One of the instantly recognisable breeds, St Bernard dogs stand tall with massive frames. They are muscular dogs with powerful, imposing heads, and are capable of covering very rough ground with unhurried, smooth movements. This breed can be orange, mahogany-brindle, red-brindle, or white with patches of these colours. The adult male stands at a minimum of 75cm and the female at 70cm. Their weight is approximately 68-91kg.
The St Bernard dog breed takes its name from the Hospice of the Great Saint Bernard Pass, founded in AD980 by St Bernard de Menthon as a refuge for travellers through the dangerous Alpine pass between Switzerland and Italy. By 1707 the overworked monks realised that dogs with their superior noses, strength and weather-resistant coats were better equipped to rescue travellers, thanks to their in-bred sense of direction, and they established their own breeding programme, calling the dogs Alpine Mastiffs. Tales of great rescues were reported with one of the most famous dogs, Barry, having saved the lives of 40 people.
A 'gentle giant' sums up the character of the St Bernard. They are good-humoured, trustworthy and love family life. They are very loyal dogs who rarely bark, but will defend you and your possessions if they deem necessary. They normally accept other household animals with no problems. Young dogs must be taught from an early age not to pull on their leads, as this habit will be difficult to break when they are older.
The most serious health problems commonly seen in the St Bernard are various bone disorders, including bone cancer, epilepsy and heart disease. As with many breeds, they can also suffer from hereditary eye disorders and hip and elbow dysplasia (joint conditions that can lead to mobility problems). Eye testing and hip scoring of dogs prior to breeding is therefore important.
Exercising St Bernard puppies must be done very gradually to avoid putting excess strain on their growing bones and tender tissues and, even with the adult dog, care must taken to build up exercise gradually. Having said that, for their size they really do not need copious amounts of exercise – about an hour daily for an adult.
Giant-breed dogs, as well as having giant appetites, benefit from a different balance of minerals and vitamins, supporting different joint and cartilage needs. St Bernards are prone to bloating and stomach problems; try feeding smaller, more frequent meals to help minimise the risk.
There are two coat types – smooth and rough. The smooth is short-haired and the rough is long-haired. Grooming is not a problem apart from the amount of coat to get through! They need to be brushed or combed several times a week to remove loose hairs. The ears should be kept clean and the eyes checked very regularly, especially those dogs with drooping eyelids. St Bernards are clean animals but do tend to slobber.