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What is a Saint Bernard?

Maggie Worth
Maggie Worth

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.

Saint Bernards were originally bred in Switzerland as rescue dogs.
Saint Bernards were originally bred in Switzerland as rescue dogs.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the origin of the Saint Bernard breed?

The Saint Bernard breed originated in the Swiss Alps, specifically at the Great St. Bernard Pass, where they were used by monks at the St. Bernard Hospice as working dogs. They gained fame for their incredible ability to locate and rescue lost travelers buried in snow.

What are the typical characteristics of a Saint Bernard?

Saint Bernards are known for their large, muscular build, friendly nature, and calm demeanor. They typically weigh between 120-180 pounds and stand about 26-30 inches tall at the shoulder. Their coat can be either smooth or rough and comes in shades of red and white with black markings.

How much exercise does a Saint Bernard need?

Despite their size, Saint Bernards do not require excessive exercise. Moderate daily walks and playtime are sufficient to keep them healthy and happy. However, due to their heavy build, it's important to avoid strenuous exercise, especially in hot weather, to prevent overheating.

Are Saint Bernards good family pets?

Saint Bernards are excellent family pets known for their gentle nature and patience with children. They are protective and affectionate, making them great companions. However, due to their size, supervision is recommended around small children to prevent accidental injury during play.

What kind of grooming do Saint Bernards require?

Saint Bernards require regular grooming to maintain their coat and overall health. They should be brushed several times a week to prevent matting and reduce shedding. Additionally, their ears should be checked regularly for signs of infection, and their nails trimmed to prevent discomfort.

How long do Saint Bernards typically live?

Saint Bernards have a life expectancy of around 8 to 10 years. Like many large breeds, they are prone to certain health issues such as hip dysplasia and heart conditions. Regular veterinary check-ups and a healthy diet are important to manage their health and prolong their lifespan.

Discussion Comments


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

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    • Saint Bernards were originally bred in Switzerland as rescue dogs.
      By: vencav
      Saint Bernards were originally bred in Switzerland as rescue dogs.