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St. Bernard

St. Bernard in the snow
Other names St. Bernhardshund
Nicknames Saint
Country of origin Italy / Switzerland

The St. Bernard Dog is a very large breed of dog, a working dog from the Swiss Alps, originally bred for rescue. The breed has become famous through tales of alpine rescues, as well as for its enormous size.



The St. Bernard is a very large dog with a large head. The largest recorded Saint Bernard was over 6 ft in length and weighed 310 pounds, although the average weight of the breed is between 140 and 220 lb (64–100 kg) or more and the approximate height at the withers is 27½ inches to 35½ inches (70 to 90 cm).[1] The coat can be either smooth or rough, with the smooth coat close and flat. The rough coat is dense but flat, and more profuse around the neck and legs. The coat is typically a red colour with white, or sometimes a mahogany brindle with white. Black shading is usually found on the face and ears. The tail is long and heavy, hanging low with the end turned up slightly. The dark eyes should have naturally tight lids, with "haws only slightly visible".


Painting by John Emms portraying St. Bernards as rescue dogs with brandy barrels around their neck. According to legend, the brandy was used to warm the bodies of trapped people in avalanches or snow before help came.

The ancestors of the St. Bernard share a history with the Sennenhunds, also called Swiss Mountain Dogs or Swiss Cattle Dogs, the large farm dogs of the farmers and dairymen of the Swiss Alps, which were livestock guardians, herding dogs, and draft dogs as well as hunting dogs, search and rescue dogs and watchdogs. These dogs are thought to be descendants of molosser type dogs brought into the Alps by the ancient Romans, and the St. Bernard is recognized internationally today as one of the Molossoid breeds.[2]

The earliest written records of the St. Bernard breed are from monks at the hospice at the Great St. Bernard Pass in 1707, with paintings and drawings of the dog dating even earlier.[3]

The most famous St. Bernard to save people at the pass was Barry (sometimes spelled Berry), who reportedly saved somewhere between 40 and 100 lives. There is a monument to Barry in the Cimetière des Chiens, and his body was preserved in the Natural History Museum in Berne.[4]

The classic Saint Bernard looked very different from the St. Bernard of today, because avalanches killed off many of the dogs used for breeding between 1816 and 1818.[5] Severe weather during this period led to an increased number of avalanches that killed many St. Bernards while performing rescue work.[6] In an attempt to preserve the breed, the remaining St. Bernards were crossed with Newfoundlands brought from the Colony of Newfoundland in the 1850s, and so lost much of their use as rescue dogs in the snowy climate of the alps because the long fur they inherited would freeze and weigh them down.[7]

The Swiss St. Bernard Club was founded in Basel on March 15, 1884. The St. Bernard was the very first breed entered into the Swiss Stud Book in 1884, and the breed standard was finally approved in 1888. Since then, the breed has been a Swiss national dog.[3]


The name "St. Bernard" originates from traveler's hospice on the often treacherous St. Bernard Pass in the Western Alps between Switzerland and Italy, where the name was passed to the local dogs. The pass, the lodge, and the dogs are named for Bernard of Menthon, the 11th century monk who established the station.[8]

"St. Bernard" wasn't in widespread use until the middle of the 19th century. The dogs were called "Saint Dogs", "Noble Steeds", "Alpenmastiff", or "Barry Dogs" before that time.

Related breeds

The breed is strikingly similar to that of the English Mastiff, and Newfoundland. This can be attributed to a common shared ancestry with the Alpine Mastiff and the Tibetan mastiff. It is suspected that these breeds were used to redevelop each other to combat the threat of their extinction after World War II.[9]

The four Sennenhund breeds, the Grosser Schweizer Sennenhund (Greater Swiss Mountain Dog), the Berner Sennenhund, (Bernese Mountain Dog), the Appenzeller Sennenhund, (Appenzeller), and the Entlebucher Sennenhund (Entlebucher Mountain Dog) are similar in appearance and share the same location and history, but are tricolour rather than red and white.

Kennel Club recognition

The St. Bernard is recognised internationally by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale as a Molosser in Group 2, Section 2. The breed is recognised by The Kennel Club (UK), the Canadian Kennel Club, and the American Kennel Club in the Working Dog breed group. The United Kennel Club (US) places the breed in the Guardian Dog Group. The New Zealand Kennel Club and the Australian National Kennel Council place the breed in the Utility Group


St. Bernard demonstrating its strength.

St. Bernard dogs are no longer used for alpine rescues, but do participate in a variety of dog sports including carting and weight pulling. A St. Bernard holds the world record in strength: in 2008, a St. Bernard was recorded to pull over 2 tons.[citation needed]


The very fast growth rate and the weight of a St. Bernard can lead to very serious deterioration of the bones if the dog does not get proper food and exercise. Many dogs are affected by hip dysplasia or elbow dysplasia. Osteosarcoma (bone cancer) has been shown to be hereditary in the breed.[10]

St. Bernards are susceptible to eye disorders called entropion and ectropion, in which the eyelid turns in or out. The breed standard indicates that this is a major fault.

The breed is also susceptible to epilepsy and seizures, a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy, and eczema.

