A working breed native to Switzerland famed for its role as an avalanche rescue dog, the St. Bernard has been responsible for saving the lives of thousands of travelers over the centuries. In more modern times, the breed has become famous as a family companion due to its gentle and loving nature. This breed has become a stable of popular media, especially due to the legend that they carried flasks of brandy on their necks to revive travelers. St. Bernards are one of the world’s largest dog breeds, and some historical St. Bernards still hold size and weight records. St. Bernards are also known as Saint Bernardshunds, Bernardiners, Alpine Mastiffs, Swiss Mastiffs, Avalanche Rescue Dogs, Barry Dogs, Brandy Dogs, Bernies, Saints and Saint Bernard.
The St. Bernard is an old breed, and most of its early history has been lost to time. However, most of its history from the 1700’s on is fairly well-documented, and much can be inferred about its earlier history. The St. Bernard was most likely developed in the 1600’s from other local Swiss dogs, and then crossed with other breeds in the early and mid 1800’s. The St. Bernard was developed by the monks at the St. Bernard Monastery where the breed was used as a guardian, draft animal, turnspit, bed warmer, and rescue dog. The St. Bernard is quite closely related to the four surviving Sennenhund breeds, mountain dogs native to Switzerland: the Bernese Mountain Dog, the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, the Appenzeller Mountain Dog, and the Entlebucher Mountain Dog.
There is substantial debate as to the history of the Swiss Mountain Dogs as they originated in a time when few if any records were kept of dog breeding. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that these dogs were kept by peasant farmers in remote areas making it even less likely that anything would have been said about them. The Swiss Mountain Dogs likely first came to the region with agriculture. Between 14,000 and 7,000 years ago, the first herdsmen in the Middle East developed a type of dog that was very large and powerful. This dog was primarily tasked with protecting livestock from predators such as lions, wolves, and bears. It is generally accepted that this livestock guardian breed spread across Europe with the first farmers and eventually gave rise to a number of other breeds. This dog was probably the first member of a group now known as the lupomolossoids. Lupomolossoids are characterized by their large size, long white coats, and dog-like faces. There is much debate as to which breeds are true lupomolossoids, but the Great Pyrenees, Tatra Mountain Sheepdog, Kuvasz, Akbash Dog, and Maremma Sheepdog are the most commonly mentioned. Such dogs likely lived in the Alps relatively unchanged for thousands of years until the Roman Empire invaded the area.
Between 35 and 6 B.C.E., the Roman Empire brought the Alpine region under its control. The Alps were conquered not only for the glory of Rome but to act as a natural defense for the wealth of Italy. It is said that in order to do so the Roman Legions had to subdue 46 separate tribes. The Romans connected the Alps to the wider world and introduced a number of different breeds to the region. It is virtually certain that the Romans brought the Molossus with them. The Molossus was the primary war dog of the Roman Army and also the primary livestock guardian and property protection animal of the Roman people. The Molossus was originally native to what is now Albania and was known throughout the ancient world for its ferocity against any foe, human or animal. There is substantial debate as to the true identity of the Molossus. Most believe it was similar to a Mastiff, while others think it was a general purpose breed like a Catahoula Leopard Dog or American Pit Bull Terrier or possibly even a sighthound. The Romans also almost certainly introduced a breed known as the Roman Droving Dog (which may have been either a variety of or another name for the Molossus). It is possible that the Romans also introduced the Pugnaces Britanniae, a war dog owned by the Celtic tribes of what is now England and Wales. The Pugnaces Britanniae is thought by most to have been either a large Mastiff or an Irish Wolfhound-type dog. These Roman dogs were bred with the already existing lupomolossoids of Switzerland to create dogs which were similar to all of their ancestors. The brachycephalic (pushed-in and wrinkly) face of the St. Bernard was by such Roman Dogs. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Alps again became a remote backwater, and many valleys remained almost entirely cut off from the outside world until the latter half of the 19th Century. This meant that the dogs of the region were bred largely in isolation.
