The St. Bernard or St Bernard is a breed of very large working dog from the western Alps in Italy and Switzerland. They were originally bred for rescue work by the hospice of the Great St Bernard Pass on the Italian-Swiss border. The hospice, built by and named after Italian monk Bernard of Menthon, acquired its first dogs between 1660 and 1670. The breed has become famous through tales of Alpine rescues, as well as for its large size.
The St. Bernard is recognized internationally today as one of the Molossoid breeds. It is a giant dog. The coat can be either smooth or rough; the smooth coat being close and flat, while the rough is dense, flat, and more profuse around the neck and legs. The colour is typically a red shade with white, or a mahogany brindle with white. Black shading is usually found on the face and ears. The tail is long and heavy, hanging high. The eyes are usually brown, but sometimes can be icy blue, and should have naturally tight lids, with haws only slightly visible.
The earliest written records of the St. Bernard are from monks at the Great St Bernard Hospice at the Great St Bernard Pass in 1707, with paintings and drawings of the dog dating even earlier. The first evidence that the dogs were in use at the monastery is in two paintings dating to 1690 by Italian artist Salvator Rosa. 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 Bern. Another famous dog was Rutor, the faithful companion of the Italian priest Pierre Chanoux, who was named after the peak Tête du Rutor located above the Little St Bernard pass. The classic St. Bernard looked very different from the St. Bernard of today because of crossbreeding. Severe winters from 1816 to 1818 led to increased numbers of avalanches, killing many of the dogs used for breeding while they were performing rescues. 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.
The dogs never received any special training from the monks. Instead, younger dogs would learn how to perform search and rescue operations from older dogs.
The Swiss St. Bernard Club was founded in Basel on 15 March 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.
The dogs at the St. Bernard hospice were working dogs that were smaller than today’s show St. Bernards. Originally about the size of a German Shepherd Dog, the St. Bernard grew to the size of today’s dog as kennel clubs and dog shows emphasized appearance over the dog’s working ability, along with a closed stud book.
An open stud book would have allowed breeders to correct such errors by breeding in working dogs of other dog breeds.
The name “St. Bernard” originates from the Great St Bernard Hospice, a traveller’s hospice on the often treacherous Great St Bernard Pass in the Western Alps, between Switzerland and Italy. The pass, the lodge, and the dogs are named for Bernard of Menthon, the 11th century Italian monk who established the station.
“St. Bernard” was not in widespread use until the middle of the 19th century. The dogs were called “Saint Dogs”, “Noble Steeds”, “Alpenmastiffs”, or “Barry Dogs” before that time.
The breed is strikingly similar to the English Mastiff, with which it shares a common ancestor known as the Alpine Mastiff. The modern St. Bernard is radically different than the original dogs kept at the St. Bernard hospice, most notably by being much larger in size and build. Since the late 1800s, the St. Bernard breed has been ever refined and improved, using many different large molosser-type breeds, including the Newfoundland, Great Pyrenees, Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, Bernese Mountain Dog, Great Dane, English Mastiff, and possibly the Tibetan Mastiff and Caucasian Shepherd Dog. Other breeds such as the Rottweiler, Boxer, and Bulldog may have contributed to the St. Bernard’s bloodline as well. It is suspected that many of these large breeds were used to redevelop each other to combat the threat of their extinction after World War II, which may explain why all of them played a part in the creation of the St. Bernard as it is seen today.
The four Sennenhund breeds, the Grosser Schweizer Sennenhund (Greater Swiss Mountain Dog), the Berner Sennenhund (Bernese Mountain Dog), the Appenzeller Sennenhund (Appenzeller Mountain Dog), and the Entlebucher Sennenhund (Entlebucher Mountain Dog) are similar in appearance to the St. Bernard and share the same location and history, but are tricolor rather than red and white.
The Russian army kennels crossbred St. Bernards with Caucasian Shepherd Dogs to produce the Moscow Watchdogs that are still used as military service dogs in Russia today. St Bernards have in common many characteristics of livestock guardian dog breeds.
Known as a classic example of a gentle giant, the Saint Bernard is calm, patient and sweet with adults, and especially children. However St. Bernards, like all very large dogs, must be well socialized with people and other dogs in order to prevent fearfulness and any possible aggression or territoriality. The biggest threat to small children is being accidentally knocked over by this breed’s larger size. Overall they are a gentle, loyal and affectionate breed, and if socialized are very friendly. Because of 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 dogs. 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 instinctively protective, a St. Bernard may bark at strangers, and their size makes them good deterrents against possible intruders.
The St. Bernard was bred to be a working companion and to this day the St. Bernard lives to please its master and is an amiable yet hard worker. St. Bernards have retained their natural ability for scent work and depending on the skill of the trainer and the talents of the dog, St. Bernards can participate in tracking events or even become involved in search and rescue work.
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. Avalanche victims supposedly drank the brandy to stay warm while awaiting rescue, although this is medically unsound. The monks of the St. Bernard Hospice deny that any St. Bernard has ever carried casks or small barrels around their necks; they attribute the image to an 1820 painting by Edwin Landseer, perhaps Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler (which became a popular engraving in 1831 by Charles Landseer). The monks did keep casks around for photographs by tourists.