Saint Bernard

Saint Bernard dog breed
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Have you seen Beethoven, the movie? Do you remember the main star? Yes, that’s right, it’s a Saint Bernard! This is a giant breed, with a giant heart as they are loveable and huggable and a bit drooly. A great family pet, which once used to save lost travelers in the Alps.

Breed Characteristics

AdaptabilityAbove Average
TrainabilityBelow Average
Health and GroomingHigh
All Around FriendlinessHighest
Exercise NeedsAbove Average

Dog Breed Group:Working Dogs
Height: 2 feet, 2 inches to 2 feet, 6 inches tall at the shoulder
Weight:120 to 180 pounds
Life Span:8 to 10 years

Saint Bernards used to rescue people from the cold, snowy Alps so it’s not a surprise that even after that many years, the breed kept its temperament and character. This is a gentle, good-natured, intelligent dog.

They really are a saintly breed when it comes to their relationship with the owner and the family. They don’t like to be separated from them and enjoy their company. However, they are not really suited for a small apartment and they need at least some space for stretching.

Saints don’t bark without reason, and they are not aggressive, but they would defend their owner and family if it comes to that. Nonetheless, their size is enough to scare of any unwanted guests. The sad side of his giant size is that they, as a breed, are condemned to a shorter life span because of several hereditary diseases.

Main Highlights
  • Giant-size breed! Even though they are quiet and peaceful, they are not the best fit for an apartment. They need space to move around the place and stretch out.
  • Not for neat freaks! They drool and shed, and they won’t skip the pool of mud. They change their coat twice a year usually, so prepare for carpets of hair.
  • Two year old puppy? Yeah! Like most of the larger breeds, Saint Bernards take longer to mature. This means that you will be taking care of a very big puppy for almost 2 years.
  • They are great family pets, but you need to be careful when they are around small children. They might accidently step on them or hurt them.
  • Not for very hot weather! They are originally from the Alps and they are used to low temperatures. If you leave in an area with very hot summers, don’t plan on keeping a Saint Bernard — he would suffer.
  • They don’t bark without reason
  • Short-lived breed — approximately 8-10 years.
  • Although they do well on low temperatures, you shouldn’t leave your Saint Bernard outside. They do better in the company of people and don’t want to be separated from the family.
  • They are very famous dogs, because of the movie Beethoven. Their fame resulted in massive production of puppies from this breed. However, many irresponsible breeders and puppy mills sell them, so be careful when you buy one.
Breed History

This breed originated in Switzerland along with some other breeds, like the Bernese Mountain Dog, the Appenzell Cattle Dog, the Entlebuch Cattle Dog and the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog.

The breed was most likely created by crossing the Mastiff-type dogs with the native dogs from the Alps during the Roman expansion when Augustus was the ruler.

At first, these dogs were named Talhund-Valley dog or Bauemhund-farm dog and the first mention of the Saint Bernard name shows up in 1703, in the records kept by a monastery founded by the Archdeacon Bernard de Menthon.

This monastery was actually built to help people through a very difficult pass that claimed many lives before. This pass lies around 8,000 feet above sea level and because of that it can only be traveled between July and September. During that time, people started using the Saint Bernard breed and that can be seen on some paintings from 1695.

In the beginning, the monks probably used the dogs for guarding the grounds and protection when they went on searches for lost travelers. It was probably on accident that they discovered that the dogs were excellent in locating helpless travelers and they were excellent pathfinders. The breed developed to the point that the dogs could withstand harsh winters and their physical characteristics refined for their rescue and search work.

At one time, the monks tried to improve the breed by crossing the dogs with longhaired and thick-coated Newfoundland. However, the results weren’t good, because ice could build up in the longer coated Saint Bernard.

In the records of the Hospice, it is said that the dogs managed to save over 2000 travelers. There was a dog named Barry that was credited with 40 finds and, due to its fame, many dogs after that were referred to as Barryhunden.


Male Saint Bernards stand 28 to 30 inches at the shoulder and weigh 140 to 180 pounds while females are 26 to 28 inches and weigh 120 to 140 pounds.