The Roman Empire introduced the Christian faith to the Alps where it has been the regions predominant religion ever since. Monasteries were founded across Europe and Asia by those who wished to live in seclusion in order to practice their intense faith. One such location was the St. Bernard Monastery. The St. Bernard Monastery was founded in about 980 A.D. by St. Bernard, a monk of the Augustine Order. St. Bernard located his monastery in one of the most strategic and important locations in Switzerland, what is now known as the Great St. Bernard Pass. The Great St. Bernard Pass is the only major natural route into Switzerland from Italy. This pass was not only the only connection between Switzerland and Italy, but also one of the fastest routes connecting Italy and Germany. Those having religious, political, or economic business between those three nations needed to go through the Great St. Bernard Pass or take long detours through Austria or France. When the St. Bernard Monastery was founded, this route was especially important because Northern Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and several other countries were united into a political body known as the Holy Roman Empire. At approximately the same time that the Monastery itself was founded, a hospice was also founded. The Monastery was a place for the monks to live and worship while the hospice tended to the needs of travelers and pilgrims. The hospice became a vital stop for those who were travelling through the Great St. Bernard Pass.
At some point, the monks of the St. Bernard Monastery began keeping dogs. They almost certainly acquired their dogs from local farmers. These dogs were known as Sennenhunds, roughly translated as Dairy Farmer’s Dogs. These dogs were multipurpose working dogs, and capable of performing a number of tasks. Although all four surviving Sennenhunds are tricolor with a black base color, at one point they came in a variety of different colors, including those of the modern day St. Bernard. The monks used their dogs for some of the same purposes as the farmers, as guard dogs and draft animals. Eventually, the monks found other uses for their dogs as well. They were used as turnspits, walking on a wheel in the kitchen to help with the cooking. Perhaps most importantly to the monks, their large dogs served as bed warmers, keeping the monks warm on freezing Alpine nights. For many years, the monks probably replaced their dogs from nearby farmers as they needed to. Eventually, they began to breed their own dogs to better suit their needs. It is unclear exactly when the monks of St. Bernard began to breed their own dogs, but it was almost certainly no later than the mid 1600’s. The earliest record of a St. Bernard Dog comes from two paintings dated to the year 1695. The creator of these works is believed to have been the Italian painter Salvatore Rosa. These paintings show a short-haired dog with a typical St. Bernard head and a long tail. One of the dogs is splash-coated and the other is mantle-coated. The dogs from the paintings are more lightly built and more similar to other Sennenhunds than the modern breed. Famous Swiss dog expert Professor Albert Heim estimated that the dogs from these paintings had been purebred for approximately 25 years, giving rise to the frequent claim that the breed originated between 1660 and 1670. However, this guess may be wildly inaccurate and the dog may in fact be decades or even centuries older.
The Great St. Bernard Pass is a very treacherous place in winter. Unprepared travelers could freeze to death in the cold. Avalanches send tons of snow careening down the mountainsides at high and can bury humans under many feet of snow with almost no warning. Snow storms can blind travelers and cause them to become hopelessly lost. To help them survive, the monks gradually turned to their dogs. Eventually, the monks realized that their dogs seemed to have a supernatural ability to predict avalanches and snow storms. The monks likely thought that this was an innate ability or perhaps a divine gift, but modern researchers believe that it is a result of the dog’s ability to hear much lower frequencies and sounds from much farther away than a human can. The St. Bernard can hear the rumbling of snow cascading down the mountain or storm winds closing in long before its human handler. The monks began to select for this detection ability and use it to their advantage. The monks began to take their dogs with them on their occasional excursions outside the monasteries walls. Their loyal dogs would alert them to approaching natural disasters and make sure that they returned to safety.
Gradually, the monks began to realize that their dogs were not only able to protect them from injury, but also to rescue travelers. It is unclear how the St. Bernard began its career as a rescue dog, but it was probably accidental. After an avalanche or snow storm, the St. Bernard Monastery would send out teams to attempt to find those who had become lost or injured in the disaster. They brought their dogs with them as they did on any other outing. Probably in very short order, they realized that their dogs could be of great help on these rescue missions. The powerful front legs of a St. Bernard could dig through snow faster than monks with tools, reaching buried victims in less time. Their powerful canine noses and ears could locate humans that would never be found by the monks. The warm licking tongue of these gentle giants helped resuscitate those who had lost consciousness. The monks began to breed their dogs specifically for rescue ability. At some point during the 1700’s, the St. Bernard began to be trained to work independently. Groups of two or three males would be sent out to patrol the Great St. Bernard Pass. Females were not used for this purpose because the monks believed it was too strenuous for them. The dogs worked in a team to locate an injured or lost traveler or an avalanche victim. One dog would return to the monastery to alert the monks that there was someone in need of aid while the other dogs would dig out the victim. If the rescued was able to walk on their own, the dogs would lead them back to the hospice. If the rescued was immobile the dogs would stay by their side and keep them warm until the monks arrived to carry them. Unfortunately, the Alpine conditions are almost as treacherous for a dog as for a man and many of these brave animals lost their lives conducting their jobs. Because their dogs needed to work in teams and to help strangers, no aggression was tolerated either towards humans or other animals.
