When you think about a Saint Bernard, it’s easy to envision a fun day playing in the snow followed by a cozy night curled up together by the fire, you with a good book and hot cocoa, her with a crunchy bone. A Saint’s sweet, loving, and calm disposition coupled with her gigantic size makes you feel safe, and that’s exactly what these former search-and-rescue animals want you to be. Alert watchdogs but gentle with children, Saint Bernards are delightful family companions, eager to participate in whatever is going on at home—some even pout a bit if they feel left out!
While Saints do thrive in cold weather, there’s no need to live in their native Swiss Alps to enjoy them. Karen Shaw Becker, DVM, is the author of Real Food for Healthy Pets and co-founder of Dr. Becker’s Bites. She believes it’s essential for animal guardians to make knowledgeable decisions to maximize the healthspan of their animals. She says “both short-haired and long-haired Saint Bernards adapt well to most environments because of their flexible, easy-going personalities as long as they always have a cool place to rest.”
The Saint Bernard is in the top five of the American Kennel Club’s largest dogs list, not only because of height—about 30 inches or higher at the shoulder—but also because of her weight. Male dogs easily range 140–180 pounds, while female pups are approximately 120–140 pounds, according to the AKC. Maybe they leave one paw off the scale.
The proud bearing of a Saint starts with her large round head lifting from a deep chest, and a massive square muzzle is slightly raised to sniff the air. Her sense of smell is excellent. Jowls hang loose and so do her ears, short and floppy framing her face—also referred to as a mask. Her eyes are deep-set and soft brown.
Some Saints appear to have actual masks, as their eyes and cheeks may be black, brown, or red. The white on the tip of their tails and along their bellies, forepaws, and chest extends to their muzzles, and it often continues in a long line between the eyes to the cap. Coat colors are either red and white or white and brindle.
Few things demonstrate power like a Saint Bernard’s body, a block of solid muscle from her cap to fluffed tail. Her back and legs are equally proportioned. Saints have double coats to protect them from the elements, but some are short-haired and others are long-haired.
Wherever you are, that’s exactly where a Saint wants to be. She’s a devoted family dog who’s too proud to cling, and too well-mannered to bark a lot. A Saint is simply happiest when surrounded by all her humans, especially children. She has infinite patience for kids who treat her kindly.
A Saint Bernard is so mellow and loving, it’s easy to overlook how just her size might be a problem. Like many large dogs, Saints have an extended adolescence—usually until age 2, according to the Saint Bernard Club of America (SBCA). So a 100-pound pup with endless slobbery kisses to share and unlimited cheerful energy can be a bit much for some people, especially younger children.
It's a good idea to enroll Saint Bernard puppies in kindergarten once all their vaccinations are complete. Brainy and eager to please, Saints do well during training. Classes often last a year or longer, so during this time, positive home reinforcement includes a lot of socialization and routine. This way, they get to know all family members and their friends well, and they make the connection to the important but simple commands they learn in no-fear obedience training, such as come, sit, stay, and no.
Most Saints aren’t overly destructive if left alone, especially if they receive proper training, but they don’t like being left behind or outdoors for long periods of time. This is when they’ll show a little stubborn cheek, barking more often, chewing on things, and doing other things you don’t want, the SBCA says. Crate training helps for when you’ll be gone for a couple of hours. A Saint might take refuge under the dining table or behind a chair if she feels overwhelmed, but a den to call her own is a better solution. A veterinarian can consult with you about sizes, comfort, and training.
You can count on a Saint to be an alert sentry. As kind as she is, she uses size to her advantage to protect her people. If you hear her bark in the middle of the night, pay attention.
Since she’s so friendly and not prone to woofing without reason, a Saint Bernard’s temperament might be neighborly enough for apartment living, but it’s also like stuffing a loaf of bread into a teacup. She needs to have room to stretch, spread, and ramble.
Saints don’t require as much exercise as other working dog breeds, but they do need purposeful daily movement. A casual stroll once or twice a day through the backyard or down a nice wooded path satisfies them emotionally and physically. This easygoing companionship is one reason why mature Saints are good choices for retired people.
While in their prime, playful Saint Bernard dogs can keep the pace with families who enjoy outdoor activities. They’re instinctively good at hauling, the AKC says, so hitching them to a cart full of kids for an impromptu hayride is fun for everyone!
