The Saint Bernard, also known as the Alpine Mastiff, the Alpine Dog, the Alpendog, the Alpine Spaniel, the Barry Dog, the Good Samaritan Dog, the Holy Dog, the Monastery Dog, the Mountain Dog, the Mount St. Bernard Dog, the Talhund, the Bauernhund, the St. Bernhardshund, the Hospice Dog, the Saint and the St. Bernard, is famous not only for its enormous size but also for the thousands of human lives the breed has saved in the Swiss alps through its instinctive rescue abilities. This giant breed requires a firm hand when out for walks but tends to be a gentle and unexcitable animal. It is the National Dog of Switzerland and holds the record for being the heaviest dog in the world, with the record held by an American dog weighing 295 pounds. The Saint Bernard was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1885 as a member of the Working Group.
The mature male Saint Bernard should be at least 27½ inches at the withers, and females should stand at least 25½ inches in height. Saint Bernards typically weigh between 110 and 200 pounds. Their coats, which come in short-haired and long-haired varieties, both require brushing to control shedding. Their eyes should be frequently cleaned and checked for any signs of irritation or infection. There is no "dry mouthed" Saint Bernard, so prospective owners should be prepared for the drooling that accompanies this breed.
The accurate history of the Saint Bernard is subject to many theories and much debate. It probably descends from the heavy Asian Molosser (or mastiff-type) dogs brought to Switzerland by Roman armies during the first two centuries A.D., which were crossed with native dogs of the day. Over the next few centuries, Saint Bernards were used for guarding, herding and drafting/cart-pulling tasks. At that time, they were known as the Talhund (Valley Dog) or the Bauernhund (Farm Dog). As a breed, they were well-developed by 1050, when the famous monastery and hospice in the Swiss Alps was founded by Archdeacon Bernard de Menthon as a refuge for travelers making the treacherous trek between Switzerland and Italy through the oldest pass through the western Alps. The hospice was destroyed by fire in the late 1500s, and much of its documented history was lost. However, it is widely believed that the Saint Bernard's predecessors were first brought to the hospice in the mid-1600s, for use as guard dogs and draft animals. The first written historical records of this breed date to 1707.
The lonely monks are said to have recruited large dogs from the valley to act as watchdogs and companions during the bitter winters at the hospice. These dogs became known for their rescue work in the Great Saint Bernard Pass, with their finely tuned sense of smell and ability to move through immense snow drifts making them invaluable in locating stranded travelers. Saint Bernards were used for over three centuries for rescue and guarding work at the hospice. Breed authorities claim that teams of these brave dogs saved well over 2,500 human lives. It is said that once it found a stranded victim, the dog would lie down beside him or her to provide warmth and would lick the person's face to restore consciousness if at all possible. A companion dog would return to the hospice to bring the monks back to the site of the rescue. Saint Bernards also are said to have an uncanny natural ability to predict and avoid avalanches.
Until the early 1800s, the breed was simply referred to as the Hospice Dog. A dog named Barry lived at the hospice from 1800 to 1812 and became one of the most celebrated dogs in history. For more than fifty years after his death, the Hospice Dogs were called the Barryhund in his honor. Barry reportedly saved at least forty lives. Legend has it that his forty-first rescue victim caused his death, mistaking him for a wolf. However, Barry actually was euthenized in Bern, Switzerland in 1814, after a long and productive life. His mounted remains are still on display at the Natural History Museum in Bern.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century, severe weather, close inbreeding and disease contributed to a decline in the numbers of the Hospice Dog. The monks eventually crossed their dogs with Newfoundlands, which at the time were larger than Saint Bernards but shared their rescue instincts. The introduction of Newfoundland blood is responsible for creating the long-haired variety of Saint Bernards. Unfortunately, ice and snow clung to the longer-haired dogs more so than the short-haired ones. Other contributors to the breed are thought to be Great Danes and/or Bloodhounds.
Saint Bernards – then called Sacred Dogs - were brought to England in the early 1800s to boost the Mastiff bloodlines in that country. In Germany, they were called Alpendog for a time. It was not until 1865 that the name Saint Bernard became well-accepted. The name was officially recognized in 1880. Breeding of both long and short-haired varieties continued in Switzerland throughout the rest of the 1800s. The breed became popular in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and eventually reached the United States. The Saint Bernard Club of America was founded in 1888 and adopted the international breed standard that had been developed the prior year. It is one of the oldest specialty parent clubs in America. Today's Saint Bernards excel as family companions and in the show and obedience rings. They are competent cart-pulling and weight-pulling contestants as well.