The monastic dogs were so successful as rescue animals that their fame was spread around the world. In fact, the popularization of the St. Bernard likely is responsible for inspiring most modern uses of dogs as search and rescue animals. The most famous St. Bernard was Barry von Menschenretter, who lived from 1800 to 1814. Barry was said to have been responsible for the rescue of at least 40 people during his lifetime, though the actual number is unclear and many claims have been made. Barry’s life is as much fiction as it is fact. For example, it is often claimed that he died in a rescue attempt but in fact he retired to Bern where he lived out the rest of his life in peace. It is also claimed that be found a young boy in an icy cavern and carried him on his back to safety, although this is also disputed. Of great importance to history, Barry’s body was preserved after his death and can still be seen in the Natural History Museum of Bern. Barry’s exploits were made famous and greatly popularized the breed throughout Europe. As late as Barry’s lifetime, the St. Bernard breed did not have a unique name. Approximately 6 years after his death, the breed became known as the Alpine Mastiff or Barry Dog.
The winters of 1816, 1817, and 1818 were incredibly severe, and the St. Bernard breed almost became extinct. Records from the monastery indicate that the monks acquired dogs from surrounding valleys to save the breed. Many have speculated that they also used the English Mastiff, Great Pyrenees, and the Great Dane as well, but there is no solid evidence to support this claim. Beginning in 1830, three separate breeding experiments were conducted to cross the St. Bernard with the Newfoundland, which also has strong rescuing instincts. There was a belief that longer coated dogs would be better able to survive frigid winters. These experiments proved disastrous as icicles quickly formed on the long hair, weighing the dogs down in blizzard conditions and often killing them. The monks gave the long-coated dogs away and worked to return the breed to its original short-coated form. These long-coated dogs often gave birth to both long and short-coated puppies and formed the basis for breeding stock across Switzerland. The first records of St. Bernards being bred outside of the hospice were kept by Heinrich Schumacher. Beginning in 1855, Schumacher began to keep the first St. Bernard studbook and created a standard based on the hospice dog.
Schumacher and other early breeders strove to keep the breed as close as possible to the original working dogs of the St. Bernard Monastery. These breeders worked not only to maintain the breed in Switzerland but also to import it to other countries as well. St. Bernards became especially sought after in England and the United States. Some breeders seeking only to make a profit began to damage the quality of the breed. In 1883, the Swiss Kennel Club was founded specifically to protect the St. Bernard and the breed became the first dog registered with that organization. In 1884, the Swiss Kennel Club published the first official St. Bernard standard. Since that year, the St. Bernard has been the National Dog of Switzerland. At some point in the 1800’s, the notion that St. Bernards carried small barrels of brandy on their collars to revive lost travelers came into existence. The monks of the St. Bernard monastery vigorously dispute that this ever occurred and that it was a creation of the English Painter Edward Landseer. However, some fanciers maintain that this was a common practice. Either way, the image of a St. Bernard with a barrel of brandy on its neck is now permanently imprinted on the minds of the world.
The English began to import St. Bernards in 1820, partially due to the fame earned by Barry. The English initially called the breed the Alpine Mastiff. Having little need for an avalanche rescue dog, English breeders focused on developing a dog that most closely matched their appearance sensitivities. They began to cross their dogs with the English Mastiff, resulting in a much larger, more brachycephalic dog. The English continued to breed for size and eventually created a truly massive dog. Some English St. Bernards from the late 1800’s still hold canine size and weight records. The St. Bernard became quite fashionable and English stock was damaged by high consumer demand. By the time of the foundation of the Swiss Kennel Club, the St. Bernards of England and Switzerland were very different and had two different standards. Dogs from both nations were exported around the world giving rise to two distinct types with one breed name. There was a substantial dispute among dog fanciers as to which type was the correct one. In 1886, an international conference was held in Brussels to decide the matter, but nothing was decided. A second international conference was held in Zurich the following year and it was decided that the Swiss standard would be used in all countries other than the United Kingdom.
