The ancestors of the St. Bernard share a history with the Swiss Mountain Dogs (also called Swiss Cattle Dogs), the large farm dogs of the farmers and dairymen of the Swiss Alps, whose many uses included livestock guardians, herding dogs, draft dogs as well as hunting dogs, search and rescue dogs and watchdogs. These dogs are thought to be descendants of molosser type dogs brought into the Alps by the ancient Romans, leading the St. Bernard being recognized internationally today as one of the Molossoid breeds.
The earliest known written record of the St. Bernard breed are from monks at the hospice of the Great St. Bernard Pass in 1707, but paintings depict Saint Bernard dogs even earlier than this, with other references dating the breed to as far back as 980 AD.
The most famous Saint Bernard to save people at the pass was Barry, who allegedly saved somewhere between 40 and 100 lives. There is a monument to Barry in the Cimetiere des Chiens, with his body remaining preserved in the Natural History Museum in Berne.
The original Saint Bernard looked very different from the Saint Bernard of today, because avalanches killed off many of the dogs used for breeding in the early 1800s. Severe weather throughout this period led to an increased number of avalanches that killed many Saint Bernards while performing rescue work. In an effort to preserve the breed, the remaining Saint Bernards were crossed with Newfoundlands in the mid 1800s, and so was lost much of their use as rescue dogs in the snowy climate of the alps because the long fur they inherited would freeze and weigh them down.
The Swiss Saint Bernard Club was founded in Basel on March 15 1884, and was the very first breed entered into the Swiss Stud Book that, with breed standard approval was following in 1888. Since that time the St. Bernard has been a Swiss national dog.
St. Bernard dogs are no longer really used for alpine rescue, but do participate in a variety of dog sports that include carting and weight pulling. A St. Bernard holds the world record in strength, on record to have pulled 4000 lbs.
The St. Bernard is a very large, strong, muscular dog, with a powerful head. There are two types of coat: rough, and smooth, but both are very dense and come in white with markings in tan, red, mahogany, brindle, and black, in various patterns and combinations. The face and ears are typically shaded with black and their expression is intelligent and gentle. The feet are large with strong arched toes, making the Saint Bernard’s sure-footed in the snow and ice. They have a very keen sense of smell and many that know the breed well observe that they tend to have a sixth sense about impending danger from severe storms and avalanches.
St. Bernards are generally a gentle, laid back breed, known for their patience and tolerance with small children. They are not big barkers and present typically with very calm demeanors, generally a joy for veterinarians and groomers to work with. However, they still enjoy exercise and play and will never pass up the opportunuty to engage in exercise and play.
These dogs take up alot of space, so they are not suited for apartment living, doing best in at least a small house with a small yard. They are not well siuted for hot weather and have a low tolerance for high temperatures. Therefore, they should not be kept in cars during summer months even with the windows down, and significant exercise in the hottest part of the day should be avoided.
Height: 25 -28 inches
Weight: 110-200 pounds
Known health problems include hypertrophic osteodystrophy, osteochondroisis, panosteitis, hip dysplasia, and cardiac disease (see our disease page for descriptions of these diseases. Life expectancy is 8-10 years.
By: Roger L. Welton, DVM
President Maybeck Animal Hospital
Author Canine and Feline 101