Saint Bernards typically live between 8 and 10 years. Breed health concerns may include dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), ectropion, entropion, elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia, osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), pyotraumatic folliculitis ("hot spots"), cranial cruciate ligament rupture, lymphosarcoma, congenital deafness, epilepsy, eversion of the cartilage of the nictitating membrane, prolapse of the gland of the nictitating membrane ("cherry eye"), lip fold pyoderma, bloat (gastric dilatation and volvulus) and osteosarcoma.
Saint Bernards are most famous for their rescue capabilities. In the Swiss Alps, the dogs who lived at the Saint Bernard de Menthon Hospice were responsible for saving the lives of 2,000 humans trapped in avalanches. The dogs would leave the hospice in packs, search for trapped or injured people. One would lay with the traveler and keep him warm, while the other dogs returned to the hospice to get help. Today, these gentle giants are still used in mountain rescues, but they are mainly family companion dogs. Saint Bernards are clumsy as puppies, causing havoc and hilarity around the house – a trait depicted in the Beethoven movies of the 1990's. As they grow up, they become more docile, happier to nap in the afternoon sun than romp around in the yard, but will always make time to play with the children in his life. Saints love snowy weather, and will entertain themselves for hours, romping, rolling and pulling children on sleds. Those people who have the time, energy and room for a Saint Bernard will find him to be a loving family companion.
Saint Bernards need moderate exercise to maintain health and happiness. They are far too large for apartment life, and are much better suited for farms or suburban homes with large yards. Saints should be walked twice a day and given time to run several times per week. The older a Saint gets, the less enthusiastic he will be to take walks, but for his health you must get him up and moving. Winter is their favorite time of year, and you won't have any trouble motivating your Saint to exercise in the snow.
Saint Bernards can be difficult to train, especially for novice dog owners. They are willful, stubborn and independent animals who sometimes listen and other times do not. They are a lot like teenagers, in that they test boundaries and like to see what they can get away with and have little regard for the rules you put in place. It is important to start training your Saint at a young age, so that he is clear on the chain of command in the house. The older and bigger your Saint gets, the more difficult he will be to control. Training should be firm, but never harsh, as Saints will tune out people who treat them with a rough hand. They respond to treats, so showing your Saint that obeying gets him a nice reward will help move things along, but getting your Saint fully trained can take a long time. Patience is an important virtue for Saint Bernard Owners.
Thanks to the Beethoven movie franchise, there was a boom of indiscriminate breeding of Saint Bernards in the last 20 years, and puppy mills cranked out many Saints with uneven temperaments. When searching for a Saint to adopt, it is crucial to do your homework on potential breeders to ensure your dog comes from an even-tempered line. It is not the Saint Bernard nature to be aggressive, so always ask to meet the parents of your potential puppy, in order to see how they behave around strangers.
Saint Bernards are not clean dogs. They slobber, shed 365 days a year, and have a tendency to make a mess of their food and water dishes. Neat freaks may want to avoid this breed.
Powerful, proportionately tall figure, strong and muscular in every part, with powerful head and most intelligent expression. In dogs with a dark mask the expression appears more stern, but never ill-natured.
Like the whole body, very powerful and imposing. The massive skull is wide, slightly arched and the sides slope in a gentle curve into the very strongly developed, high cheek bones. Occiput only moderately developed. The supra-orbital ridge is very strongly developed and forms nearly a right angle with the long axis of the head. Deeply imbedded between the eyes and starting at the root of the muzzle, a furrow runs over the whole skull. It is strongly marked in the first half, gradually disappearing toward the base of the occiput. The lines at the sides of the head diverge considerably from the outer corner of the eyes toward the back of the head. The skin of the forehead, above the eyes, forms rather noticeable wrinkles, more or less pronounced, which converge toward the furrow. Especially when the dog is alert or at attention the wrinkles are more visible without in the least giving the impression of morosity. Too strongly developed wrinkles are not desired. The slope from the skull to the muzzle is sudden and rather steep.
