Saint Bernard dogs are first of all impressive because of their imposing appearance – their presence alone draws them attention and respect from all sides. But what makes this breed special is its nature, a perfect mixture of strength, gentleness and loyalty. Their highly sensitive vigilance, their unique ability to orient themselves and their above-average endurance are legendary: St. Bernard dogs achieved world fame as avalanche dogs. Today they have their place as a family dog who loves children more than anything. And everyone fondly remembers the successful movie “A dog called Beethoven”, in the main role of which a handsome St. Bernard shone!
Before the Saint Bernard was named the Swiss National Dog, its ancestors came a long way. The most famous of all mountain dogs, according to one theory, descends from Molossians, who were used as war dogs in ancient times. These massive dogs with projecting jaws can often be seen in depictions of Phoenician, Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian cultures.
Greek armies also carried molossoid dogs, whose home was in the border area with Armenia. In the period from 25 BC. until 15 BC Caesar conquered the central and foothills of the Alps. In the western section, the passes over the Little St. Bernard and the Great St. Bernard represented strategically important connecting routes to Gaul, which justified the import of the original St. Bernard into their new homeland. The opposite theory, however, indicates that no pre-Roman molossoid bones were found in Switzerland. The origin of the Alpine dog would instead be the Asian region, due to its close relationship with the Tibetan Mastiff. In today’s FCI standard, the St. Bernard is assigned to the mastiff-like breeds.
In the High Middle Ages, around 1050, Augustinian canons founded the hospice on the Great St. Bernard. In the mountain station, travelers found accommodation and local mountain guides. According to tradition, at the end of the 17th century they began breeding the first St. Bernard dogs. This emerges from pictures and records of the order from the years 1695 and 1707. The monks brought short-haired shepherd and farm dogs from the area, which were trained to protect the hospice from robbers. However, the monks did not manage the continuous development of the breed satisfactorily. Because the genetic pool was too small, many animals were not viable or reached a maximum lifespan of 6 – 8 years, so that the declining population often had to be replenished with new animals. Until then, the dogs had little in common with the Saint Bernard as we know it today, neither in size nor in appearance. They were smaller and lighter, but ideally suited for use as a companion dog on mountain hikes and for tracking down missing people in fog and snowy areas. The good deeds of the dogs were published in numerous chronicles and verbal reports by Napoleon’s soldiers who crossed the Alpine pass in 1800 contributed to the popularity of the Alpine hospice dogs throughout Europe. In the same year, the probably most famous St. Bernard “Barry” was born, who is said to have saved over 40 lives.
In the 19th century, crossing the Newfoundland gave birth to the long-haired loft, but only the short-haired specimens were suitable for working in the snow. The beautiful, long-haired dogs were sold or given away by the monks to high-ranking personalities such as the Russian Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna, Colonel Ris zu Bern or the Counts of Rougemont in Löwenburg near Murten. The stock-haired breeding pair with whom the Swiss innkeeper and butcher Heinrich Schuhmacher started the pure breeding of the St. Bernard hospice type in 1867 comes from this count’s offspring. Schuhmacher is the first breeder to issue pedigrees for his animals. Around this time the imposing breed was given the uniform name St. Bernard – previously they were called hospice dogs, barry dogs, holy dogs, alpine mastiffs, monastery dogs or St. Bernhard’s mastiffs. The Swiss dog studbook of February 1884 contained the Saint Bernard Léon as the first entry, followed by 28 of his breed. The Swiss St. Bernhards Club was founded on March 15 in Basel and on June 2, 1887 the international cynological association recognized the St. Bernard as a Swiss breed of dog. The breed standard set at the same time was also adopted by the first breeders’ association in Germany, which was founded in 1891 in Munich by 60 lovers and breeders to form the St.Bernhards – Klub eV. Heinrich Schumacher, founder of the St. Bernard breed, ended his activity in 1890 because the interest in buying had shifted to the heavy, long-haired type with the massive build. The hospice monks continued to operate the main kennel on the Great St. Bernhard and opened up a lucrative source of income with the sale of souvenirs. Due to too low membership numbers, the religious could no longer practice breeding. In 2005, the decision was made to sell to the Barry du Grand-St-Bernarder Foundation under the condition that half of the dog population must be present at the station in the summer months. Thanks to another private foundation, the St. Bernard Museum was opened in the canton of Valais. Exhibits from advertising, art and literature are on display on the upper floor, including the groomed “Barry” with the world-famous keg on the collar. St. Bernard breeding and keeping is continued on the ground floor with adjoining outdoor enclosures. The dogs take part in national events and can also be booked for private occasions.
