The iconic image of the Saint Bernard shows a big, saggy dog sporting a barrel of booze on his collar. Sorry to disappoint, but the barrel collar was never actually a thing. It was simply a misconception brought on by a teenager in the 1800’s.
But while the barrel was fiction, the rescues were not. This famous canine really did save hundreds of people.
He just did so with a pack of food and water and a special canine touch. Not a barrel of alcohol.
The gentle giant St. Bernard has always been a welcoming sight to people that it encounters. Although large, the Saint Bernard is a playful and loving companion. One of the working class dog breeds, the St. Bernard has drive and determination to complete the tasks it trained for.
He is a large, high-energy dog, is this dog right for you?
Keep reading to find out.
The St. Bernard is named after monk Bernard of Menthon.
Cultivated in the Swiss Alps, this dog’s original purpose was as a working dog, guarding a hospice set up by St. Bernard.
These dogs eventually became rescue dogs.
A hybrid between the Molossus dogs of Asia and other dogs native to Switzerland and Italy, this dog was made to love, serve, and protect.
However, they were not always the long haired giants we know and love. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1830s that these saints grew their hair out.
Myths abound about this dog rescuing travelers with a cask of brandy, but that is a myth.
Imagine, you are a traveler on your way from Rome, Italy to Switzerland. On your journey, you happen to fall into a snow drift and cannot get out. For hours you are screaming for help until your voice gives way. Everything seems hopeless, but in that moment your hear a bark, then another. You have been found by a dog, you are going to be okay.
This is the image most people get when they think about the St. Bernard.
Named after the canonized saint Bernard of Menthon, the history of these dogs are as heroes.
Originally called Alpine Mastiffs, these loving giants live to work. Farmers in colder regions use these dogs for herding, guarding, and drafting.
Are Saint Bernards Good Family Dogs?
Yes, 100% yes!
But, there are a few things to consider when deciding if one is right for your family…
St. Bernards are BIG dogs.
Although they are commonly referred to as nanny dogs, they have hurt small children. These injuries have nothing to do with aggression, and everything to do with their size and energy. Being massive dogs, they can and have inadvertently knocked over or rolled over on a toddler or two.
These dogs are born to love affection and have a gentle demeanor similar to that of a Golden Retriever.
They also are moderately-high energy dogs that need plenty of exercise.
If you have children of want the dog to be mindful of children, it is important to properly socialize your dog as soon as you get him.
Saint Bernards need daily exercise, lots of love, and jobs to do.
Even when cared for properly, these dogs are fairly high maintenance.
Being an extra large breed, healthy St. Bernards weigh as much as 180 lbs for a male, or 140 lbs for females.
If your dog is overweight, females cane be closer to 200 lbs, while males can be over 250 lbs.
Bernards need plenty of quality food and exercise.
This means investing in the right high-quality food for your dog based on their age. Adult St. Bernards will eat five to six cups of food daily.
Fresh clean water should be available at all times for your dog.
Treats are nice and a great tool for training, but be careful not to give too many. Excessive amounts of treats can cause your dog to become overweight.
Large breed dogs can experience bloat. Saints are no exception to this.
Bloat is a serious condition that can kill a dog quickly as their stomach distends and twists. Although the exact cause of bloat is not known, as a preventative measure veterinarians suggest that these dogs get fed small meals at given periods throughout the day.
Saint Bernards come in both long and short haired varieties, but they both have the same general grooming requirements.
Weekly brushing is a must with this breed to keep their coat looking clean.
Like many other winterized dogs, they tend to blow their coat completely twice a year. During heavy shedding seasons, they need extra brushing…preferably on a daily basis.
Do not bathe St. Bernards too often.
Bathing less frequently preserves the oils on their skin and coat. Bathing about once every month one or two months to keep him smelling fresh would be good for your dog.
Saint Bernards need daily exercise! These dogs have moderately-high energy levels and need plenty of exercise.
Despite their size, a quick game of fetch or long walk will keep your dog’s brain and body healthy.
Because of their low requirements, training them for a lower exercise environment is easy.
