural oils that make the coat so water-resistant. The area around the eyes should be wiped clean on a daily basis.

Trim your Saint Bernard's nails as needed. Typically, you should do this once every two weeks, or as needed.

Famous Saint Bernard Called Barry

Barry was the most famous of all the dogs who ever conducted rescue services on the Great St. Bernard pass, and he lived at the Hospice from 1800 until 1812. Barry is on display at Paris's Cimetière des Chiens as the "Saint of Saints." Although the actual number of lives saved by Barry cannot be verified, monks at the Saint Bernard Hospice in the Pennine Alps estimate that at least 40 people were saved. To get to and return to the victims, the dog had to navigate treacherous snowfall and avalanches.

This heroic dog is known for guiding people through whiteouts, tracking and lying on top of frozen bodies to warm them up and return them to consciousness. Barry's remarkable exploits garnered him worldwide acclaim, substantially enhancing the Breed's good name. Barry was sent to Bern in 1812 when he was old and tired, where he was tenderly cared for until his death in 1814.

Buying or Adopting a Member of the Breed

If you're searching for a purebred Saint Bernard Puppy, the first place you can search is the Saint Bernard Club of America. A breeder search is also available through AKC PuppyFinder. A Saint Bernard puppy from a reputable breeder usually costs between $1000 and $2,000, although a top-quality Saint Bernard puppy can cost as much as $3,000 or more. The cost of a puppy is determined by the age, sex, quality, pedigree, and location of the breeder.

Sweet Saint Bernard and sleeping on pillows in bed at home

Ask the breeder for help in picking a puppy by describing exactly what you're searching for in a dog. Good breeders are familiar with the puppies and can offer great recommendations once they learn about your lifestyle and personality.

You can identify reputable breeders by asking your veterinarian, friends, or family for recommendations, contacting local breed associations, or attending professional dog shows. Remember, a professional breeder will never sell a puppy through a pet store or by any other method that prevents them from meeting you and properly interviewing you to ensure that the puppy is a suitable fit for your family, and that you will give a responsible, lifelong home.

Rescue Organizations

If you would prefer a rescued dog, you can begin searching on PetFinder or Save-a-Rescue. You can also contact these breed-specific Saint Bernard rescues:

Is this Breed Right For You?

Saint Bernards are a very loyal and affectionate breed, but you should carefully consider whether you can handle a dog of this size and strength. If you put the necessary time into training as a pup, your Saint Bernard will grow into a companion you can count on for years to come.

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Meet the Saint Bernard: Your Guide to These Gentle Giants