Due to the likelihood of health problems in later years, the average lifespan for a Saint Bernard is around 8 years. In fact Agria a pet insurance from Sweden does not give life insurance for a Saint Bernard when he/she is above 8 years. Saint Bernards may live beyond 10 years but those dogs are rare.


St. Bernard puppy.

St. Bernards, like all very large dogs, must be well socialized with people and other dogs while young if they are to be safely kept as a pet. A St. Bernard not properly introduced to and socialized with children from a young age may pose a threat, not having learned to distinguish between a child and other, smaller animals. Nonetheless, in general St. Bernards are friendly.

Due to its large adult size, it is essential that proper training and socialization begin while the St. Bernard is still a puppy, so as to avoid the difficulties that normally accompany training large animals. An unruly St. Bernard may present problems for even a strong adult, so control needs to be asserted from the beginning of the dog's training. While generally not as aggressive as dogs bred for protection, a St. Bernard may bark at strangers, and their size makes them good deterrents against possible intruders.


Record size

St. Bernards were exported to England in the mid 1800s, where they were bred with mastiffs to create an even larger dog. Plinlimmon, a famous St. Bernard of the time, was measured at 95 kg (210 lbs) and 87.5 cm (24 1/2ins), and was sold to an American for $7000.[7] Commercial pressure encouraged carelessly breeding ever larger dogs until "the dogs became so gross that they had difficulties in getting from one end of a show ring to another".[7]

The world's heaviest and largest dog in known history is claimed to be a Saint Bernard named Benedictine, which weighed 162 kg (357 lbs), although an 1895 New York Times report mentions a St. Bernard named Major F. who was longer[1]. Benedictine surpassed Zorba, the largest English mastiff on record, which measured 8 feet, 3 inches long and weighed 343 lb. Benedictine currently holds the world record for the heaviest dog that ever lived. This weight was provided by direct measurement.

In media

St. Bernards are often portrayed, especially in old live action comedies such as Swiss Miss, the TV series Topper and classic cartoons wearing small barrels of brandy around their necks. A frequent joke in old MGM and Warner Brothers shorts is to depict the dogs as compulsive alcoholics who engage in frequent nips from their own casks. This was supposedly used to warm the victims that the dogs found, although in reality, alcohol (which acts as a vasodilator) would worsen the situation of a person suffering hypothermia. The monks of the St. Bernard Hospice deny that any St. Bernard has ever carried casks or small barrels around their necks; they believe that the origin of the image is an early painting. The monks did keep casks around for photographs by tourists.[11]

A Punch magazine cartoon from 1949 depicts a man with a St. Bernard and several puppies, all of which are wearing neck casks. The man explains, "Of course, I only breed them for the brandy."

The Stephen King book Cujo portrays a rabid and crazed St. Bernard that terrorizes the residents of the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine.

Beethoven featured a large, friendly but troublesome St. Bernard and, in later sequels, his mate and their brood of unruly pups.

Famous St. Bernards


The famous Barry found a small boy in the snow and persuaded the boy to climb on his back, and then carried the boy to safety.[7]

A St Bernard is often credited with being the dog that helped save Manchester United, currently one of the world's largest football clubs, from financial ruin. The legend goes that in 1902 when the club owed sizeable debts, the then captain Harry Stafford was showing off his prized St Bernard at a fund-raiser for the club when he was approached by a wealthy brewery owner, J.H.Davis, who enquired to buy the dog. Harry Stafford refused the offer but managed to convince him to buy the club thus saving Manchester United from going bankrupt.

See also


  1. ^ Australian National Kennel Council
  2. ^ Group 2, Section 2: Molossoid breeds
  3. ^ a b St. Bernard, Vertebrate Animals Department, Naturhistoriches Museum der Burgergemeinde Bern
  4. ^ Naturhistorisches Museum - Science
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b c d Clark, Anne Rogers; Andrew H. Brace (1995). The International Encyclopedia of Dogs. Howell Book House. pp. 381–383. ISBN 0-87605-624-9. [Booklist Reviews 1996 April #2 Lay summary]. 
  8. ^ Dog Owner's Guide Profile: The St. Bernard
  9. ^ The History of the Mastiff - English Mastiff - dog of dogs
  10. ^ Bech-Nielsen, S., Haskins, M. E. et al. (1978). "Frequency of osteosarcoma among first-degree relatives of St. Bernard dogs". J Natl Cancer Inst 60(2):349-53. 
  11. ^ Pickow, George (1957). "The Great St. Bernard Hospice Today" (http). National Geographic, January 1957. Retrieved January 26 2006. 

External links

Simple English

The St. Bernard is a very large breed of dog. It was originally bred as a working dog, to rescue people who were lost in the Swiss Alps. Famously, they carried a small barrel of brandy around their neck to revive frozen mountaineers. There is no historical evidence that they did actually carry this brandy, although the monks at the St. Bernard Hospice keep some barrels around for photographs with tourists.[1]

It is a very big dog with a big head. A full grown male can weigh between 160 and 260 lb. The largest dog ever was a St. Bernard called Benedictine who weighed 357lbs.


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