Saint Bernard

saint bernard

The Saint Bernard, a gentle giant among dog breeds, combines impressive size with a kind and benevolent temperament. Known historically as the Alpine rescuer, this breed has evolved into a beloved family companion, recognized for both its heroic legacy and its affectionate nature.

General Info About the Breed

Saint Bernards are one of the largest dog breeds, famous for their strength, calm disposition, and striking appearance. Originally bred for mountain rescue and as working dogs, they are now more commonly found as gentle, loving family pets. Their size and distinctive coat make them instantly recognizable.

History and Origins of the Saint Bernard

The Saint Bernard is a breed with a rich and noble history, deeply intertwined with the snowy passes of the Swiss Alps. Their story is one of bravery, resilience, and an enduring bond with humans.

Early Beginnings

  • Monastic Origins: The breed’s history dates back to the 11th century. It originated in the Swiss Alps, particularly around the Great Saint Bernard Pass, a treacherous, snowy route through the mountains.
  • Hospice Dogs: The Saint Bernard was bred and used by the monks of the Great Saint Bernard Hospice, founded by St. Bernard of Menthon. The hospice served as a safe haven for travelers crossing the dangerous pass.

Development as Rescue Dogs

  • Rescue Missions: The monks discovered that these dogs were excellent at navigating through snow and had a keen sense of direction and detection. They began to use them to find and save lost travelers buried under snow avalanches.
  • Life-Saving Legacy: Over centuries, Saint Bernards are credited with saving over 2,000 lives. Their powerful build allowed them to traverse deep snow, and their keen sense of smell helped locate buried travelers.

Physical Evolution

  • Cross-Breeding for Resilience: Originally, Saint Bernards were shorter-haired. During the 1800s, to improve their resilience in harsh winter conditions, they were crossbred with longer-haired breeds, possibly the Newfoundland, which led to the variety of coat types seen today.

Global Recognition

  • Breed Standardization: The first breed standard for the Saint Bernard was established in 1884.
  • AKC Recognition: The American Kennel Club recognized the Saint Bernard in 1885.
  • Worldwide Popularity: The breed’s fame spread beyond Switzerland, becoming popular worldwide, both as a working dog and a companion.


The history of the Saint Bernard is a testament to the breed’s strength, intelligence, and unyielding dedication to saving human lives. From their origins in the snowy Alps to their status as beloved companions, Saint Bernards have always been more than just dogs; they are symbols of selflessness and heroism. Their remarkable history of rescue and their gentle, loving nature have made them a legendary breed, celebrated and admired across the world.


saint bernard
Image courtesy of Beth Desrosiers


Size Characteristics

    • Relative Size: Saint Bernards are larger than many other breeds, including other large breeds like the Newfoundland, the Great Dane, and the Mastiff. However, they are typically shorter in height compared to Great Danes but outweigh them in terms of mass and robustness.The Saint Bernard is renowned for its imposing size, making it one of the largest dog breeds in the world. Understanding the size characteristics of this breed is crucial, especially for prospective owners, as it directly impacts their care and living requirements.


      • Males: Male Saint Bernards typically stand between 28 to 30 inches at the shoulder, though some can be taller.
      • Females: Female Saint Bernards are generally slightly smaller, with an average height ranging from 26 to 28 inches.


      • Hefty Build: The weight of a Saint Bernard is one of its most notable features. They are heavy, muscular dogs.
      • Males: Males can weigh between 140 to 180 pounds, and in some cases, even more.
      • Females: Females usually weigh slightly less, ranging from 120 to 140 pounds.

      Body Structure

      • Robust and Muscular: Saint Bernards have a powerful, muscular build, with a broad chest and strong, sturdy legs. Their body is well-proportioned to support their large size.
      • Physical Presence: Their size, combined with their physical strength, gives them a commanding and impressive presence.

      Comparison with Other Breeds

      • Relative Size: Saint Bernards are larger than many other breeds, including other large breeds like the Newfoundland, the Great Dane, and the Mastiff. However, they are typically shorter in height compared to Great Danes but outweigh them in terms of mass and robustness.