They make great companion or helper dogs for people with disabilities. This means taking the time to train them for a job which will exercise their physical and mental muscles.
St. Bernards epitomize the nickname “man’s best friend”. These dogs desire to be with their people all the time. If you often leave your puppy alone for extended periods along, you will create some undesirable habits.
Yet, these dogs are generally easy to train because they want to please their people.
Once a Saint understands the command, it is typically a quick process to obeying and enjoying a great relationship.
Remember: these are HUGE dogs.
As such, it is imperative that they have proper obedience training. Without proper training, these dogs often end up hurting people without intention. This usually happens by jumping on someone and knocking them over with their massive frame.
Saint Bernard Health Issues
As mentioned earlier, the large Saint Bernard is prone to bloat, or Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV).
This is a serious, sudden, life-threatening condition. Should you decide to make your home the house of a Saint, know the symptoms:
- Hard, distended or bloated abdomen
- Unproductive retching
- Restlessness and pacing
- Excessive drooling
- Standing with elbows pointed outward and neck extended
- Fast, heavy, or otherwise difficult breathing
- Rapid heart and pulse rate
- Pale mucus membranes and prolonged capillary refill time (CRT)
Other common ailments of the Saint Bernard include:
- Hip Dysplasia
- Cardiac Disease
- Degenerative Myelopathy
- Elbow Dysplasia
- Various Eye Problems
Things to Know About Saint Bernards
1. The Number One Thing to Know: They Grow Up Fast
Okay, so all dogs grow up fast. It is a fact of nature. But remember these dogs are an especially large dog.
So how fast is fast?
Starting out at just over a pound when born, Saints grow about one pound per day. By the time they are six months, these dogs will weigh over 100 pounds.
In fact, they grow so fast that when they filmed the second Beethoven movie over 44 St. Bernard puppies participated in the film.
Despite this rapid growth rate, St. Bernards will continue to grow until they are about three years old. Generally their growth will slow down when they are around a year old.
2. Great Dogs for Children
St. Bernards are one of the gentlest dog breeds any parent can ask for. These giants are calm, patient, and generally easy-going.
The nursemaid dog is a common nickname for St.Bernards because of their care for children.
If you have small children in your home and are not afraid to take some time training a dog, the St. Bernard may be perfect for your family.
3. Their Intelligence is Underrated
St. Bernards are generally underrated when it come to their overall intelligence. They are eager to please and can be easily trained to perform many tasks.
Once a St. Bernard understands what you are asking them to do, they are eager to oblige.
Sometimes seen as “dumber than a box of rocks” because of their attitude. But if you are an assertive owner, you will find out exactly how smart these dogs are.
4. They Don’t Bark Much
Unlike some dogs that bark at their own shadow, Saints are generally quiet.
It is rare that you will hear them bark. But, they will bark at strangers approaching your house if they can see them.
This makes them a decent dog choice for apartment dwellers.
But remember: this is a large breed, so daily exercise is a must if you choose to have one live with you in an apartment
5. They are Calm
These big guys…act like big guys.
They don’t let themselves get riled by the mundane and are more passive in nature than most dogs.
Do you have a child that has a mobility disability?
Do you need help getting around the house?
Then this dog may fit right into your family.
6. They are Working Dogs
Saint Bernards are working dogs through and through.
They love it when you give then a job to do. Originally these dogs were guard dogs in the Alps.
Their sense of smell and pathfinding abilities combined with their muscular nature made them excellent for their job as a rescue dog.
Today, these guys help the elderly with daily duties, herd animals on farms, and even drafting.
7. They are Not Territorial
If you are looking for a dog that is going to guard your home, the Saint Bernard is not it.
You can train them to be a guard dog since they are a working dog. But, much like a Golden Retriever, these dogs just love everything and everyone.
These big dogs can be intimidating to strangers and will bark on occasion when something doesn’t seem right with a stranger.
Do you want a dog you can walk down the street with who won’t bark at everyone that passes by?
This is the dog you want!
