Saint Bernard

Saint Bernard

Group: Working Dogs

Origin: Switzerland

  – Adult Male: 28 to 30 inches at the shoulder
  – Adult Female: 26 to 28 inches at the shoulder

  – Adult Male: Between 140 and 180 lbs.
  – Adult Female: Between 120 and 140 lbs.

 Saint Bernard Dog

Photo courtesy of Le Donatien

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A Bit of Breed History

While the true origin of the Saint Bernard is not well documented, it is known that the breed was bred by monks of the Hospice du Grand St. Bernard in Switzerland during the 17th century. The most accepted estimate is that the breed originated sometime between 1660 and 1670. These dogs were likely descendants of the mastiff type Asiatic dogs that were first brought to the region by Roman armies. Until about the year 1700, it is believed that the dogs were used as watchdogs and companions to the monks during their winter isolation. The dogs were said to have initially accompanied the monks on mountain patrols after bad snowstorms searching for lost or trapped travellers. The dogs were said to have an uncanny sense of detecting impending avalanches and somehow learned their rescue techniques from the monks. Eventually, the dogs were sent in unacccompanied in packs of two or three to find lost travellers. The dogs would find the buried people in the snow, dig them out, rouse them and, if the traveller was unable to move, one dog would lie on top of him to provide warmth while the other would return to the hospice to alert the monks that they had found someone. Those travellers who could walk were simply led to the hospice by the dogs. Even today, the instinct to dig and rouse those lying in snow still exists within the breed. The Saint Bernard as a breed is credited with having saved over 2,500 travellers lost in the snow.

During the winters of 1816 to 1818, the snowstorms were particularly severe and many dogs perished while doing rescue work. As a result, the strain living at the hospice came close to extinction. However, records indicate that the monks somehow completely replenished this strain two years later with similar dogs from nearby valleys and, although no records exist to confirm this, it is rumored that the remaining dogs may have been crossed with Great Danes or English Mastiffs.

Beginning in 1830, three breedings were done with Newfoundlands with the belief being that the longer hair of the Newfoundland may better protect the breed against the cold. This, however, proved to be more problematic than it was worth as ice formed on the long hair and the weight of the accumulated ice and snow made work very difficult for the dogs. As a result, the monks stopped using the long haired dogs for rescue work and quickly abandoned these breedings giving away all longhaired puppies. Selective breeding was done by the Swiss recipients of these dogs who produced litters containing both longhaired and shorthaired puppies. Eventually, the Swiss breeders managed to return the breed to the original hospice type dog with two coat varieties.

During this time, the breed still did not have a name and was known as the Hospice Dog, Holy Dog, Alpine Mastiff and Saint Bernard Mastiff. Some called them Mountain Dogs, Monastery Dogs, or Swiss Alpine Dogs. Some Swiss called them Barry Dogs as a tribute to one famous hospice dog named Barry der Menschenretter who was reputed to have saved more than 40 travellers during his working life. In 1880, the name agreed upon was Saint Bernard.

The first recorded breeding outside of the hospice was in Switzerland in 1855 by Herr Heinrich Schumacher who started the first stud book and worked to maintain the original hospice type. The high demand for these dogs unfortunately led to the detriment of the breed and, in an effort to preserve the original breed type, the Swiss Kennel Club was founded in 1883 and adopted the first Swiss Saint Bernard Standard in 1884.

The English had been importing hospice dogs since 1820 and followed their own breeding practices. As a result, the English Saint Bernard had become noticeably different from the hospice dogs due to the crossing with the English Mastiff. The English wrote their own standard in 1887. By 1863, Saint Bernards from both England and Switzerland were being exported around the world and two distinctively different breed types existed. Controversy regarding which country had the correct type and who was the true breed authority arose. In 1887, in Zurich, an International congress meeting was held and concluded that the Swiss Standard would be used in all countries except England. Today, there are three Saint Bernard Standards: a modified old Swiss version still used in the U.S., the English version, and a revised Swiss version adopted by all FCI countries in 1993.