  • The size of the Saint Bernard is a defining characteristic of the breed. Their large, muscular build requires sufficient space for comfortable living and exercise. Prospective owners should consider the implications of owning such a large dog, including higher food consumption, space requirements, and strength needed for handling. Despite their size, Saint Bernards are known for their gentle nature, making them gentle giants in the truest sense.


saint bernard
Image courtesy of Bruce Warrington



  • Robust and Powerful: They have a muscular and powerful build, necessary for their work in treacherous mountain conditions.
  • Coat: There are two coat types – short-haired (smooth coat) and long-haired. Both types have dense and water-resistant coats.
  • Colors and Markings: The coat is usually white with red, brown, or brindle markings. Their expressive faces often feature darker markings.

Temperament of the Saint Bernard

The Saint Bernard, despite its imposing size, is renowned for its gentle, kind, and friendly temperament. This breed exemplifies the characteristics of a gentle giant, making it a beloved family pet and a compassionate companion.

Gentle and Affectionate

  • Nature: Saint Bernards are known for their gentle and affectionate demeanor. They are typically very loving and enjoy being close to their family members.
  • Good with Families: Their patient and gentle nature makes them excellent companions for families with children. They are often protective and caring towards kids, though interactions should always be supervised due to their large size.

Friendly and Social

  • Behavior with Strangers: Despite their size and history as guard dogs, Saint Bernards are usually friendly towards strangers. They tend to greet people with a calm and kind demeanor rather than aggression.
  • Interaction with Other Animals: They generally get along well with other dogs and animals, particularly if socialized from a young age.

Calm and Composed

  • Demeanor: One of the breed’s hallmarks is its calmness. Saint Bernards are typically not hyperactive and often exhibit a composed and serene disposition.
  • Adaptable: Their calm nature makes them well-suited to various living environments, provided they have enough space.

Intelligent and Responsive

  • Training Response: Saint Bernards are intelligent and capable of learning a variety of commands and tasks. They are generally responsive to training, especially when it’s started early and conducted with positive reinforcement techniques.
  • Learning Capability: They are known to be quick learners and can be trained for various roles, including therapy and rescue work.


  • Emotional Intelligence: Saint Bernards are sensitive to the moods and emotions of their owners. They often seek to provide comfort and presence, making them excellent emotional support or therapy dogs.
  • Environmentally Aware: They are also aware of their environment and can be protective of their family and home.


The temperament of the Saint Bernard makes it an excellent companion for individuals and families alike. Their gentle nature, combined with their intelligence and loyalty, endears them to those who know them. While they may be calm and composed, they still enjoy play and require regular exercise to stay healthy. Overall, the Saint Bernard’s kind disposition, coupled with its impressive size, makes it a truly remarkable breed.

Trainability of the Saint Bernard

Saint Bernards, known for their gentle nature and large size, also possess qualities that make them trainable and responsive to learning. Their trainability is influenced by several aspects of their temperament and breed characteristics.

Intelligence and Understanding

  • Innate Intelligence: Saint Bernards are intelligent dogs, capable of understanding and following commands. They are quick learners, especially when training is consistent and starts from an early age.
  • Understanding of Commands: They generally grasp basic commands and training concepts well, making them suitable for various types of training.

Response to Training Methods

  • Positive Reinforcement: Like many breeds, Saint Bernards respond best to positive reinforcement techniques. They are motivated by praise, treats, and affection, which can make training sessions both enjoyable and effective.
  • Gentle Approach: Due to their sensitive nature, a gentle approach to training works best. Harsh methods or negative reinforcement can be counterproductive.

Socialization and Early Training

  • Importance of Socialization: Early socialization is crucial for Saint Bernards. Exposing them to different people, environments, pets, and experiences helps in developing a well-rounded and sociable dog.
  • Puppy Training Classes: Enrolling them in puppy classes is beneficial for both socialization and foundational training.

