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What is a Saint Bernard?

By Maggie Worth
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A Saint Bernard is one of the giant breeds of dog. It was originally bred in Switzerland to be used as a rescue dog for travelers attempting to make the dangerous passage across the Alps from Switzerland to Italy. The dogs continue to be used as rescue animals as well as working dogs on farms, but the breed has also become a popular family pet and is recognized by most organized show clubs and kennels.

Historians credit Saint Bernard de Menthon with founding the breed. Most early breeding was likely managed by monks in the Swiss Alps. Most probable ancestors include the Great Dane, Great Pyrenees, Greater Swiss Mountain Dog and Tibetan mastiff.

The dogs are typically white with dark brown to tan markings or predominantly brown with white markings. A Saint Bernard may be all white or all brown, but most show organizations require a combination of markings. Red or black markings or red brindled with other standard colors is both common and acceptable. The coat may be short or long. An average dog stands between 25.5 and 27.5 inches (between 64.8 and 69.9 centimeters) at the shoulder and weighs between 130 and 180 pounds (between 58.97 and 81.65 kilograms).

As working dogs, the breed is considered intelligent, intuitive and hard-working. Its massive size and strength allows the Saint Bernard to pull carts, manual plows and other farm implements. It is also a highly capable rescue dog and continues to be used in the Swiss Alps to find lost hikers and avalanche victims. The dog uses its extraordinarily strong sense of smell to seek out victims and its strength to pull them from the snow.

As a pet, the dog is friendly, loyal, patient and protective, but requires significant socializing at a young age. Continued obedience training is strongly recommended, as Saint Bernards were bred to be independent dogs that could make their own decisions when faced with hazardous conditions. Grooming is moderate, but as with most members of the mastiff family, owners should expect to cope with significant drooling. The dogs must receive adequate exercise on a regular basis and prefer a large yard or room to roam. They also should be monitored around children due to their large size.

In the show ring, the Saint Bernard is usually classified as either a working dog or a mastiff. Purebred puppies and dogs are available through breeders throughout the world, but the breed is most popular in the United States, Canada and Europe. Breed rescue groups are active for these large dogs because their size and feeding requirements can lead to neglect and abandonment, particularly during economically challenging times.

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Discussion Comments
By anon145294 — On Jan 22, 2011

No standard would allow an "all white" or "all brown" Saint.

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