The St. Bernard is believed to have developed from Asiatic mastiff-type guard dogs brought to Switzerland by the Roman legions and is named for the Hospice of St. Bernard in the Swiss Alps. There is some evidence that the monks of the Hospice kept large dogs as guards and companions in the 17th century and that they began to be used for Alpine rescue around 1700. The male dogs, working as a team, were sent out unaccompanied in groups of three or four to seek travellers lost, injured or buried by avalanche. In 1830 the monks out-crossed their dogs to Newfoundlands hoping that a longer coat would afford better protection from the severe cold which accounted for the deaths of many dogs. This experiment was unsuccessful as the long hair gathered ice and snow and weighed down the dogs to the extent that they were unable to work. The rough coated St. Bernard is a legacy of this crossing. Known by many names: Hospice Dogs, Alpine Mastiffs, Barry Dogs, etc., agreement on the name St. Bernard was finally reached in 1880. The dogs were first imported into Britain in 1820 and the first English breed standard was written in 1887.
For those who have the space and do not object to a certain amount of drool and shedding the St. Bernard is an excellent family companion: loyal, placid, and very kind and gentle with children. His good nature and trustworthiness are evident in his benevolent and dignified expression. He is a good watchdog alerting to trespassers with a most impressive bark which, combined with his size, would be sufficient to deter all but the most foolhardy intruder. He is not aggressive, preferring to place himself on guard between his owner and any perceived danger, but if provoked by a direct threat offered to a family member he will act swiftly and surely. He is a true people dog, happiest when allowed to share time with his family. He will not thrive if relegated to the backyard or left for hours on his own. Loneliness and boredom will cause anxiety and depression and the dog may resort to destructive behaviour if left to his own devices.
Saints are not fully mature until around the age of three and it is very important that St. Bernard puppies and adolescents should not be over-exercised. Restricted exercise is necessary up to the age of 15 months as undue stress on developing bones and joints risks a miserable and pain-filled future for the dog. Stairs, slippery floors, any sort of jumping, long walks, rough play, hard, vigorous exercise of any kind should be refrained from. The adult will enjoy long, steady walks, but the distance must be built up gradually. Exercise in the heat of the day should be avoided.
This is a big dog, one of the heaviest in the world with some males tipping the scales at 91 kg (200 lbs) so, at the very least, basic obedience training is essential to ensure that the dog does not pull on the lead or attempt to jump up at people and is under good verbal control at all times. An intelligent, responsive, willing to please dog, training a St. Bernard is not difficult provided that the method used is based on positive reinforcement with plenty of praise to reward desired behaviours. They can do well in formal obedience work and also in agility, tracking, and endurance, but their size and construction means that they will be slower than other, smaller, breeds. Adult Saints also compete successfully in sports such as weight-pull and carting and, of course, they are excellent mountain rescue dogs. Socialization should start early as the puppy that is familiarised with various situations, people, and animals will grow into a confident, relaxed, sensible and dependable adult.
- Hip dysplasia
- susceptible to bloat
Some photographs of the St. Bernard...