St. Bernard

Gemma Gaitskell
Dr Gemma Gaitskell (BVetMed MSc MRCVS, Royal Veterinary College, London)
 
Photo of adult St. Bernard

St. Bernards are giant, docile, patient, good natured dogs which were originally bred as all-round farm and rescue dogs by monks in Switzerland. They became well known for their outstanding ability as a rescue dog, but are now kept largely as companions. The modern St. Bernard is extremely large and has an enormous head. There are two different coat variations – both of which are with thick dense hair and can shed heavily so require regular brushing. Their coat is very heavy so they are better suited to cooler climates.

The St. Bernard has a friendly temperament and is very good with children. In addition the breed is gentle towards other pets. The St. Bernard is a good worker and willing to please, so generally learns quickly and is cooperative. Early socialization and training is important, largely because of the breed's size, which can make them difficult to control if they become unruly. The St. Bernard can suffer from several health problems so selecting a healthy family line without over exaggerated characteristics is essential.

About & History

The St. Bernard is a giant breed which was originally developed in Switzerland by monks from the St. Bernard hospice in the 1600’s. The monastery was located near the St. Bernard Pass, which was part of a treacherous mountain route. These early dogs where bred from Sennenhunds or Swiss Mountain Dogs, which served multiple purposes, and were used as companions, all-round farm, draft and guard dogs, as well as rescue dogs. This last role is what led the breed to fame where they saved numerous travelers lost in snow and fog.

In order to perform better as rescue dogs the monks are thought to have introduced Newfoundland and Bloodhound lines into the breed to increase their size. There was concern that the dogs with the longer coats would become covered with ice, and this is where the two different coat types began to be developed. Although well known for their ability as rescue dogs, it was not until the late 1800’s that the breed was given the name St. Bernard and became more standardized due to the development of a breed standard by a man called Heinrich Schumacher. Since this time, the breed has been considered the national dog of Switzerland.

Todays St. Bernards are much larger than the original members of the breed, and they have somewhat lost their functionality. Although they remain emblematic they are also no longer used as rescue dogs. The modern St. Bernard is now kept largely as a pet and companion and sometimes as a watchdog.

Appearance

St. Bernard Large Photo

The St. Bernard can come in either rough or smooth coated varieties and there are numerous different colour variations, which are accepted for registration with the UK Kennel Club. These include:

  • Brown & White
  • Brown & White & Dark Shadings
  • Mahogany & White
  • Mahogany Black & White
  • Mahogany Brindle
  • Mahogany White & Dark Shadings
  • Mahogany White & Orange Shadings
  • Orange & White
  • Orange & White & Dark Shadings
  • Orange Black & White
  • Red & White
  • Red & White & Dark Markings
  • Red Brindle
  • Tricolour

Acceptable markings include:

  • White muzzle
  • White blaze on the face
  • White collar
  • White chest
  • White forelegs, feet and tip of tail
  • Black shadings on the face and ears

The St. Bernard is a giant dog of enormous size. Female dogs should be a minimum of 70 cm and males a minimum of 75cm tall at the withers. The UK Kennel Club does not specify weight limits but says that size is desirable as long as the dog appears ‘balanced’ with some individuals having been recorded to weigh around 140 kg. Important proportions for the St. Bernard include that the height at the withers should be in a ratio of 9:10 to the length of the body. The depth of the chest should be just over half of the overall height at the withers. The overall length of the head should be a little more than one third of the height to the withers.

St. Bernard’s have a strong, thick neck, which is relatively long and arches slightly. It should have an obvious dewlap. Shoulders should be wide and sloping and lead to strong, straight legs with plenty of bone. Feet should be big, but neat and compact. The St. Bernard should have a broad, deep chest, which should not reach below the elbows. The body and back is also wide and muscular and leads to strong, straight back legs. The tail should be high set, but unless excited is carried low.

