Dog Breed Guide – Saint Bernards

Saint Bernard dog lying on the beach.
St. Bernards are giant working dogs bred originally for mountain rescues

All You Need to Know About Saint Bernards

Saint Bernards are also known as Alpine Mountain Dogs or Alpine Cattle Dogs. They are large working dogs that originated from the Western Alps in Italy and Switzerland. They are thought to be descendants of molosser -type dogs brought into the Alps by the ancient Romans.

They were bred to work as rescue dogs at the Great Bernard pass hospice built by the Italian monk Bernard of Menthon.

Originally, St. Bernards were the size of German Shepherd dogs but have grown in size as kennel clubs and dog shows placed more emphasis on appearance over the dog’s working ability, along with a closed studbook.

St. Bernards are known for their easy-going and friendly personalities. In 2022, they ranked 56 out of 199 in popularity according to the American Kennel Club.

Physical Characteristics

Saint Bernards are large breed dogs with a block-shaped body, a fluffy tail, and droopy skin and ears. 

The male Saint Bernard weighs approximately 140-180 pounds (63.5-81.6 kg) and stands at a height of 28-30 inches (71.1-76.2 cm). The female weighs approximately 120-140 pounds (54.4-63.5 kg) and stands at a height of 26-28 inches (66-71.1 cm) at the withers.

They have both a long and short coat, with the long coat having curly or wavy fur. Both coat types have dense fur and are brown/red in color with white markings or a mahogany brindle with white. Black shading is usually found on the face and ears. 

Their tails are fluffy and heavy, hanging low. 

They have brown eyes, though at times they can be icy blue, with tight eyelids and a slightly visible nictitating membrane. 

They have a life expectancy of between 8 to 10 years.

Temperament and Personality

St. Bernards make good family dogs owing to their calm and patient temperament. They are affectionate and enjoy the company of their families.

They are prone to separation anxiety and should not be left alone for long periods of time.

They can be difficult to train as they are naturally dominant. Training should be firm and consistent, with the owner making sure the dog knows who is the leader of the pack.

They can also be aggressive, stubborn, and overprotective of their property, especially when around other males of the same breed. They should, therefore, be socialized early to enable them to coexist with other animals and strangers alike.

This dog breed requires plenty of exercise to stay healthy and flourishes in a roomy yard, making apartment living not conducive for them, especially with their large frame.

Living Conditions

St. Bernards make perfect housemates. They are kind, affectionate, loyal, and easy-going. 

They are gentle around children, though playtime should be supervised as they can topple toddlers over. 

Since they are prone to separation anxiety when left alone for long periods of time, busy owners should consider enrolling them in a dog daycare or having dog sitters over when away for extended periods.

Grooming

St. Bernards are heavy shedders and require regular brushing, at least once a week. During spring and fall, when shedding is more pronounced, grooming should be more frequent to control loose hair. 

Keep their ears clean and dry to prevent bacterial or fungal infections, and trim their nails monthly. Given their slobbery nature, wipe their mouths after shaking.

Health

While naturally healthy, St. Bernards are predisposed to various conditions. Due to their large size, joint and structural problems may arise, especially in their youth. 

Maintaining a lean physique is crucial as St. Bernards are prone to obesity. Limiting strenuous exercise helps prevent potential joint issues in their later years.

Common health conditions affecting this breed include:

  • Hip dysplasia: This is a  genetic deformity in which the head of the thigh bone doesn’t fit properly into the hip socket. Over time the constant rubbing on the joint may lead to cases of arthritis which often cause joint stiffness and lameness. Elbow dysplasia is also common. It occurs similarly though affecting the elbow.
  • Osteochondrosis : This is a defect in the formation of growing cartilage that causes it to fragment. It usually appears in dogs younger than 1 year.
  • Heatstroke
  • Cardiomyopathy: These are conditions that affect the heart muscle.
  • Cancers such as osteosarcoma (bone cancer)
  • Ectropion refers to when the lower eyelids droop or roll out. It can affect one or both eyes. It is often inherited and has a strong tendency to occur in dogs with loose droopy skin.
  • Entropion is an abnormality of the eyelids in which the eyelid rolls inward. This inward rolling often causes the hair on the surface of the eyelid to rub against the cornea resulting in pain, corneal ulcers, perforations, or pigment developing on the cornea which can interfere with vision.
  • Hypothyroidism occurs when your dog is not secreting enough of the thyroid hormones, causing your dog’s metabolism to slow down.
  • Gastric torsion (bloat)  gastric dilationtwisted stomach, or gastric torsion occurs when the stomach becomes overstretched and rotated by excessive gas content. GDV is a life-threatening condition in dogs and requires prompt treatment. It is common in deep-chested breeds such as the St. Bernard.
  • Bloat occurs when there is gas distension without stomach torsion.

Before acquiring a puppy, research reputable breeders with certifications from organizations like Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF), ensuring the parents are screened for genetic defects.  PennHip certification of hips is also accepted.

Conclusion

Saint Bernards are loving, easygoing, and calm dogs, making them excellent family companions. They get along well with children of all ages and other animals.

To maintain a lean frame, they need plenty of exercise and a healthy diet, as they are prone to obesity. Due to their large size, apartment living may not be suitable.

They thrive on family companionship and may experience separation anxiety if left alone for extended periods. 

Regular grooming is necessary, especially during fall and spring, the shedding seasons.