Personality and Character

Saint Bernards can be described as welcoming and friendly due to their hospice heritage. They are kind and careful with children and have a benevolent and steady character. As much as they love attention, they’re not as demanding as some companion breeds.

However, it is best to start with training at an early age, because when they grow up to their full size, it will be harder to manage them. They are intelligent, pleasing and defensive of family members.

Just like all breeds, this one too needs early socialization. It is recommended to expose them to various people, places, sounds and experiences when they are just puppies. This will ensure you your dog will be a well-rounded dog when it grows up.

Health and Potential Problems

Saint Bernards are generally a healthy breed, with a few hereditary conditions that you should be aware of before getting a cute little puppy, or consider to breed them yourself.

  • Hip dysplasia- a problem with the thighbone where the bone doesn’t fit neatly in the hip joint. It is a genetic condition and if diagnosed in a dog, the dog shouldn’t be bred. The symptoms can be lameness, discomfort, pain, refusing to walk, or there can be no symptoms at all.
  • Elbow dysplasia- similar to hip dysplasia, the elbow dysplasia is also a degenerative disease affecting the elbow joint. Mostly it is caused by abnormal development and growth, which makes the joint weakened and malformed. Affected dogs react differently; for example, some become lame and others develop little stiffness. The treatment consists of surgery and, of course, weight management and some medication.
  • Entropion- This is a defect of the eye. It can be diagnosed by six months of age when you can see the eyelid rolling inward and irritating or injuring the eyeball. If your dog has this condition, you can see him rubbing one or both eyes, since it can affect one or both eyes. The problem can be corrected by surgery.
  • Cataract— Cataract can be defined as some kind of vision loss. It presents itself as opacity of the lens and you can see cloudy appearance on the eye. The disease is inherited and usually occurs with old age but it can also appear at any age. This problem can be dealt with by surgical removal.
  • Epilepsy: A really terrible disorder, for the dog and for the owner. This condition causes mild to severe seizures and can be hereditary or triggered by certain events such as infectious diseases that affect the brain, tumors, metabolic disorders, poisons, head injuries, and others. It can also be caused by unknown factors — idiopathic epilepsy.
    The seizures are exhibited by unusual behavior, like hiding, staggering or running frantically. For the owner, it will be frightening to see the dog suffering this way. However, the long term prognosis for idiopathic epilepsy is usually very good and the epileptic seizures can be controlled with medication. A dog affected by this disease can live a full and happy life with the proper care. If you see something like this in your dog, take him to the vet immediately for diagnosis and treatment.
  • Dilated Cardiomyopathy: It is a heart condition that occurs when the heart muscle becomes very weak and unable to contract normally. The heart begins to compensate for its weakness and it becomes enlarged. Some of the symptoms that occur in dogs with this condition are abnormal heart rhythm, signs of heart failure, loss of appetite, weakness, weight loss, collapse, depression, soft cough, difficulty breathing and enlarged abdomen. There is no cure for this disease, but it can be made easier on the dog with rest, appropriate diet, and some medication.
  • Gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV): A life-threatening condition, also known as vloat or torsion. It affects deep-chested dogs, like the Saint Bernard. It usually happens when dogs are fed only one big meal a day and they tend to eat it rapidly and then they drink large amounts of water and exercise. There are some theories that the type of food and raised feeding dishes are also to blame. Older dogs get it more often, but it is not a rule as any dog of any age can be affected.

Simply explained, GDV happens when the stomach of the dog is distended with gas or air and torsion happens. Some of the symptoms include distended abdomen, retching without throwing up, or excessive drooling. The dog is restless, lethargic, depressed, with a rapid heart rate, and weak. If you notice any of these symptoms it is very important to take your dog to the vet immediately. Some vets indicate that this condition can be inherited, so it is not recommended to breed dogs with this condition

Care Features

Saint Bernards need a lot of exercise to prevent obesity. They are prone to eating a lot and if they gain too much weight it can be hard on their joints. Also it can be the cause of arthritis or some other orthopedic problems.

However, you should limit the amount of exercise for your puppy until he grows up to the full size. If you are not careful with the exercise, it can cause hip problems by injuring while running or jumping.

