Saint Bernard Breed Guide

Breed Group:
Working Dogs

Middle Age: 4 years

Geriatric Age: 7 years

Life Span: 8 to 10 years

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Saint Bernard Background & History

The Saint Bernard breed originated in Switzerland around the same time as the Bernese Mountain Dog. In fact, they’re all linked to the same gene pool. During the rule of Augustus, when Rome invaded the Swiss Alps, they brought with them their prized mastiffs. These Mastiffs were then bred to the Swiss shepherd and herding dogs of the mountains and an array of new breeds were formed. The Saint Bernard is one of them.

Centuries later, it’s said Saint Bernards were used for hospice care by Swiss monks. There are paintings in which dogs—that mirror the aesthetic of a Bernard—are doing exactly that. However, the first written documentation of the breed happened in the beginning of the 18th century. In the same century, when the hospice monks would seek lost travelers, they brought their Saint Bernards with them.

What they wanted was a guard dog. One big and intimidating enough to scare off animals or at worst criminals. What they found, however, was a champion that was incredibly dexterous in locating lost travelers. Excellent pathfinders and trackers, the Saint Bernard assisted in search and rescue missions for nearly two centuries.

Famous for their saintliness and skillset, breeders began to export these dogs in the 19th century. They went by a slew of different names—all of which usually had some sort of clever innuendo about them being godly or guardian-like—but towards the middle of the century the ‘Saint Bernard’ became their formal name. In 1885, the AKC recognized the Saint Bernard dog breed.

Saint Bernard Temperament & Personality

As their name and history suggest, the Saint Bernard has a gentle, kind, and loving temperament. Their benevolent personality and levelheaded temperaments make them glow with approachability. They love to love, are eager-to-please, and are a huge fan of strangers. They’re not needy about attention, and instead prefer to give it to their family.

Save for size, there aren’t any notable differences in Saint Bernard characteristics between males and females. They’re both just as homey and loving. The downside is they require a lot of attention. Companionship is their most precious aspiration. If not given enough time, or if they’re left at home for too long, they become nervous, reclusive, and destructive. Meaning, these dogs are horrible fits for the first-time dog owners, or for those of you that mean to keep your dog alone at home often.

But by in large, these are calm, gentle, and affectionate canines. They’re fantastic companions, steadfastly loyal, and aren’t known for being too boisterous (save for the early puppy years).

Training a Saint Bernard

A Saint Bernard responds to training in a slow but effective fashion. They’re definitely trainable but aren’t necessarily the most responsive off the bat. First order of business, know that these dogs can grow to over 150lbs. They need a large house to roam around in, and a backyard they can utilize. These aren’t apartment or condo dogs. Housebreaking one in small spaces makes the task near impossible.

Secondly, they can tend to be stubborn. This is a breed that benefits immensely from puppy classes and lots of early socialization. Being that they’re a bit slow-to-learn, it’s productive to keep them in class, then to administer discipline training when they’re at home. For Saint Bernards, positive reinforcement works best. These aren’t dogs that want to challenge you, nor are they intelligent enough to properly do so, in which case the alpha ownership and punishment system don’t work well. Saint Bernards love to the point of extreme sensitivity, meaning they crumble beneath the scorn of their owner.

Do know, Saint Bernards will stagnate in their later years. They won’t motivate themselves and will often become lethargic. Along with ensuring that your Saint Bernard is trained and well-tempered, you’ll have to be their cheerleader in the future too (you don’t want your dog to be obese).

Exercise Requirements for a Saint Bernard

Exercise is a tricky subject when it comes to Saint Bernards. First off, their big-boned bodies tend to grow in too fast. They’ll have a lot of energy as pups, but if you overwork them they’re prone to develop joint problems (this is common with heavier-set dogs that don’t exercise robustly). Secondly, they overheat. Their big fluffy coats trap heat and dispense it poorly in hotter climates, or even when they’re just exercising.

Those two things considered, a Saint Bernard should exercise for around 30 minutes per day, with a couple walks sprinkled between. They love to run around, but they also enjoy slower movement like taking a little stroll around the neighborhood. It’s important to incorporate obedience training when exercising your Saint Bernard, as their enthusiasm for others will often send them reeling towards strangers. This behavior needs to be disciplined, and exercise is a perfect time to work on it.

They love games and will learn tricks if you dedicate enough time. It’s important to stimulate their intellects, although this isn’t a breed that needs to be constantly engaged. As mentioned before, later in their adult years you’ll need to be their chief motivator, as their willingness to exercise will dwindle immensely. Saint Bernard health should be taken seriously, as this breed is prone to illness.

