Breed Type: Molosser
Country of Origin: Italy and Switzerland
Size:  Massive
Also known as : Saint Bernard
Height: 70-90 cm, Weight: 70-120kg
Exercise Requirements: Low
Care Requirements: Medium
Lifespan: 8-10 years
Best Suited as: Family Pet / Snow Rescue Dog

The Saint Bernard is probably best known for its role as a rescue dog working the Alps Italy and Switzerland to recover persons buried by avalanches or lost in the snow. Film buffs might also recognise the breed as the hero from the Beethoven series of movies as well is being the villain from the movie to Cujo.

They are a striking dog one of the most massive of the Molosser breeds with large males weighing up to 120 kg  Regardless that they might only stand 90 cm at the Withers. They have a massive head with eyes that are naturally lidded tight.  Most often their eyes are dark brown but on occasion can be ice blue. The come in smooth and rough coat varieties with the smooth coat lying close on their bodies, the rough coat giving them the still smooth and somewhat denser appearance with more fur around the neck and legs.

Most of the coat is read especially across the back and haunches with white on the front legs. Also seen is a mahogany brindle with a more evenly distributed white. All types have black highlighting on their face and ears.

They were initially bred as utility dogs and were expected to perform the duties of livestock Guardian, herding dog and draught dog. There massiveness quickly showed them as inefficient herding dogs and is draught dogs they were far inferior to the spitz type breed dogs, such as huskies and Samoyds. As livestock Guardian dogs however the time they had no equal. Though they may appear dull and unintelligent they are actually quickwitted and independent thinkers without having need to rush around urgently like smaller breeds do.

The current version of the Saint Bernard is first recorded as being bred in the early 18th century by the monks resident at the great Saint Bernard pass Hospice.  It was here they first began their legendary role as rescue dogs wear their abilities to brave the most inclement of whether and to discover people buried underneath the snow was indeed a marvellous thing. Curiously the stereotypical image of the Saint Bernard rescue dog carrying a barrel of brandy under its neck to take to a frozen lost person with the aim of warming them through this strong alcoholic spirit is untrue. They had never carried such barrels and giving brandy to people suffering hypothermia is not recommended.

Their working history resulted in a great toll on the numbers in the early 19 century as severe weather necessitated many rescues in dangerous conditions resulting in the deaths of many dogs whilst performing this arduous task. Many of the important breeding dogs were also working dogs in the loss of this these specimens from the breeding mix reduce the numbers to too small an amount to ensure a healthy future to the breed thus the remaining dogs were crossbred with Newfoundlands. Whilst this ensure the preservation of the breed to an extent it did reduce their effectiveness as rescue dogs as the resulting further of these crossbreeds was fine with a greater tendency to freeze weighing the dogs down.

Whilst they now have their own distinctive look their genetic history is obvious with their head in size into his of English mastiff and Newfoundland bloodlines of their body structure and colouring is greatly similar to the Sennerhund, the other Swiss bred mountain dog.

They were first recognised as a breed of dog in the town of Basel in Switzerland in the late 19 century and because of their meritorious past were immediately recognised as the Swiss National dog.

They are generally friendly and affectionate dogs they will integrate happily into a family, however they are not without their challenges.  As former rescue and livestock Guardian dogs that required to be independent thinkers is natural for them to think that when being commanded to act a certain way that such commands a really just suggestions.  Their large size tends to enhance this mindset as it must seem very odd to a full grown male Saint Bernard to think that he should take instructions from a skinny six-year-old.  They must be well socialised when young to ensure they don’t developed undesirable traits such as high aggression and suspiciousness when placed in an unfamiliar situation or overly dominant and territorial behaviour.

They are clever and trainable – their large size however makes this more of a challenge as they will not be bullied easily into doing what you want.  Start training your Saint Bernard early and decisively rather than try and impose your will on them once they are fully grown.

But they do not generally make great guard dogs they do make good watchdogs as a throaty bark does sound rather ferocious and unwelcoming and their size certainly ears a deterrent to any intruder.

Health and Care
Being a massive fast-growing dog the Saint Bernard requires a great deal of care during its use to ensure proper physical development. It needs sufficient protein and calcium to develop strong bones and muscles get it must not be allowed to become overweight as his extra weight can cause skeletal problems. They should never be allowed to engage in physical activity as puppies that will place stress on the skeletal structure as this will likely lead to malformations and problems in the adulthood.

As with all the large breeds they are particularly prone to hit an elbow dysplasia.  The small numbers of animals that were left to continue the breed and the obvious lack of genetic diversity problems this created is perhaps responsible for their higher than average susceptibility to cancer epilepsy and heart disease.  They also are a breed that is susceptible to malformation of the eyelids with both the conditions of entropion and ectropion occasionally seen.

Typical of the massive dog breeds they are not long lved with an average lifespan of only around eight years.

The Australian Saint Bernard breeding community is very diligent in breeding dogs with the highest possible levels of health with a lot of effort going into screening of breeding animals. Ensure you speak to your breeder about the health issues they have seen in the breeding history of their dogs and asked to see hit an elbow scores of the parents and your puppy.

Suitability as Pet
the Saint Bernard is not a pet for everyone. If you are looking for a dog that will leap high into the air and catch a frisbee will be happy with half a tin of dog food morning and night then look elsewhere. If you are looking for a larger-than-life dogs, a peaceful soul that will quietly go about its way as a member of your family and you have the experience and determination to socialise your dog while it is still a puppy to ensure its proper social development into adulthood and certainly consider the Saint Bernard.

Veterinary Surgeon, London at Blue Cross UK | + posts

A London based Veterinary surgeon, Sanja is also an avid writer and pet advocate.