Specific Training Considerations

  • Consistency is Key: Consistency in commands and expectations is important to avoid confusion and ensure effective learning.
  • Training as Mental Stimulation: Training also provides mental stimulation, which is important for this intelligent breed. Keeping their mind engaged helps prevent boredom and associated behavioral issues.

Potential Training Challenges

  • Stubborn Streak: Sometimes, Saint Bernards may exhibit a stubborn streak. Patience and positive motivation are key to overcoming this challenge.
  • Size Considerations: Given their size, it’s important to train them in basic manners and obedience. An untrained Saint Bernard can be difficult to manage due to their sheer physicality.


Saint Bernards are trainable dogs that respond well to positive and consistent training methods. Their intelligence, coupled with a willingness to please, makes them capable learners. However, their training should also account for their size and strength, ensuring that they grow into well-behaved and manageable adult dogs. Regular training, combined with proper socialization, is key to harnessing the potential of this gentle and affectionate breed.


saint bernard
Image courtesy of Alejandro De La Mora


Exercise Requirements and Energy Level

  • Understanding the exercise needs and energy levels of the Saint Bernard is important for maintaining their health and well-being. Despite their large size, their exercise requirements are not as demanding as one might expect.

    Energy Level

    • Moderate Energy: Saint Bernards typically have a moderate energy level. They are not overly hyperactive but do enjoy regular activities.
    • Balance of Activity and Relaxation: While they enjoy being active, they also appreciate relaxation and are quite content to lounge around, especially after exercise.

    Exercise Requirements

    • Daily Exercise: Regular exercise is important to keep a Saint Bernard healthy. This could include walks, playtime in a fenced yard, or other moderate activities.
    • Type of Exercise: Activities should be moderate to match their energy level. Long walks, short hikes, and play sessions are good options.

    Considerations for Puppies

    • Gentle Exercise for Puppies: Exercise for Saint Bernard puppies should be carefully managed to avoid stress on their developing bones and joints. Short, frequent walks and play sessions are preferable.

    Keeping Exercise Interesting

    • Mental Stimulation: Incorporating mental stimulation into their exercise routine is beneficial. This can include training sessions or playing with interactive toys.
    • Socialization: Exercise time is also an opportunity for socialization, which is important for their temperament and behavior.

    Exercise Precautions

    • Avoid Overexertion: Due to their large size, it’s important to avoid overexerting a Saint Bernard, particularly in warm weather, as they can be prone to overheating.
    • Joint Health: Given their propensity for joint issues, exercise should not be too strenuous and should be appropriate for their age and health status.

    Regular, moderate exercise is sufficient for the Saint Bernard. Despite their size, they do not require intense physical activity but do benefit from daily walks and playtime to maintain their health and happiness. Their exercise regimen should be tailored to their size and energy level, ensuring that they get enough activity without overexertion. With the right balance of physical and mental stimulation, Saint Bernards can lead a healthy, contented life.

Grooming Requirements

  • Regular Grooming Needed: Their dense coat requires regular grooming to prevent matting, especially the long-haired variety.
  • Shedding: They are heavy shedders, particularly during seasonal changes.
  • Drooling: Owners should also be prepared for a fair amount of drooling, especially after eating or drinking.

Health Issues of the Saint Bernard

Like all large dog breeds, Saint Bernards are prone to certain health issues. Awareness and proactive management of these conditions are crucial for maintaining their health and ensuring a good quality of life.

Hip and Elbow Dysplasia

  • Description: Common in large breeds, hip and elbow dysplasia occurs when the joint doesn’t develop properly, leading to arthritis and pain.
  • Management: Weight management, appropriate exercise, and in some cases, surgery, can help manage these conditions.

Bloat (Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus)

  • Description: Bloat is a life-threatening condition where the stomach fills with gas and sometimes twists. It’s particularly common in large, deep-chested breeds like the Saint Bernard.
  • Prevention: Feeding smaller, more frequent meals and avoiding vigorous exercise around feeding times can help reduce the risk.