Also keep in mind that this is a large breed that is prone to heatstroke and exhaustion. You should avoid exercise on hot days, and always make sure they have access to fresh water and shade. If you notice heavy panting, weakness, dark-red gums, or collapse, take your dog to the vet, because these are the signs of fatigue or heatstroke.

Early training is essential! If you let your puppy grow up and do whatever he likes, you would be dragged down on street while taking him for a walk, and you would find chaos every time you come back home. Use a relaxed and happy approach in training.

This is a naturally friendly breed, but given their size and their ignorance about it, they should be thought how to act around other dogs, strangers and children. Training won’t take a lot of you time, you just need to teach them the basics. You can even enroll them in a puppy kindergarten or obedience classes.

Saint Bernards can be trained as show dogs, for obedience trials, and cart pulling.

Feeding Schedule

Adult Saint Bernards should get their daily amount of food split into two meals. Of course, the amount depends on many things, such as size, build, age, metabolism, and level of activity as well as the kind of food you are giving. If the food is good quality, you will probably fill the bowl with less amount.

Also, Saint Bernards really enjoy eating and because of that, they are prone to obesity. It is better to divide and measure the food intake of your dog, instead of leaving the food on the reach the whole time.

Coat, Color and Grooming

Saint Bernards can have two looks: longhaired and shorthaired. The coat in the shorthaired Saint Bernard is smooth and dense. The hair on the thighs is a bit bushy and the tail has long and dense hair that shortens at the tip of the tail. The coat in the longhaired type is a bit wavy, never curly or shaggy.

The color of this breed varies from shades of red with white or white with red. The red can be in different shades, from brindle to brownish-yellow. The white parts are on the chest, around the nose and the neck, on the feet and the tip of the tail.

Specifically desirable looks are dark markings resembling a mask on the face, white spots on the back of the neck and white blaze on the face. It is thought that the white markings resemble the liturgical vestments that were worn by the priests. Also, the dark mask on the face reduces the glare of the snow.

Saint Bernards should be brushed about three times a week. Shorthaired ones should be brushed with a rubber curry brush or hound glove while longhaired ones should be brushed with a pin brush. If you find some mats on your dog, behind the ears, or between the legs, use a de-tangle solution and gently untangle the matted areas with a comb. This breed sheds, and during that season you should use a shedding blade to remove the loose hair.

Saint Bernards need regular baths, but not too frequently. If you bathe him yourself, the easiest way to do it is outdoors, unless you have a suitable dog-bath. During winter, give the baths indoors, or take your dog to the groomers if you don’t have the conditions at home. For the bathing, you should use dog shampoo — sometimes it is recommended to use whitening shampoo in order to keep the coat white and bright.

This breed sometimes develops stains around their eyes and to take care of them, you should wipe them daily with a damp cloth or by using some product specifically made for that. Also, teeth need brushing too — at least two times a week. However, if you have the time you can do it every day. With brushing, you avoid bacterial build up and you remove tartar.

Nails need trimming! Depending on how much your dog spends his nails, usually is good to trim them once a month. Shorter nails are better for legs and you’ll get fewer scratches when he jumps to say hi.

Check the ears and the eyes! If the ears look dirty, wipe them with a clean cotton ball (never use ear swab), and if you want, use an ear cleaner that was recommended by your vet.

Most importantly, if you want all of these activities to go smoothly, you need to get your dog accustomed to them while he’s still a puppy. Examine his paws regularly, check the ears, and the mouth also. You should make grooming a positive experience, so don’t be stingy with the praises and the rewards.

Children And Other Pets Compatibility

As their name says it, they are practically saints around kids! Gentle and patient, they will put up with all the games children want to play. They will step carefully when they are around small children but they are still a large breed and they should not be left unsupervised with young children (just in case).

They also get along well with other pets, even better if they are raised with them. They should be supervised around small pets, because Saints sometimes are ignorant about their size and they could accidently step or lie on them.

If you want a big cuddly buddy, this is the breed for you! They might drool and shed, but you’ll love them anyway. They will make sure that you are never lost in the Alps and will protect you! Their name says it, they are real saints!

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.