It is unclear exactly when the first St. Bernards arrived in America, but it was likely in the 1820’s. The breed quickly became popular in the United States, but not to the extent it did in the United Kingdom. American breeders were considerably less likely to cross their dogs with English Mastiffs and thus they remained closer to the original Swiss hospice dogs. Many American St. Bernard fanciers were especially dedicated to the breed and the St. Bernard was one of the first breeds registered with the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1885. The St. Bernard Club of America (SBCA) became one of the first breed specific clubs in the United States. The SBCA was founded in 1888, only four years after the AKC’s founding. The AKC and SBCA recognized the Swiss breed standard after 1887, although the two organizations slightly modified it over time, mainly due to American necessities such as changing kilograms into pounds. The United Kennel Club (UKC) first granted recognition to the St. Bernard in 1920’s, although that organization used a slightly different standard. For much of the 20th Century, the St. Bernard remained at an intermediate level of popularity, the breed was well-established and easily recognizable, but was never especially common.
In the early 1990’s and 2000’s, several more changes were made to the St. Bernard. In 1993, the Swiss Kennel Club created a new standard for the St. Bernard which was subsequently adopted by almost all countries. The SBCA and AKC were strongly opposed to the changes and believed that they removed the breed from its original form and purpose. As a result, there are now four major St. Bernard Standards, the Swiss Kennel Club/Federation Cynologique Internationale standard, the AKC/SBCA standard, the UKC standard, and the Kennel Club standard in the United Kingdom. During these years, the St. Bernard began to rise in popularity in the United States. Initially aided by the popularity of the movie Beethoven and then an increase in popularity of giant breeds in general, the St. Bernard’s numbers in America began to increase. The St. Bernard did not see its numbers skyrocket in a manner to some other breeds such as the Bernese Mountain Dog, Great Dane, and English Mastiff, however. In 2004, a centuries old relationship came to an end. Until that year, the St. Bernard Hospice had always maintained a population of at least 18 working St. Bernards, of which one was always named Barry in honor of Barry Von Menschenretter. The monastery decided to stop keeping the dogs for a number of reasons, but the Foundation du Barry Grand St. Bernard was founded to keep the line alive. The Foundation moved the primary kennel to Matigny, a village further down the pass from the monastery and continues to produce around 20 puppies every year. The Foundation continues to train the dogs for avalanche rescue although that task has been largely taken over by helicopters.
The St. Bernard has made regular appearances in popular media. The breed is not only well-known, but also very large and good natured. The association of the breed with casks of brandy has only increased its popularity, especially in comedies. Perhaps the most famous literary St. Bernard of all time was Buck, the half-St. Bernard star of Jack London’s Call of the Wild. The most famous big screen St. Bernards are Cujo and Beethoven. Cujo is the titular character of a book and film of the same name. Cujo is a rabid St. Bernard which terrorizes a small town, but due to his disease in no way reflects the actual breed. A much friendlier version of the St. Bernard is shown by Beethoven, the major character in the movie Beethoven. Beethoven and its numerous sequels show a family adapting to the comedic hijinks of their massive St. Bernard. Producers of Beethoven’s 2nd claimed that the St. Bernard puppies grew so fast that they had to cast over 100 different ones to play four puppies throughout the course of the film.
The St. Bernards of today, even those following the AKC standards, are significantly different than their predecessors. They are significantly larger and more Mastiff-like in appearance, as well as coming in both long and short-haired varieties. However, this breed still retains a substantial amount of working drive and ability. To this day, a number of St. Bernards are trained for avalanche and snow storm rescue, both in Switzerland and the United States though in a more modern manner. The St. Bernard still uses its keen ears and nose to locate victims and its powerful legs to dig them out, but the dogs are now brought to a sight by helicopters and snow mobiles. While smaller and more transportable breeds such as Labrador Retrievers are now more commonly used, the St. Bernard is still considered by many to be the premier rescue dog in snowy and mountainous conditions. St. Bernards have also been used as rescue animals in other situations as well, such as forests and urban environments.
