These large dogs are iconic and lovable animals, known best for mountain rescues and their gentle nature. Originally from the Great St. Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps, these dogs are named after Saint Bernard, an 11th-century monk who founded a hospice in the pass to help those traveling to Rome. It’s believed that the breed was first developed in the mid 17th century and its ancestors include Roman Molossian dogs. For centuries, Saint Bernards helped hospice monks find and rescue travelers that had been buried by snowdrifts or avalanches. One estimate suggests that Saint Bernards rescued more than 2,000 lives in three centuries!
The first written record of the breed comes from the Great Bernard Hospice in 1703 and a painting from 1695 depicts short-haired dogs similar to St. Bernards. The current name for the breed wasn’t officially suggested until 1833 and only recognized by the Swiss Kennel Club in 1880. Before then, they had been known as Alpendogs by Germans, Sacred Dogs by the English, and Barryhunden, after an early 19th century Saint Bernard named Barry accomplish 40 rescues in 10 years.
While Saint Bernards now have a long coat, this wasn’t always the case! These dogs were actually all short-haired before 1830 but a couple years of unusually severe weather convinced the monks in the Great St. Bernard Pass to cross the breed with longer haired dogs. Because of their large size and coat, these dogs will not be a good fit for any person who values a clean home. In addition to drooling and shedding frequently, they often track mud and dirt in. Their big coats also mean that Saint Bernards easily suffer from heat exhaustion and wilt in hot weather.
Both short and long haired St. Bernards will need to be brushed around 3 times a week and more during shedding season. A rubber curry brush or hound glove are great brushes for St. Bernards with a short-haired coat while long-haired coats will benefit from a pin brush. Shedding blades will help during shedding season to remove any loose hair. Mats can develop, especially behind their ears or on their thighs so regular brushing and a detangler solution can help prevent them.
Like other dogs, you’ll need to brush their teeth and trim their nails on a regular basis. You’ll also need to check their ears regularly and clean them when necessary.
As mentioned, these dogs are friendly, lovable, and goofy animals. They make great family dogs but it’s not recommended that they live in a home with small children, as they could accidentally knock them over or injure them. Despite their big coats, Saint Bernards shouldn’t be outdoor dogs, as their temperament and inability to deal with heat would make that a terrible decision. They would do best inside with their families and in spaces where they can easily move around and stretch out. Tiny homes or small apartments might not be the best fit for them.
In addition to their great temperament, these dogs are intelligent, eager to please, and a bit stubborn. Training, especially at an early age, is important with this breed, as untrained adults can easily drag you along in order to go where they want. St. Bernards won’t be a great jogging or marathon partner but they do need daily walks to keep them healthy.
Unfortunately, St. Bernards are prone to several health problems and like many large breeds, have a short life expectancy (7-10 years). The breed is also prone to health issues like hip and elbow dysplasia, heart conditions, diabetes, seizures, eye problems like entropion and ectropion, and hot spots. In addition to being prone to heat exhaustion, St. Bernards can also develop bloat, a serious and potentially fatal stomach condition.
If you want a Saint Bernard, make sure you’re up for the big commitment that comes with the big dogs. There are some rescue groups focused on the breed but because of their popularity and presence in popular media (like the 1992 film Beethoven), there have been irresponsible breeders and puppy mills that produce St. Bernard puppies. Like with any breed or animal, make sure to research the breeder before getting a puppy from them.
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It’s also important to remember that while St. Bernard puppies are amazingly cute, these dogs will grow up to be quite large. There are, unfortunately, many stories of people giving up their large dogs once they get too big. Large breeds like St. Bernards aren’t for everyone so make sure this is a commitment you’re able to take on.