The muzzle is short, does not taper, and the vertical depth at the root of the muzzle must be greater than the length of the muzzle. The bridge of the muzzle is not arched, but straight; in some dogs, occasionally, slightly broken. A rather wide, well-marked, shallow furrow runs from the root of the muzzle over the entire bridge of the muzzle to the nose. The flews of the upper jaw are strongly developed, not sharply cut, but turning in a beautiful curve into the lower edge, and slightly overhanging. The flews of the lower jaw must not be deeply pendant. The teeth should be sound and strong and should meet in either a scissors or an even bite; the scissors bite being preferable. The undershot bite, although sometimes found with good specimens, is not desirable. The overshot bite is a fault. A black roof to the mouth is desirable.
Nose (Schwamm) - Very substantial, broad, with wide open nostrils, and, like the lips, always black.
Ears - Of medium size, rather high set, with very strongly developed burr (Muschel) at the base. They stand slightly away from the head at the base, then drop with a sharp bend to the side and cling to the head without a turn. The flap is tender and forms a rounded triangle, slightly elongated toward the point, the front edge lying firmly to the head, whereas the back edge may stand somewhat away from the head, especially when the dog is at attention. Lightly set ears, which at the base immediately cling to the head, give it an oval and too little marked exterior, whereas a strongly developed base gives the skull a squarer, broader and much more expressive appearance.
Eyes - Set more to the front than the sides, are of medium size, dark brown, with intelligent, friendly expression, set moderately deep. The lower eyelids, as a rule, do not close completely and, if that is the case, form an angular wrinkle toward the inner corner of the eye. Eyelids which are too deeply pendant and show conspicuously the lachrymal glands, or a very red, thick haw, and eyes that are too light, are objectionable.
Set high, very strong and when alert or at attention is carried erect. Otherwise horizontally or slightly downward. The junction of head and neck is distinctly marked by an indentation. The nape of the neck is very muscular and rounded at the sides which makes the neck appear rather short. The dewlap of throat and neck is well pronounced: too strong development, however, is not desirable.
Sloping and broad, very muscular and powerful. The withers are strongly pronounced.
Very well arched, moderately deep, not reaching below the elbows.
Very broad, perfectly straight as far as the haunches, from there gently sloping to the rump, and merging imperceptibly into the root of the tail.
Well-developed. Legs very muscular.
Distinctly set off from the very powerful loin section, only little drawn up.
Starting broad and powerful directly from the rump is long, very heavy, ending in a powerful tip. In repose it hangs straight down, turning gently upward in the lower third only, which is not considered a fault. In a great many specimens the tail is carried with the end slightly bent and therefore hangs down in the shape of an "f". In action all dogs carry the tail more or less turned upward. However it may not be carried too erect or by any means rolled over the back. A slight curling of the tip is sooner admissible.
Very powerful and extraordinarily muscular.
Hocks of moderate angulation. Dewclaws are not desired; if present, they must not obstruct gait.
Broad, with strong toes, moderately closed, and with rather high knuckles. The so-called dewclaws which sometimes occur on the inside of the hind legs are imperfectly developed toes. They are of no use to the dog and are not taken into consideration in judging. They may be removed by surgery.
Very dense, short-haired (stockhaarig), lying smooth, tough, without however feeling rough to the touch. The thighs are slightly bushy. The tail at the root has longer and denser hair which gradually becomes shorter toward the tip. The tail appears bushy, not forming a flag.
White with red or red with white, the red in its various shades; brindle patches with white markings. The colors red and brown-yellow are of entirely equal value. Necessary markings are: white chest, feet and tip of tail, noseband, collar or spot on the nape; the latter and blaze are very desirable. Never of one color or without white. Faulty are all other colors, except the favorite dark shadings on the head (mask) and ears. One distinguishes between mantle dogs and splash-coated dogs.
Height at Shoulder
Of the dog should be 27½ inches minimum, of the bitch 25½ inches. Female animals are of finer and more delicate build.
Considered as Faults
Are all deviations from the Standard, as for instance a swayback and a disproportionately long back, hocks too much bent, straight hindquarters, upward growing hair in spaces between the toes, out at elbows, cowhocks and weak pasterns.
The longhaired type completely resembles the shorthaired type except for the coat which is not shorthaired (stockhaarig) but of medium length plain to slightly wavy, never rolled or curly and not shaggy either. Usually, on the back, especially from the region of the haunches to the rump, the hair is more wavy, a condition, by the way, that is slightly indicated in the shorthaired dogs. The tail is bushy with dense hair of moderate length. Rolled or curly hair, or a flag tail, is faulty. Face and ears are covered with short and soft hair; longer hair at the base of the ear is permissible. Forelegs only slightly feathered; thighs very bushy.
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Sources: American Kennel Club