The St. Bernard has also found considerable success as a therapy dog, which is unsurprising given the breed’s gentle nature. However, the vast majority of modern St. Bernards are companion animals. For families who are able to properly care for a truly massive animal, St. Bernards make an excellent companion. Unfortunately, a number of St. Bernards do need to be rehomed because owners find they are unprepared for how large these dogs truly get. The St. Bernard currently ranks 45th out of 167 total breeds in terms of AKC registrations. This is a slight drop from ten years earlier when the breed ranked 36th. This is likely due to other giant breeds such as Bernese Mountain Dogs and English Mastiffs becoming more popular. The massive size of the St. Bernard will always limit the number of potential owners who want to bring one into their home. However, the breed has a very stable population and is remarkably popular for a dog of such massive size.
Thanks to repeated appearances in popular media, the St. Bernard is very recognizable. In fact, the St. Bernard is one of the most unmistakable breeds, not only for its size but for its coat and coloration. The St. Bernard is a truly massive breed. AKC standards call for males to stand at least 27½ inches tall at the shoulder and for females to stand at least 25½ inches tall at the shoulder. UKC standards call for males to stand between 29 and 31 inches tall at the shoulder and for females to stand between 27 and 29 inches tall at the shoulder. St. Bernards should be massive in terms of bulk, incredibly thick and very heavily boned. While there are quite a few breeds that can reach or exceed the height of a St. Bernard, almost none can match this dog in terms of size. St. Bernards very commonly weigh significantly more than their owners.
A very “small” female St. Bernard weighs at least 110 pounds, but the average breed member in good condition weighs between 140 and 160 pounds. It is far from unheard of for a fully grown male St. Bernard to top 200 pounds, although many such dogs are somewhat overweight. A well-cared for St. Bernard should not achieve this weight through fat, but rather through bone and muscle. Although obscured by hair, the body of a St. Bernard in good condition is very muscular. The St. Bernard is generally squarely proportioned but many are slightly taller than they are long. The back of this breed is straight but does slope slightly downwards towards the rump. This breed has an incredibly deep and thick chest. The tail of a St. Bernard is quite long, and starts off thick before narrowing towards the tip. This tail is carried level with the body and generally straight, although the third closest to the tip often curls slightly upwards.
The head of a St. Bernard sits at the end of a thick neck. The head itself is quite reminiscent of the English Mastiff, large, square, and powerful. The head should be roughly as deep as it is long, but wider than it is long. The face of this breed is relatively flat. The muzzle is quite distinct from the head and meets it abruptly at an almost 90 degree angle. The St. Bernard is a brachycephalic breed, meaning that it has a pushed in snout. While the St. Bernard’s muzzle is quite short, being both wider and deeper than it is long, it is not nearly as short as some other breeds. The lips of a St. Bernard are quite pendulous, hanging well below the jaws and usually dripping drool. The St. Bernard definitely has distinct jowls, but is not exactly wrinkly. This breed should never have an under bite, although some do. The nose of a St. Bernard should be large, wide, and black. The eyes of this breed are set fairly deep into the skull, leading some to say the dog looks like a caveman. The eyes themselves should be medium in size and brown in color. The St. Bernard’s ears drop down, although not especially close to the head. The ears are somewhat short for the size of the dog and triangular in shape. The overall expression is one of seriousness and great intelligence, but also friendliness and warmth.
The St. Bernard comes in two coat varieties; both can interbreed freely and are often born in the same litters. Both varieties are double coated, with a dense, soft, and thick undercoat which provides them extra warmth. The outer coats are longer, but still very thick and dense. The hair should be resilient and protective without being harsh. The coats of both varieties should be primarily straight, but with some waviness over the loin and pelvis. The hair of the short-coated St. Bernard is short all over except for the tail and thighs where it is longer. The hair on the tail shortens towards the tip. The long-haired St. Bernard is more recognizable (Beethoven was a long-haired St. Bernard) than its shorter-haired cousin but is the same in all other aspects other than hair length. The longhaired St. Bernard has medium-length hair over its entire body except for the ears, neck, backs of the legs, brisket, lower chest, back of the legs, and tail where it is longer. There is a moderate ruff around the head and neck and slight feathering on forelegs and belly. The hair on the thighs and tail is especially thick and bushy. For show purposes, only slight trimming of the toes is permitted. Many owners choose to shave their St. Bernards for climate or cleanliness reasons.