Hardly any other breed has such a massive head: strong and broad in profile, with a pronounced stop and a slightly arched top of the head. The high set, hanging ears in triangular shape are set wide and medium-sized. Moderately deep-set eyes in a nut-brown to black-brown color are surrounded by completely pigmented lids. The straight muzzle shows strongly developed, taut lips. A moderately developed neck dewlap covers the strong neck. The harmoniously proportioned body shows a well-developed withers and a horizontal topline that ends in a slightly sloping croup. The lower profile line runs from the moderately deep chest to a slightly tucked stomach. The tail is long and strong. It extends to the ankle and is worn hanging down at rest. Strong-boned limbs lead to broad paws with strongly arched toes. There are two equal hair dresses. The top hair of the short-haired variety (stick hair) is coarse, close-fitting and smooth with a dense undercoat. The long-haired litter also has straight top hair with a lot of undercoat, but ears and face are short haired. The legs are feathered, the tail is bushy and the hair on the hips and croup is often wavy. In terms of coat color, red-brown plates or a so-called coat on a white base color are allowed, and brown-yellow and brindle red-brown are also tolerated. Black trimmings are required on the head, otherwise white markings on the chest, paws, noseband and a blaze are given. There is also a symmetrical dark mask. Faults include poor eyelid closure, too short or crooked legs, curved back and light eyes.
It seems that a Saint Bernard knows exactly what respect he exudes with his impressive physical size. If he guards the entrance and at the same time keeps an eye on the playing children of his family, he is by no means a lazy fellow, but still the reliable working dog like his ancestors in the hospice – only the tasks have changed. Today, the St. Bernard is hardly trained as a rescue dog, but undergoes work tests as a draft and companion dog. Training should begin as early as possible in order to prevent a certain stubbornness, otherwise it will later be difficult to safely lead a fully grown 90-pound dog. Saint Bernard dogs don’t like to be alone and they need loving care from their human pack. The breed also shows a pronounced territorial behavior. They react to strangers with suspicion or even aggressiveness. The big dogs need enough space, a house with a garden is ideal so that they can move around freely. In addition, there are extensive walking tours, which, however, are shorter when the summer heat is great. This breed is not suitable for pure housing.
Saint Bernard dogs are a tough breed, but like many other large dogs, they are prone to stomach twisting. An emergency operation must be carried out as soon as possible at the first signs, as this condition leads to death if left untreated. It is therefore healthier to split the feeding over two meals so as not to overload the stomach. Other diseases are malformations of the hip joint, some of which are genetic and some of which can be significantly favored by poor diet. The occurrence of malignant bone tumors is just as above average, as can heart problems and eye infections.
The Saint Bernard at a glance
Origin: Switzerland FCI Standard No. 61, Group 2 Pinscher and Schnauzer, Molossoid, Swiss Mountain Dog, Section 2: Molossoid Mountain Dog Alternative names: St. Bernhardshund, Saint Bernard Dog, Perro San Bernardo, Chien du Saint-BernardWithersheight: male 70 cm – 90 cm , Bitch 65 cm – 80 cmWeight: 80 kg – 90 kgHair coat: long hair and short hair (stick hair) Coat color: basic color white with red-brown plates or coat, yellow-brown, red-brown brindle, white markingsEyes: dark-brown to nut-brownEars: medium-sized, pendulous, triangular shapeBody: molossoid , muscular, massive Use: companion dog, guard dog, farm dog Character: relaxed, balanced, friendly, fond of children Health risks: stomach torsion, bone cancer, hip dysplasia, eye ailments Life expectancy: 5 – 10 years
Image: © Depositphotos.com / VolodymyrBur