8. Incoming Drool Fest
The design of the St. Bernard’s head sets up an ideal situation for drool.
Expect this dog to salivate at the site of food and create small puddles on the floor.
Their loose lips which hang to the sides of their mouths setup the perfect storm of drool. To minimize this you can do two things:
- The first is prepare and keep food out of sight prior to feeding. This limits the amount of saliva that makes it on the floor and not digesting food.
- The other is to keep the excitement level to a minimum. Dogs feed off the energy of their owners, keep your excitement in check and it will help keep the drool in check.
9. They Need to Know You are the Boss
I cannot stress enough how important it is to make sure this dog knows you are the boss. Remember these are massive dogs. Although not generally territorial, they can still be domineering.
If you do not teach them at a young age to listen, they will not listen.
If you do not teach them to walk properly on a leash when they are young, expect to get drug through the mud.
Be calm, stern, consistent, and assertive.
10.They Love Everyone and Everything
Dogs often get a bad rap for being standoffish with cats or seeing smaller animals as prey. This could not be further from the truth for the St Bernard.
Saints love other animals including cats and if they grow up with them, they are just another family member. They will play with dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and even hamsters that are frequently allowed to run around in a ball.
The biggest downfall is they sometimes forget their size…and may step on or play too rough with other smaller dogs and animals as they get older.
Always monitor the interaction between these dogs and small animals or children.
11. They are Good Guard Dogs
Like mentioned above, these are working class dogs. As such, they are able to do virtually any task. In some areas they guard flocks of sheep or cattle, in other areas they can train to guard the home.
Whatever your desire, the St. Bernard can is probably able to do it. Trained them for the job you want them to do. Just because they are fairly silent dogs, doesn’t mean they cannot make the perfect guard dog.
12. Made for the Cold
St. Bernards come in two brands:
- Short hair (smooth)
- Long hair (Wirey).
They originally lived in the high altitudes of the Alps, so cold weather suits then well.
They do moderately well in hot conditions, but can be prone to overheating. If you are keeping them as an outdoor dog, access to fresh water and shelter is essential.
St. Bernards do not do well in transitioning from very cold to hot. Here’s a real-world example to avoid, if possible:
Icy air-conditioning straight outside into 90+ degree heat.
Instead, try to put your Saint in a warmer (yet not 90 degrees) area before going outside.
If an extreme temperature transition is unavoidable, it’s your job to keep your eyes on them! If their demeanor or activity changes, return them to the cool of the home.
13. They Want to Have Playmates
Saint Bernards love having company.
It could be another dog, or its people, but they love spending time with someone other than themselves.
It is a good idea if you do not have children to invest in another dog or maybe even a cat for the dog to play with to keep him happy while you are away
14. You are Going to Need a Bigger Scooper!
Like the dogs themselves, their poop is massive.
It is nice because the size of the bowel movement allows you to find it easily. But, if you miss it, there will be more than just one part of your shoe covered.
To say invest in a bigger scooper, may be an understatement. You may want to invest in a small shovel and rake. :-)
15. They Drink a Lot of Water
Between their drool and the amount of water they drink, it is sometimes hard to tell if the liquid on your floor is drool or water.
Saints are messy when they drink and they drink a lot.
Be prepared to step in water puddles on a regular basis. Just remember this is what you signed up for and your dog loves you unconditionally.
16. Lap Dog What?!
Most people do not appreciate 140 pounds of dog laying across their lap. But, if you allow them to sit on your lap as a puppy, they will expect to sit on your lap when they are an adult.
Train them as puppies how you expect them to behave as adults.
I understand you like cuddles as much as they do, but it is probably better to cuddle with them on the floor than the couch.
St. Bernard Fun Facts:
- Barry the St. Bernard has been credited with between 40 and 100 rescues in the Alps. He even has his own monument and is entombed in the Natural History Museum of Berne, Switzerland.
- Over the three centuries of existence, St. Bernards have been credited with over 2,000 rescues in the Alps alone.
- The barrel pictured around the necks of the St. Bernard was an original idea of painter Edwin Landseer in 1820.