Both coat varieties of St. Bernard come in three color varieties, red and white, brown and white, and brindle and white. These colors come in two primary patterns, mantle and splash. Mantle-coated dogs have a continuous dark marking covering most of their backs and sides while splash-coated dogs have a number of distinct patches of color. St. Bernards must have certain white markings: on the chest, feet, and tip of the tail, a noseband, and a collar or spot on the nape of the neck. Other white markings are seen as highly desirable, a full muzzle, a full collar, a blaze, belly, legs, and lower half of the tail. A black muzzle mask is seen as highly desirable but is not necessary, and many dogs also have black on the ears. Black on any other portion of the body other than what is necessary for brindle is seen as highly undesirable.
The St. Bernard is known for its gentle nature, and many of these dogs are in fact gentle giants when they are adults. Adult St. Bernards are remarkably steadily-tempered, and this breed rarely suffers from sudden mood swings. St. Bernards are known for being incredibly devoted to their families and form incredibly strong bonds. This breed will become a treasured and beloved member of the family, and many St. Bernard owners will tell you that they have never been as close to any other dog. However, St. Bernards have an independent nature and are definitely not clingy or fawningly affectionate. A St. Bernard prefers to be in the same room as its family, but usually does not want to be on top of them. St. Bernards were bred to be friendly with everyone that they met, and well-bred breed members still are. The average St. Bernard will be both very accepting of strangers and comparatively polite when greeting them.
Some lines of St. Bernards do have problems with fearfulness or shyness, but even these dogs are rarely outright aggressive. St. Bernards are very intimidating and have a deep bark and as a result make a capable watch dog. This breed would make a very poor guard dog as most would warmly welcome an intruder long before they would ever show aggression. There is an exception to this rule, the intelligent and highly perceptive St. Bernard can detect when a family member or friend is being threatened and will absolutely allow no harm to come to them. St. Bernards are known for being excellent with children, and once properly trained and socialized this is usually the case. St. Bernards seem to understand that children are fragile and are unbelievably gentle with them. It is more important to teach children how to properly play with a dog, as this breed will take a great deal of abuse.
This breed was bred to work closely with other dogs and well-bred breed members rarely have issues with them. In particular, St. Bernards exhibit less same-sex aggression than is common among the Mastiff family. Most St. Bernards would love to share their lives with another dog, especially another St. Bernard. Some St. Bernards have dominance issues, although these run more towards a strict desire to not be dominated than to dominate others. It is still very important that owners properly train and socialize their St. Bernards and do not tolerate even the slightest dog aggression. This is because any dog aggression from a St. Bernard is very serious, as this breed is capable of seriously injuring (or worse) essentially any other canine. As is the case with all dogs, St. Bernards will chase animals which they have not been socialized with. However once this is done, St. Bernards generally do very well with other animals. This breed has a very low prey drive and most will leave other household pets, especially cats, in peace.
The St. Bernard is very trainable, but the process should be started from a young age. St. Bernards are very intelligent and learn very quickly. The breed is also quite willing to please. St. Bernards take to manner training and socialization especially quickly. This breed is capable of learning some very complex tasks with enough training, especially those involving search and rescue. Patient owners are likely to be rewarded with a very well-trained and pleasant dog. Some owners may become frustrated as this breed is certainly not an automaton that lives to please. St. Bernards are naturally independent and prefer to do their own thing. These dogs don’t disobey out of stubbornness and a desire to refuse, but they will ignore commands if it’s something that they would rather not do. St. Bernards respond much better to rewards and positive reinforcements than anything else, but sometimes will decide that a treat isn’t worth performing a certain trick. This tendency only increases as the dog ages, making early training a must. While St. Bernards are not a dominant and challenging breed, they will only obey those that they respect. St. Bernard owners must make sure that they are in complete control at all times. Any lack of training or manners on the part of a St. Bernard is magnified 100 times due to the size and power of the dog.