Breed Profile

The Saint Bernard is powerful, intelligent, strong and muscular. The breed was bred to work and, while its original job was rescue work in the Alps, this soon expanded to inlcude pulling carts filled with farmers’ produce and milk bottles being delivered door to door. With his steady temperament around people and other animals, the Saint Bernard is an excellent and dependable worker. Todays’ Saint Bernards are often seen participating in Obedience Trials, Tracking Tests, Agility Trials, Draft Tests and Weight Pulling Tests.The St. Bernard is a wonderful family companion. He is good-natured, kind, gentle, easygoing, and is especially caring and understanding with children. He is, however, not the dog for everyone. This is a very large dog who does drool and, while regular grooming will help minimize shedding, both the long-haired and short-haired dogs do shed.

Today’s Saint Bernard breed comes in two coat varieties: the original short-haired coat which is dense, smooth and tough; and the long-haired or rough variety which is of medium length, straight or slightly wavy. The coat colour may be white with red or red with white. There should also be white markings on the chest, feet, tip of the tail, head and neck.

Health Issues

Like all breeds of dogs, the Saint Bernard is susceptible to certain health problems. The following are some of the hereditary disorders which have been found in this breed:

In addition, as with most of the giant and large breeds, the occurrence of Bloat or Gastric Torsion is a real possibility in the Saint Bernard. If you are not familiar with this condition, it is absolutely necessary to learn about it and know the symptoms — This is a real emergency and a life threatening condition that requires immediate Veterinary attention. See Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (GDV) — Bloat for more information and First Aid for Bloat for an article describing some of the things you can do if you are faced with this situation.

If you are considering the adoption of a St. Bernard puppy, or any breed, it is very important to be selective in choosing a responsible and reputable breeder. Ensure that the prospective puppy’s parents have all health clearances. Breeding of any dog should not be done until after they have been proven to be free of evidence of significant hereditary diseases. (For more information on selecting a breeder, see the articles on the main General Information page.)

Additional Health Resources:

Grooming Information

The Saint Bernard’s coat requires regular brushing, especially the long-haired variety. A daily brushing of approximately 5 to 10 minutes helps maintain the dog’s coat and reduce shedding.

  • Grooming — This section of the Canada’s Guide to Dogs website includes tips, articles and information covering all aspects of dog grooming along with a listing of Groomers from across Canada.


Training Resources

The Saint Bernard is eager to please and responds very well to training. Training should be started as early as possible.

  • Training — For training information, see this growing section of the Canada’s Guide to Dogs website for tips, articles, as well as listings of training centres across Canada.


Additional Information

  • Judges Section From the Saint Bernard Club of America — “An Illustrated Commentary on the Saint Bernard Standard”. Directed toward judges, but also intended to be of value to newer breeders and exhibitors of the Saint Bernard.
  • The Saint Bernard National Archives & Hall of Fame — Sanctioned by the Saint Bernard Club of America, the National Archives houses historical information on the Saint Bernard breed now spanning three centuries in the United States.
  • Clubs, Sports & Activities — For information on the many sports and activities you can get involved in with your dog.
  • Working Dogs — The Working Dogs section of the Canada’s Guide to Dogs website provides information and listings of organizations that are involved in various dog jobs, such as Guide Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Police Dogs, Protection Dogs, and much more.

*NOTE 1: CHIC – The Canine Health Information Center “is a database of consolidated health screening results from multiple sources. Co-sponsored by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Health Foundation, CHIC works with parent clubs to identify health screening protocols appropriate for individual breeds. Dogs tested in accordance with the parent club established requirements, that have their results registered and made available in the public domain are issued CHIC numbers.” To learn more, visit:

*NOTE 2: The Fédération Cynologique International (FCI) is the World Canine Organization, which includes 91 members and contract partners (one member per country) that each issue their own pedigrees and train their own judges. The FCI recognizes 344 breeds, with each being the “property” of a specific country. The “owner” countries write the standards of these breeds in co-operation with the Standards and Scientific Commissions of the FCI, and the translation and updating are carried out by the FCI. The FCI is not a breed registry nor does it issue pedigrees.

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