The head is extremely large, with a circumference which is over double its length. The muzzle should be twice as deep as it is long and it length should be just over one third of the complete length of the head, with a square, black nose. The jaws should be strong, with large teeth and a perfect bite. The eyes should be medium sized, and should not have excessive or loose skin around them. The St. Bernard’s ears are medium sized and lie forwards on the the cheeks with are flat.

The St. Bernard should move with an effortless, smooth gait. Legs should move straight and parallel and cover a reasonable amount of ground, with drive coming from the back end. Dogs should not be lame or move unevenly under any circumstances.

Character & Temperament

The St. Bernard is a gentle giant – these large dogs have an extremely calm, docile nature are very sweet natured and friendly. They are also very patient and are especially good with children and generally get along with other dogs and pets.

They have a very laid back nature and do not typically suffer from separation anxiety, but as with all dogs should not be left home alone for long periods of time. St. Bernards are not typically a guard dog by nature but their large size means they can be imposing and for this purpose can be used as watch dogs as they can be protective of their family.

Trainability

Photo of St. Bernard puppy

The St. Bernard was bred as a working dog and has a willing and affable nature. In their original use as rescue dogs, older dogs were used to teach younger dogs the ropes and they are quick to learn. Training recall is not typically a problem, as the St. Bernard likes to cooperate and please.

Despite their cooperative nature it is important that they are correctly trained and socialized from puppyhood as their large size means that they can be difficult to control if allowed to become rowdy. When given regular access to outside spaces, either on walks or in the form of a garden, house training is not usually an issue for St. Bernards.

Health

The St. Bernard has an average lifespan of around 8 – 10 years of age. The breed is classed as a Category 3 breed with several points of concern, which can seriously affect the welfare of the breed. These include:

Points of Concern

  • An incorrect bite and dentition.
  • Weakness in the back legs and unsound movement.
  • Excessive amounts of loose facial skin, abnormalities in the eyelids so that the edges of the eyelid are not in their usual position in relation to the eye, turning either in or out.

Common Health Problems

Breeders are strongly advised that female dogs should not have a litter under two years old. Some of the health problems which can affect the St. Bernard include:

  • Hip Dysplasia (HD) – This condition is caused when the hips develop abnormally, and can include several different developmental problems and abnormalities. These often lead to joint problems later on in life. Hip x-rays are scored by experts using specific criteria in dogs of one year or older. The lower the score the fewer the signs of dysplasia. The maximum score is 106 for both hips combined. HD is transmitted genetically, but can also be influenced by environmental factors. UK Kennel Club Assured Breeders are required to participate in this scheme and have all breeding dogs hip scored.
  • Elbow Dysplasia – Abnormal development of the elbows, which usually leads to osteoarthritis. There is an important genetic component in this condition. Dogs are scored and ideally only dogs with a score of 0 should be used for breeding.
  • Osteosarcoma – Large breeds, such as St. Bernards, seem to be at a greater risk of bone cancers, such as osteosarcoma and in this breed it is thought to have a genetic factor. These tumors are fast growing and painful and usually occur in middle aged and older dogs. The most commonly occur in long bones of the legs, so if caught early enough treatment often consists of surgical amputation of the limb.
  • Dilated Cardiomyopathy – This condition causes changes in the heart muscle. The wall becomes thinner and overstretched and one of the heart chambers (the left ventricle) becomes enlarged. These changes affect the ability of the heart to pump blood around the body effectively and eventually result in heart failure. Treatment to slow down the progression of the condition is by using several medications but their efficacy can depend on how advanced the condition is and how well individual dogs respond.
  • Polyneuropathy – This disease affects peripheral nerves, which are the nerves around the body outside the spinal cord. Eventually the degeneration of the nerves starts to affects the body’s ability to work normally and there is a loss of coordination and some reflexes. The progression of the disease depends on the cause and often worsens over time. Any dogs which are affected should not be bred from.
  • Eye Disorders – Some St. Bernards have excessive amounts of skin on their face and around their eyes. This can lead to conditions such as entropion and ectropion where the eyelids either fold inwards or outwards and can lead to the eye becoming damaged. Depending on how severe the condition is, surgery may be necessary to permanently resolve the problem.
  • Epilepsy – This is a neurological condition which causes seizures. These seizures can be of varying severity and frequency and identifying the trigger is often difficult. Medication is often effective for controlling epilepsy.

