The St. Bernard

The heart and soul of a gentle giant


Known worldwide as "the dog that rescues people," the St. Bernard is much loved as a gentle family companion, perhaps somewhat clumsy in the confines of a suburban home, but with a big heart and friendly demeanor that reflects his origin as a hospice dog in the Swiss Alps.

The St. Bernard's fame originated at a travelers' way-station nestled in St. Bernard Pass, more than 8000 feet into the mountains and one of the highest spots inhabited year-round in Europe. The dog, the hospice, and the pass take their names from Bernard de Menthon, an 11th Century monk who established the station as a haven for weary travelers on the treacherous route from Italy to Switzerland. Robbers, avalanches, mountainous terrain, and fierce storms imperiled bold adventurers, and the hospice was the only shelter on the journey.

The dogs developed in the valley below the pass, probably from Molossus dogs left behind by the Romans and interbred with native canines. They were originally used as guardians and draft animals on diary farms to protect the herds and haul carts of milk and butter. The monks from the hospice traveled frequently to the valley and likely brought the first of the big dogs back as companions and guardians for the long winters in the isolated hospice. There is evidence that the dogs hauled goods and turned the spit in the kitchen, but their real worth as rescue dogs quickly eclipsed these uses.

By 1750, the dogs were well-known for their exploits in rescuing stranded wayfarers. Their thick coats protected them well against ice and snow and their outstanding sense of smell led them to victims buried in snowbanks or avalanches. They accompanied the monks on trips into the valley, and their ability to sense avalanches often saved the lives of the clerics.

When tales of great dogs are told, the story of Barry ranks at the top of the list. This St. Bernard rescued 40 people in his 1800-1810 tenure at the hospice and brought great fame to the monks and the breed. For awhile, the great dogs were known as Hospice Dogs or Barry Hounds; the breed name St. Bernard was not established until later in the century.

After Barry's death, the hospice struggled through two devastating winters, and the kennel suffered. They brought in dogs from the valley to replenish the bloodlines, and did some crossbreeding with Newfoundlands and some other dogs to add vigor and size to the hospice dogs. The Newfoundland brought genes for long coats, but this abundance of hair was not suited for rescue work as it held ice that hindered the dogs.

All told, the St. Bernard has saved more than 2000 weary and trapped travelers in the mountain pass that shares its name. The breed is a great tribute to the monks whose duty it was to serve mankind; today the dog is affectionately known as "The Saint," an apt abbreviation of its full name.

The Saint today

The modern St. Bernard is somewhat larger than the old hospice dogs. Males are at least 27.5 inches at the withers and weigh 150-180 pounds when full grown. Females are at least 25 inches tall, of "finer and more delicate build," (relatively speaking!) and tip the scales between 130-160 pounds.

Both coats are acceptable in the show ring. The long coat should be of medium length _ like a Newfoundland's _ and can be either smooth or slightly wavy. Long coated Saints have soft short hair on their ears and faces, but are permitted long hair at the base of the ear. Their forelegs may be feathered, and their thighs very bushy.

The short coat lies smooth all over and is slightly bushy at the thighs. Both coats are dense and tough, and shed profusely at least once a year.

Saints are always some combination of tan and white or brindle and white. The tan can range from lemony-brown to deep red. The distribution of color is a matter of preference; white markings are necessary on chest, feet, tip of tail noseband, and neck. The face can have a white blaze; the head can be shaded or masked. Solid colors and any other color are prohibited.

The Saint's most impressive feature is his powerful and imposing head. He has a massive skull; deep, broad muzzle; pendulous lips; wide nostrils; medium-sized, floppy ears; moderately deep-set eyes; and noticeable wrinkles. His lower eyelids do not close completely but should not expose the tear ducts or a thick, red haw.

The complete picture is one of power and endurance; the demeanor is of gentle character and devotion to family.

So you think you want a St. Bernard

Think twice. Or three times. The Saint requires as much devotion as he gives. His size dictates the need for basic manners training and moderate exercise for big bones and muscles. His good humor can become destructiveness if he does not learn to channel his energy. His coat needs regular grooming, particularly if he is long-coated or if he spends time in fields and woods, and he drools.

His food costs more because he eats more, and medication that is prescribed by body weight adds to the expense of veterinary visits. He needs a bigger car to travel in and a bigger crate to sleep in. But for those willing to spend extra time and money, the dog is well worth the effort.

Finding a well-bred St. Bernard isn't always easy. The breed suffers from the popularity of the Beethoven movies as backyard and commercial breeders jumped on the bandwagon to produce Beethoven-clones for admiring families. The breed ranks in the mid 40s of AKC's top 50 in popularity, but numbers are rising. Litter registrations went from 1295 in 1992 to 1391 in 1993 and 1607 in 1994.

Pet store Saints and backyard-bred Saints can have poor temperaments and suffer from the several health problems that plague the breed. The best chance of getting a good-tempered healthy St. Bernard puppy is to contact a breeder of show dogs, for they concentrate on good health in their breeding and frequently have pet puppies for sale.

All large-breed dogs suffer to some extent from joint problems such as hip dysplasia. Deep-chested breeds are susceptible to bloat. The Saint fits this profile and may also be a victim of heart disease, eyelid abnormalities, tumors, and skin conditions. Buyers should ask breeders for certification that breeding stock is free of hip dysplasia and should see that the mother of the litter has normal eyes and skin before committing to purchase of a puppy.

Saints can be easy to train because they like to please their people, but difficult to train if the owner waits too long or is inconsistent in training methods or commands. Since the pup is already bigger than most adult dogs of toy breeds at eight weeks of age, is the size of a Cocker Spaniel at 10 weeks, and can reach 65 pounds by 20 weeks, training should begin early -- preferably at the breeder's.

The breed needs a moderate amount of outdoor exercise and tends to be quiet in the house after outgrowing the puppy stages. A sturdy fence will keep him in the yard, and long walks two or three times a week should suffice to keep him in shape. A Saint left to his own devices, without proper exercise and training, can be destructive _ and a household with a destructive Saint is likely to resemble a disaster area.

[More on finding a dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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