Cardiac Issues

  • Heart Conditions: Saint Bernards can be prone to certain heart conditions, including dilated cardiomyopathy and aortic stenosis.
  • Regular Check-ups: Regular veterinary check-ups, including cardiac evaluations, are important for early detection and management.

Eye Problems

  • Common Issues: Eye conditions such as entropion, ectropion, and cataracts can occur in Saint Bernards.
  • Veterinary Care: Regular eye examinations by a veterinarian can help detect and treat these issues early.

Skin Conditions

  • Sensitivity: Their thick coat can hide skin problems, which may arise from allergies or parasites.
  • Care and Monitoring: Regular grooming and veterinary check-ups are essential to catch and treat skin issues.

Joint Issues

  • Due to Size: Their large size puts additional stress on joints, potentially leading to arthritis or other joint-related problems.
  • Management: Maintaining a healthy weight and moderate exercise can help alleviate joint stress.

Regular Health Screenings

  • Importance of Veterinary Care: Regular health screenings and check-ups are vital for detecting and managing these health issues. Early detection often leads to better outcomes.


While Saint Bernards are generally healthy, their large size predisposes them to specific health challenges. A proactive approach, including regular veterinary care, a balanced diet, and appropriate exercise, is key to keeping them healthy. Recognizing and addressing health issues early can significantly enhance their quality of life and longevity. Understanding these potential health concerns is crucial for anyone considering a Saint Bernard as a pet.


saint bernard
Image courtesy of adrian vieriu


Notable Dogs from the Saint Bernard Breed

While many Saint Bernards have led quiet lives as beloved family pets, some have achieved fame for their extraordinary stories or roles. Here are a few notable dogs from this remarkable breed:

Barry: The Legendary Rescue Dog

  • Heroic Legacy: Barry is perhaps the most famous Saint Bernard in history. He lived in the early 1800s and served at the Great Saint Bernard Hospice.
  • Rescue Record: Barry is credited with saving over 40 lives during his lifetime. His most famous rescue involved saving a young boy trapped in an icy crevasse, which has been immortalized in various accounts and artistic depictions.
  • Legacy: Barry’s body was preserved and is displayed at the Natural History Museum in Berne, Switzerland. He symbolizes the breed’s rescue heritage and is a testament to their bravery and loyalty.

Saint Bernards in Popular Culture

  • Movies and Television: Saint Bernards have been featured in various films and television shows, often portraying the breed’s gentle and protective nature. The most famous cinematic Saint Bernard is perhaps “Beethoven” from the film series of the same name, which showcases the breed’s lovable and often comedic side.
  • Literature: The breed has also been depicted in books and stories, often highlighting their rescue work or as gentle giants in family settings.

Saint Bernards as Mascots and Symbols

  • Brand Mascots: The image of the Saint Bernard, complete with the iconic brandy barrel around its neck (a myth, as they never actually carried these), has been used in advertising and as mascots for various brands, symbolizing strength, reliability, and helpfulness.
  • Cultural Symbol: In Switzerland and beyond, the Saint Bernard is a symbol of the Alpine region, representing not only the area’s history but also the qualities of bravery and selflessness.

Comparable Breeds

  • Similar Breeds: Comparable breeds in size and temperament include the Newfoundland, the Bernese Mountain Dog, and the Great Pyrenees.

General Summary of the Breed

The Saint Bernard is a breed that epitomizes the term “gentle giant.” With their calm demeanor, affectionate nature, and storied history as rescue dogs, they make both excellent working dogs and devoted family members. While their size and strength are impressive, it is their kind and gentle nature that truly endears them to those who know them. The Saint Bernard is more than just a pet; it’s a symbol of kindness, strength, and unwavering loyalty.

Saint Bernards are one of the largest dog breeds, famous for their strength, calm disposition, and striking appearance. Originally bred for mountain rescue and as working dogs, they are now more commonly found as gentle, loving family pets. Their size and distinctive coat make them instantly recognizable.

You May Also Like

Related Articles

You May Also Like