Exercise and Activity Levels

St. Bernards are large dogs, with a thick dense coat developed for cold climates. This can mean that they are prone to overheating in hot weather or warmer climates. Care should be taken not to exercise dogs in the middle of the day when temperatures are high and ensure they always have access to shade or a cool place and plenty of water.

The St. Bernard usually needs around an hour to an hour and a half of walking a day. They are generally calm, docile dogs but it is important to remember that they were bred for rescue and are extremely large so it is important they are exercised to stay happy and physically healthy. They also enjoy spending some time off the lead if possible. When St. Bernard’s are growing it is important that their exercise is carefully controlled as their extremely fast growth rate means that they can develop problems if exercised excessively.

Grooming

St. Bernards can either have a rough or a smooth coat. The rough or long coated variety has a thick, flat coat, with more hair around the neck, back legs and tail. The smooth or short coated variety has a shorter, closer coat with just minimal feathering on the back legs and tail. Neither coat type requires specialist grooming, although regular brushing is advisable to prevent excessive shedding at home. Due to their excessive skin folds, some St. Bernards may be prone to skin irritation and subsequent infections as a result of scratching and licking. It is important to keep an eye out for any areas causing irritation and treat them under veterinary guidance and also try to identify and avoid whatever is causing them. In dogs with thick coats, regular brushing to remove any loose hair can be helpful, but this may not always be the cause so allergies should also be ruled out.

Ear problems are very common in St. Bernards. It is advisable to check ears regularly to try and catch any problems early. Keeping hair around the ears short can also help, as it allows air to get to the area better. There are several different causes and factors which can contribute to ear problems, but early treatment is important and any problems should not be left unattended as they can be extremely irritating and painful for the dog.

Similarly to other large dogs with lots of facial skin St. Bernards can be prone to dribbling. This can be messy and is definitely a consideration if a St. Bernard is to be kept as a house dog.

Famous St. Bernards

The St. Bernard’s cuddly appearance and gentle nature means there are several well-known characters in popular culture representing the breed. Some of these include:

  • Barry a mountain rescue dog one of the earlier types of St. Bernard who rescued more than 40 people in Switzerland.
  • Beethoven from the film Beethoven and Beethoven’s 2nd.
  • Buck from the book The Call of the Wild by Jack London.
  • Nana from the film Peter Pan.
  • Neil from the TV series Topper.
  • Cujo from the book Cujo by Stephen King.
  • Bolivar who belonged to Donald Duck in the Disney cartoons.
  • Chibi from the Japanese manga series Itazura na Kiss.
  • Howard from the cartoon series Howard Huge.

Cross-Breeds

The St. Bernard has been crossed with several other breeds to produce the following cross-breeds:

  • St. Berdoodle – Cross between a St. Bernard and a Poodle
  • Great Bernard – Cross between a St. Bernard and a Great Dane
  • St. Bernese – Cross between a St. Bernard and a Bernese Mountain Dog
  • St. Berxer – Cross between a St. Bernard and a Boxer
  • St. Chowperd – Cross between a St. Bernard and a Chow Chow cross German Shepherd
  • St. Mastiff – Cross between a St. Bernard and a Mastiff
  • St. Shepherd – Cross between a St. Bernard and a German Shepherd Dog
  • St. Weiler – Cross between a St. Bernard and a Rottweiler
  • St. Bernewfie – Cross between a St. Bernard and a Newfoundland
  • Mini St. Bernard – Cross between a St. Bernard and a Cocker Spaniel

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