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The Saint Bernard was once a hospice dog but is now a giant companion

Saint Bernard dogs used to be called Hospice Dogs.
Saint Bernard dogs used to be called Hospice Dogs.Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The gentle and quiet Saint Bernard may not have had an official name until 1880 but it is now one of the most popular giant dog breeds.

The Saint Bernard is the dog definition of a gentle giant. On average this decedent of the Mastiff weighs 110 pounds- but both males and females have been known to weigh in at 200 pounds. This gigantic pet belongs to the working group of dogs and like its Bernese Mountain Dog neighbor, it has been used for draft work in the past. What the Saint Bernard is most known for its work as a search and rescue dog. It has a sacred past- which is how the breed finally got its official name in 1880.

Although the breed’s history is not well documented, it is likely that the Saint Bernard originated sometime between 1660 and 1670 when monks bred together a Tibetan Mastiff, Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, Great Pyrenees and a Great Dane. The monks that bred these sacred dogs lived in the Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard in Switzerland. They used the dogs as draft dogs, watchdogs and companions at first. At the beginning of the 1700’s the dogs were accompanying monks during search and rescue missions in the harsh mountain weather.

The Saint Bernard became known for its skills as a pathfinder in the snow and for predicting avalanches due to its ability to hear low frequency sounds that we humans cannot. The dogs would track lost travelers in the frigid mountain-top weather with its remarkable sense of smell. The breed can smell a person under the snow. When the dog would sniff out a person buried in an avalanche it would lick the persons face to revive them. The dog would then lie next to the buried traveler to provide warmth and wait to show the searching monks where to find them.

The breed has been a search and rescue dogs for over 300 years and has been credited to saving as many as 200 lives. Up until the 1880's the Saint Bernard was referred to most commonly as Hospice Dogs but had many names which include Monastery Dogs, Swiss Alpine Dogs, Sacred Dogs and Mountain Dogs. Aptly named after the hospice where the dog originated from, the Saint Bernard’s history as a life-saving canine has made it famous.

The most famous of all Saint Bernard dogs was Barryder Menschenretter. This hospice dog saved over 40 lives prior to its death and as a tribute to the dog the breed was long referred to as Barryhund. But finally when the name was agreed upon it seemed to pay tribute to both the hospice and the legendary Barry.

In 1830 after many Saint Bernard’s died due to disease, inbreeding and harsh winter weather a large amount of Saint Bernard’s were bred with Newfoundland dogs in an effort to create a warmer, longer coat. But the snow and ice stuck to the long-coated dogs so they were unable to work as search and rescue dogs.

The dogs were soon after exported to England and not too long after that the Saint Bernard was exported to America. The Saint Bernard was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1885. The breed’s popularity in America was on the rise and due to the Beethoven series of films and positive testimonials from Saint Bernard owners. Today the breed remains one of the most popular giant breeds in America and a renowned family dog.

The Saint Bernard breed still comes in the short and long haired variety. The tri-color but mostly brown with the brown tones ranging from dark to light tan, with a white chest and sock and black accents on most the face. Its ears are medium length, floppy and are usually black.

The Saint Bernard’s face is droopy. The dog’s eyes droop giving it an inquisitive expression and the breed’s mouth droops as well. Due to the jowls the Saint Bernard drools a lot. Potential owners of the breed should keep this in mind before adopting- you are not likely to find a Saint Bernard that doesn't drool...a lot.

The giant dog has a massive head and can be quite tall. When showing this breed competitively the taller the better as tall Saint Bernard’s are very prized. Because of the sheer size of the breed it is important to teach it not to jump up on people from the time it’s a puppy. Due to the gentle and calm nature of the breed it can do well in apartment settings despite its size. In order for it to live comfortably in an apartment it needs physical activity, mental stimulation and affection and discipline with its family.

The Saint Bernard is an extremely friendly and gentle breed. These dogs are loyal and eager to please. They are highly trainable and very smart so start training early. The Saint Bernard can learn advanced tricks and is very calm and submissive during training. Saint Bernard’s are generally very quiet and rarely bark unless they deem it absolutely necessary.

These dogs are very patient and tolerant of children and other pets. They move slowly with precision and are more agile than they appear. The Saint Bernard is not very playful with people or other pets. They make great watch dogs due to their size and loud, deep bark. These qualities make the Saint Bernard a fantastic pet to have in a family of young children. Not to mention it has a history of predicting avalanches and impending danger!

The Saint Bernard is known to have a stubborn streak- if this dog doesn't want to do something it’s not going to. They can be sensitive at times too so while training it may be best to use a lot of positive reinforcement while still asserting dominance.

The Saint Bernard needs moderate exercise and should have one long walk a day. Owners of this breed should make sure that this dog doesn't become bored- the Saint Bernard is smart and will fetch and retrieve a ball, play with a treat ball or solve a doggie puzzle.

Puppies of this breed should not have too much exercise until their bones are well formed due to the rapid growth rate of this breed. It is recommended that a Saint Bernard puppy only take brief walks and have short play sessions until the dog is about two years of age. The breed does the majority of its growing in the first two years of its life. 100 different Saint Bernard puppies were used to make the movie Beethoven’s 2nd due to how quickly the breed grows and matures.

The Saint Bernard has an average life span of 8 to 10 years. Major health concerns for this breed include hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, gastric ailments, entropion (the eyelids turn in towards the eyeball) and ectropion (a slack eyelid edge that turns outward.) Minor concerns include diabetes, seizures, hot spots, cardiomyopathy and other heart conditions. Suggested veterinary tests include hip, elbow, eyes and heart. These dogs are prone to bloat so a few small meals a day is important, as is exercising before meals and avoiding heavy physical activity right after a meal. That being said it is important that Saint Bernard owners take extra care in making sure the dog does not become overweight. This breed does not tolerate the heat well so make sure the dog doesn't get heatstroke in the summer.

Whether this breed is pulling a cart, rescuing lost travelers or interacting with children the Saint Bernard is a fantastic choice for any dog lover and the breed’s popularity continues to rise. Just like finding a lost soul in the snow the Saint Bernard has found its way into the hearts of families across the world.