St. Bernard - Breed Introduction
Gentle giant. Those are the two words that describe the St. Bernard. Fond of children and loyal to their owner(s), they make great guardians and watchdogs, if purely on their immense size and strength.
St. Bernards were used to transport materials up to a traveler’s hospice up in the Western Alps between Switzerland and Italy. The pass they went through was named for the 11th century monk who established the hospice: Bernard of Menthon. And in turn, the dogs, who made the treacherous trek through the pass, were appropriately named St. Bernards.
Because of their size, they should not be left unsupervised with very small children. And also because of their size, make sure you have a yard that is big enough to allow him to run around and get his energy out. If you need to be away for long periods of time during the day, invest in an extra large crate for him to stay in. St. Bernards can suffer from separation anxiety, and start chewing on or destroying their owner’s things.
Also, make sure your yard is fenced. Even though they are a bulky dog, they do have the power to jump over a not-tall-enough fence, or dig under and escape.
A full grown St. Bernard can measure 25.5 to 35.5 inches (61 to 90 cm) at the shoulder, and weigh from 110 to 220 pounds (50 to 100 kg).
What’s interesting is today’s St. Bernard looks much different than the “classic” St. Bernard. There was an avalanche that killed off many of the dogs, and breeders had to resort to out crossing the surviving St. Bernards with other breeds.
History of the Breed
As noted above, the St. Bernard has been around for a long time. Their ancestors are the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog plus other hunting dogs and watchdogs.
The St. Bernard was used to go through St. Bernard’s Pass during the 17th century. And the most famous dog who was claimed to have saved anywhere from 40 to 100 lives, was Barry. Not only is there a monument to Barry at the Cimetiere des Chiens (Dog Cemetary) but his body is preserved in the Natural History Museum in Berne France.
The largest St. Bernard recorded was Benedictine, who reportedly weighed between 336 and 357 pounds (152.5 to 162 kg).
Color and Coat
The St. Bernard has a very dense, short coat that lies smooth to his body. A tough coat so the dog can withstand the cold and wet weather it was bred to withstand up in the Alps, when you touch a St. Bernard’s coat, it’s not rough. Their thighs are covered with a bushy coat, and the tail, which also appears bushy, has longer hair at the end of the tail.
The preferred colors for the St. Bernard is white with red or red with white, or brindle patches with white markings. The red can be various shads of red. In the show ring, necessary markings are white chest, feet and tip of tail; a noseband, collar or spot on the nape; and a blaze.
Health, Personality and Temperament
Friendly. Loyal. Tolerant. Intelligent. That pretty much sums up the St. Bernard’s personality.
They’re perfect for families, and are excellent watchdogs. Their high intelligence makes them one of the most trainable dogs, and patient dogs as long as you’re there to work with them. But their sheer size takes a lot more in handling, so the owner must be able to handle their mass while disciplining them and training them. They can become bored, and if they do, they can dig and destroy things.
A good-sized yard for them to run around in, long walks and play sessions will help keep your St. Bernard happy, and in shape. Young pups should not be allowed to run too hard, or play too rough, as their bones do not fully develop until two years old.
That’s why the older dogs were used in the mountains, giving the younger dogs time to mature and be capable of handling the long, hard walks up the mountain side, and carrying loads on their backs.
Due to their thick coats, the St. Bernard is better suited for cooler climates, or areas within the country that has cooler/colder seasons.
When the St. Bernard enters the show ring, the judge wants to see a powerful dog that is proportionately tall, strong and muscular in every part. It’s head should be powerful with an intelligent expression.
The head is very powerful and imposing looking. It has excess skin on the forehead above the eyes which forms wrinkles, giving the dog even more of a stern look. The nose and lips are black. The ears are medium sized, set high on the head, with a “burr” of hair at the base of the ears. It’s eyes are medium size, dark brown, and deep, giving the St. Bernard a friendly and intelligent expression.
It’s muscular neck is set into sloping, powerful shoulders that give the St. Bernard the power to get up the mountains, and carry loads. Its chest is moderately deep, it’s back broad. The hindquarters are well developed, while its legs are very muscular. Its paws are broad with strong toes.
Typical Health Concerns
Because of their size, St. Bernards can be prone to hip dysplasia. Their big size also means big appetites, and if their diet is not controlled, they can suffer from bloating and heart diseases.
Though they mature slowly, the St. Bernard pups do grow rapidly which requires a proper diet and exercise. If their diet is not high in the calories and minerals they need for proper bone growth, they can have deterioration of the bones at a young age.
St. Bernards are also prone to elbow dysplasia, Osteosarcoma (bone cancer), eye disorders (entropion and ectropion), epilepsy, dilated cardiomyopathy and eczema.
Despite a thick coat, the St. Bernard is very easy to groom. You don’t want to strip the coat of its natural water-resistant properties, so use a mild shampoo. It’s best to brush them with a firm bristled brush daily, clean their eyes and check their ears.
Their nails should be clipped if they do not get enough exercise to wear them down naturally.
Average Life Span
The average life span for a St. Bernard is 8 to 10 years.