Saint Bernard Lifespan & Longevity

Saint Bernard life expectancy typically ranges anywhere from 8-10 years.

Saint Bernard Breed Popularity

The Saint Bernard breed is 49th on the AKC’s most popular list of 155 registered dog breeds. While these dogs have grown in popularity, they’re still not all-time favorites because of their short life expectancy and massive size. Despite, they’re gentle lovers, excellent companions, and an incredible addition to the family with a large enough home.

Feeding Requirements for a Saint Bernard

The recommended amount to feed a Saint Bernard is 5-6 cups of dry food daily, broken into two equal meals. Thing is, these canines can be glutinous about their food, and indifferent to exercise. That combination makes them prone to obesity, meaning two things: their diet should be carefully monitored, and the food administered should be of the utmost quality.

Age, metabolism, and weight are all factors to consider as well. No two dogs will eat the same, and that rule applies with Saint Bernards as well. Keep a careful eye on them as they grow, consult a veterinarian for the perfect diet, and take them in for examining to ensure they’re growing properly.

Grooming a Saint Bernard

The Saint Bernard’s coat—along with its face—are among its most recognizable traits. They look like big furry fluff balls. The coat comes in two variations; short-haired and long-haired. They’re usually reddish with white, or whitish with red. The white in their coats is usually flat and similar in coloring, but the red can range from dark, golden, and brindle.

With all that hair, deductive reasoning says they shed. In this case, that’s correct. You’ll need to brush these dogs 2-3 times weekly to mitigate the problem, and in shedding season or hotter climates daily. These coats can mat. When brushing you’ll need to use a breed-specific spray to untangle their hair.

Brush their teeth 2-3 times a week to avoid tartar and bacteria builds up. Trim their nails once a month, as you can’t count on a Saint Bernard to wear them down naturally. They don’t need to be bathed frequently and rather benefit from situational bathing. If you do bathe them, use shampoos that won’t deter their coat’s natural oils. Also, Bernards can develop stains around their eyes, so when you’re executing their usual hygiene upkeep process, wipe around their eyes to avoid staining.

As with all dogs, check their ears, mouth, eyes, nose, and bodies for anything suspicious. Look for redness, rashes, inflammation, infection, and parasites. Touch their paws and carry out checkups early on to accustom them to these routines. This will make for an adult that’s easier to groom.

Are Saint Bernards Good With Children?

A Saint Bernard acts exactly how you’d think around children; kindly. They’re affectionate, gentle, patient, and protective. They’ll let the younger ones play roughly with them, while—usually—never becoming irritated or aggressive. Their keen intuitions can differentiate the size of a child versus that of an adult, and they control the ferocity in which they play accordingly.

It’s important that both the dog and the children are introduced in their early ages, and that they’re taught how to properly interact, respect, and communicate with one another. All things considered, Saint Bernards are one of the best canines of their size when it comes to children. It’s one of the reasons they’re popular.

Saint Bernard Health Issues

The Saint Bernard lifespan is infamous for being short. Their heavy-set frames and laziness often contribute to obesity, and their body just doesn’t regulate how it’s supposed to. It’s important with this breed that your breeder can provide health clearances for the parents. These clearances need to have been administered by certified establishments. To drive the point home, do everything in your power to ensure your Saint Bernard have the least possible chance of being afflicted by one of the following health issues:

Hip Dysplasia: this is a common condition found in heavier set dogs, and it occurs when there’s displacement between the thigh bone and the hip joint. It can cause severe pain when walking, lameness in the leg(s), and at worse immobility. This condition can be screened for, only further stressing the importance of those health clearances (for the parents). There are treatments available for this condition.

Entropion: this condition occurs when the Saint Bernard’s eyelid rolls inward. It’s a genetic disorder and can cause extreme irritation in the eyes. It’s fixed through surgery.

Epilepsy: similar to the human anatomy, Epilepsy causes seizures. Dependent on the severity of the condition, these seizures will either be mild or extreme. In the dog world, that means they’ll run from ghosts, pace around frantically, hide for hours on end, and walk with abnormal gaits. While this condition cannot be cured, it can be mitigated with medication, and the dogs usually live normal lives ongoing.

Cataracts: this condition occurs when a film develops on the eye lens. It can impair eyesight and cause discomfort, although the degrees of its affliction vary dog-to-dog. In some cases, it can be cured through surgery. In some cases, it’s more complicated and may result in full blindness.

Other Resources

National breed website: Saint Bernard Club of America
Rescues: Saint Bernard Rescue Foundation