General yard fencing should be fine, as she’s not likely to bolt over or burrow under it if she knows the rules. This also means she’s secure and doesn’t have to be on leash when the family is outside. Most Saints have a low prey drive and do well with all other animals at home, especially if introduced to them early on, so everyone can tumble and play together. Extra care might be necessary with a rescue.
Setting up a Saint’s indoor environment requires forethought. After all, anything you set on the kitchen counter might be gone in a flash, and her swaying tail can clear items on a coffee table.
The SBCA wants you to have the best relationship possible with this gentle giant and offers a free booklet to help you understand their needs and your role as their guardian.
Oh, those soft, saggy Saint jowls are filled with so much drool! While she needs that extra saliva for digestion, most owners don’t want it on their pants, the floor, the couch...so, they get in the habit of wiping their Saints muzzles after every meal and water slurp and receive semi-dry smooches in return.
Another aspect of consistent Saint Bernard care is shed patrol. It doesn’t matter if she’s long-haired or short-haired: Her double coat needs extra TLC to keep the fur in check. Weekly brushing is a must to remove loose hair, dirt, and tangles. Daily brushing is a necessity during shedding high seasons of fall and spring, the AKC recommends.
Becker believes biologically appropriate food and a Saint Bernard’s immediate environment are the most important factors in determining health, vitality, and lifespan. “Saint Bernard owners need to monitor their dog’s weight throughout their lifetime. These gentle giants tend to put weight on easily, which only adds to the burden of their massive frames,” she says. “Keeping them lean and muscular is the best defense against age-related weakness later on.
“Saint Bernard owners should also be aware of the symptoms of bloat,” she adds, which include abdomen swelling and pain, excess salivation, restlessness and pacing, and retching. “Like other deep-chested breeds, they can suddenly develop this life-threatening medical condition that requires immediate veterinary intervention.” A few potential causes for bloat include whether a Saint eats or drinks too much and then exercises intensely, consumes a large meal, or drinks a lot of water after her meal.
Like many large working dogs, a Saint’s genetics determine if she’s prone to elbow and hip dysplasia—conditions that cause severe pain, crippling arthritis, and eventual joint degeneration. “Please don’t buy a puppy until you personally review copies of test results from the mom and dad,” Becker says. “Saint Bernards who contribute to the gene pool should be screened for hip, elbow, eye, and heart problems; autoimmune thyroiditis; and DNA tested for degenerative myelopathy.” Saints younger than 1 year old can also suffer from inherited osteochondrosis, which is defective cartilage.
A Saint Bernard’s temperature tolerance is fairly balanced, as long as you don’t leave this snow-loving sweetheart outside on hot days. With her insulating double coat, she’s at serious risk of heatstroke. So take slow, meandering walks on shady soft paths in the early morning or later in the evening, and allow her to relax indoors when the sun and the heat are high.
With a lot of dedicated care and attention, your Saint should be able to make the most of her 8–10 year lifespan.
Saint Bernards’ ancestors likely include the Roman empire’s Molosser war dogs, which were bred with other dogs native to the Alps, the AKC says.
In 1050 an Italian archdeacon named Bernard of Menthon founded a monastery and hospice to help travelers in the treacherous Alpine passes between Italy and Switzerland. Pilgrims en route to Rome traveled summits as high as 8,000 feet on their journeys and were often in peril. In future centuries, monks at the Hospice of the Great Saint Bernard used the monastery's guard dogs to help save poor souls stranded in 40-foot drifts and cascading avalanches.
Before receiving the name of Saint Bernard in 1880, these tireless rescuers were also called Sacred Dogs, Monastery Dogs, Alpine Mastiffs, and Alpendogs. Some canine historians refer to records stating that over the course of three centuries, the breed saved more than 2,000 people along the Great Saint Bernard Pass, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
The most famous Saint Bernard of this life-saving history is Barry der Menschenretter, born in 1800. He reportedly rescued more than 40 lost souls in his lifetime. Upon his death, his fur was used on a statue now on display at the Natural History Museum of Berne in Switzerland.
Another heroic Saint, Bamse, was the Free Norwegian Forces mascot in World War II and traveled aboard the ship Thorodd. When he died, he received full military honors.