St. Bernards have a normal exercise requirement; they need a good deal of daily exercise but will not overly burden a family who is committed to the process. St. Bernards absolutely need a long daily walk to prevent them from becoming bored and destructive. Non-athletes need not fear as St. Bernards like to take their exercise the same way they take most of life, at a slow and relaxed pace. St. Bernards will walk for hours on end, but only like to run for a few minutes. Once this breed has gotten the exercise it needs, most will be incredibly calm and relaxed inside the home. St. Bernards greatly prefer to have a backyard that they can wander, but are completely satisfied with a small one and can readily accept apartment life if enough walking time is provided. St. Bernards do enjoy exercise that requires them to use their minds, such as running though an agility course, but this is not a breed that craves a job. What St. Bernards truly enjoy most is playing in the snow. Owners must be extremely cautious about exercising St. Bernards after feedings or at young ages to prevent potential serious health problems from developing.
Potential St. Bernard owners need to be aware that this breed is not for the overly fastidious. St. Bernards love to get down and dirty. These dogs play in the mud and snow, dig in the dirt, get burrs and grass stuck in their coats, and then drag it all in the house on their massive bodies. Put simply, St. Bernards can make a huge mess. St. Bernards also have some nasty habits. This breed is one of the heaviest droolers of all dogs. A St. Bernard will leave a great deal of slobber on owners and carpets alike. This breed is also an incredibly messy eater and drinker. As anyone who has ever been in the presence of a sleeping St. Bernard will tell you, this breed snores very, very loudly. What most embarrasses many owners is the breed’s penchance for flatulence. Breed members can be quite gassy, and when they are it is very repellent.
The coat of a St. Bernard requires a great deal of grooming. These dogs need a minimum of 10 – 15 minutes of grooming every day. Bathing is also needed on a regular basis which can be quite time-consuming as well, especially the drying. Short-coated St. Bernards require less time and effort, but the difference is marginal at best. Although this breed does not require professional grooming, many owners in warmer climates choose to do so to reduce the temperature for the animal. It is highly advisable that owners begin all routine maintenance procedures such as ear cleanings and teeth brushings at a very early date and to introduce them in as positive a way as possible. It is much easier to bathe a 25 pound willing to please puppy than a 180 pound resistant adult.
St. Bernards shed, and they shed a great deal. For most of the year, the St. Bernard is an average shedder per square inch of fur, but still far more than most breeds because they have so many more square inches. Twice a year, usually around the time the seasons change, St. Bernards become incredibly heavy shedders that will flake off gobs of hair as they walk. They aren’t replacing their entire coats at this time, but they are replacing a large portion of them.
While not being especially unhealthy, the St. Bernard does suffer from a number of health problems and a very short life-expectancy. For a number of reasons, large dogs tend to lead significantly shorter lives than smaller ones. The St. Bernard also has a smaller gene pool than some other breeds, meaning that several genetic conditions have become common in these dogs. The life expectancy of a St. Bernard is between 8 and 9 years, and very few make it past 10.
The most common health defects in St. Bernards are skeletal. This breed suffers from a plethora of skeletal defects, ranging from the mildly uncomfortable to the entirely crippling. Hip and elbow dysplasia are both very common in St. Bernards, as are many forms of arthritis. More seriously is that the bones of St. Bernards often grow too quickly or in improper ways, leading to lifelong issues. Although the breed does not lead a long life, many experience significant discomfort or even lameness for years before they pass on. Every skeletal problem is different; some are partially or entirely preventable while others are not. Some are curable, but many only have treatable symptoms. Just as is the case with human medicine, many of the treatments required by St. Bernard and costly and time consuming. Breeders are working to reduce or eliminate these problems, but they are many generations away from doing so at best.
St. Bernard owners must pay special attention to the temperature. This breed was bred to live and work in the freezing conditions of the Alps and is sensitive to warmer climates. This dog should not be exercised too vigorously in the heat. Most St. Bernards are overly heat sensitive and can stay outside in the hot weather, but absolutely need a cool place to relax and constant access to water. What most affects this breed is a rapid transition from cold to heat, and most owners recommend avoided putting a St. Bernard in high temperatures immediately after being inside an air-conditioned home.
A full list of health defects experienced by the St. Bernard at high rates would have to include: