St Bernard – Gentle Giants

Breed facts: Working Group

In association with the Kennel Club, Nick Mays provides you with all you need to know about St Bernards. Could one of these noble ‘rescuers’ be the dog of your dreams?

‘St Bernards became a regular sight at dog shows in the 1870s, the breed having been accepted by the UK Kennel Club (KC) and placed in the Working Group.’

The St Bernard is possibly one of the most iconic breeds of dog – a breed immediately identified by people the world over. We all share the image of this noble, gentle giant forging his way through a blizzard on an alpine pass, intent on finding the injured, frostbitten traveller, partly buried by a recent avalanche. Upon finding the stricken traveller, the St Bernard digs the snow away and the grateful traveller drinks some restorative, warming brandy from the cask attached to the dog’s collar. Sadly, this is only partly true. St Bernards never carried a cask of brandy round their necks – this is purely the invention of artists and the fancy of later dog breeders. Edwin Landseer painted these dogs on canvas, one entitled Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller portraying two dogs standing over a fallen traveller. One of the dogs is shown baying for help, and the other has the well-known brandy cask around his neck, attempting to revive the man by licking his hand. Nor would the St Bernard set out to find a lost traveller alone – he would be accompanied by a search party. However, it is true that the breed was originated by Swiss monks as alpine search and rescue dogs and, until recently, St Bernards were still working at precisely that task.

St Bernard
St Bernard

St Bernard dogs were famously bred for a clear reason: saving lives. Between about 1660 and 1670, the monks of the Great St Bernard Hospice – itself named after St Bernardde Menthon in Switzerland – bred dogs that we might easily recognise today as St Bernards. These were descendants of the Mastifftype Asiatic dogs brought over to Switzerland by the Romans and were used by both Romans and monks as guard dogs and companions. However, compared to St Bernards today, these dogs and not be too house-proud! were smaller in size, had short, reddish brown and white fur and a markedly longer tail. By the early 18th century the monks kept the prototype St Bernards to assist them on their rescue missions to help travellers lost in the snowy, dangerous St Bernard Pass – a 49km route through the Alps between Italy and Switzerland. Over a period of nearly 200 years, about 2,000 people were rescued because of the heroic dogs’ finely honed sense of direction and resistance to cold. Between 1816 and 1818, the winter snowstorms at the St Bernard Pass were particularly severe, and many dogs died in avalanches while carrying out vital rescue work. As a result, the St Bernards living at the hospice came close to extinction, but the breed was saved two years later by cross-breeding with similar dogs from nearby valleys. In the 1830s, the monks bred in Newfoundlands, thinking that this breed’s longer fur would protect the dogs from the cold, but in fact the reverse was true – ice formed on the longer fur. The monks soon ditched this idea and gave away these longerhaired dogs to people living in the nearby valleys. However, by perseverance and using native Swiss dogs, the monks managed to save the breeding line which resulted in dogs resembling the modern-style St Bernard as we know it today.

Hospice Dogs
In 1855, a dog-loving Swiss innkeeper named Heinrich Schumacher began breeding St Bernards. He maintained careful breeding records and supplied the hospice with dogs while also exporting dogs to the UK, USA and Russia. Interestingly, during this time, the dog breed was still without a name. Many called them Hospice Dogs, or Alpine Mastiffs and St Bernard Mastiffs. They were also known as Barry Dogs, after a famous St Bernard named Barry who rescued many travellers. Barry saved the lives of 40 people lost in the snow in the St Bernard Pass. On his 41st mission, a traveller killed the poor dog in a ‘fit of cowardly terror’. At this time the breed was often referred to as the Barry Hound in honour of Barry. In 1815, Barry’s body was preserved as an exhibit in the Natural History Museum in Berne, Switzerland, where it remains to this day. The Swiss Kennel Club recognised the breed in 1880 and stuck on the name of St Bernard, by which the breed became universally known. In 1884 the Swiss St Bernard Club was founded, with the final breed standard approved in 1887. Since that time the St Bernard has been recognised as the Swiss national dog. Here in the UK, the dogs became incredibly popular – Queen Victoria owned two of them in the 1840s. St Bernards became a regular sight at dog shows in the 1870s, the breed having been accepted by the UK Kennel Club (KC) and placed in the Working Group. The first St Bernard Club was formed in 1882, after which a number of other clubs sprang up. These eventually became the English St Bernard Club in 1922 which is recognised as the parent club for the breed today. Until September 2004, 18 St Bernard dogs still belonged to the St Bernard Hospice. That year, the Barry Foundation (named after the famous St Bernard Barry) was founded to establish kennels in Martingy, a village down the mountain from the pass. Nowadays, around 20 St Bernard puppies are born every year at the foundation. The Barry Foundation takes dogs up to the hospice every day in the summer when it is open, ostensibly for the tourists to see. As for rescue efforts on the pass, striken travellers now rely on helicopters


  • Extra-large size
  • Moderate grooming and exercise
  • Town or country living
  • Loyal and faithful companion
  • Ideal family dog
  • Great with children
  • Mixes well with other animals
  • A slow thinker, but intelligent
  • Responds well to patient training
  • Handsome and noblelooking
  • Easy to exercise (but you need to be strong!)
  • Happiest with a family

Did you know? The St Bernard rescue system became so well organised thanks to the St Bernards and the monks, that when Napoleon and his 250,000 soldiers crossed through the St Bernard pass between 1790 and 1810, not a single soldier lost his life.

KENNEL CLUB BREED STANDARD Thinking of getting a St Bernard? Here’s what to look out for:
A breed standard is the guideline which describes the ideal characteristics, temperament and appearance of a breed and ensures that the breed is fit for function. Absolute soundness is essential. Breeders and judges should at all times be careful to avoid obvious conditions or exaggerations which would be detrimental in any way to the health, welfare or soundness of this breed. From time to time certain conditions or exaggerations may be considered to have the potential to affect dogs in some breeds adversely, and judges and breeders are requested to refer to the Kennel Club website for details of any such current issues. If a feature or quality is desirable it should only be present in the right measure. At the time of going to press, the current St Bernard breed standard is pending review.

Well proportioned and of great substance.

Distinctly marked, large-sized, mountain rescue dog. Temperament Steady, kindly, intelligent, courageous, trustworthy and benevolent.

Large, circumference of skull being more than double its length. Muzzle short, full in front of eye and square at nose end. Cheeks flat, great depth from eye to lower jaw. Lips deep but not too pendulous. From nose to stop perfectly straight and broad. Stop somewhat abrupt and well defined. Skull broad, slightly rounded at top, with fairly prominent brow. Nose large and black with well developed nostrils.

Of medium size, neither deep set nor prominent, eyelids should be reasonably tight. Excessive haw must be heavily penalised. Dark in colour and not staring. There should be no excessive loose wrinkle on brow which would detract from a healthy eye. Free from obvious eye problems. EARS Medium size, lying close to cheeks, not heavily feathered.

Jaws strong with a perfect, regular and complete scissor bite (upper teeth closely overlapping lower teeth and set square to the jaws). Well developed teeth of good size.

Long, thick, muscular, slightly arched, dewlap well developed.

Shoulders broad and sloping, well up at withers. Legs straight, strong in bone, of good length.

Back broad, level, ribs well rounded. Loin wide, very muscular. Broad croup sloping slightly to set on of tail. Chest wide and deep, but never projecting below elbows. Male animals should have two apparently normal testicles fully descended into the scrotum

Broad, strong and well muscled. Legs heavy in bone. Moderate bend of stifle with firm, strong hocks. Well developed first and second thighs. When viewed from the rear the hindlegs are perfectly straight, turning neither in nor out and not too close together.

Large, compact with wellarched toes.

Set on rather high, long, carried low when in repose, when excited or in motion should not curl over back. GAIT &

Easy extension, unhurried and smooth, with power from the hindquarters. Back remaining level and firm. The feet should move along straight lines with the rear feet tracking the fore. Capable of covering difficult terrain. Absolute soundness essential.

Roughs: dense and flat, rather fuller round neck, thighs and tail well feathered. Smooths: close and hound-like, slight feathering on thighs and tail.

Orange, mahoganybrindle, red-brindle, white with patches on body of any of the above named colours. Markings as follows: white muzzle, white blaze on face, white collar, white chest, white forelegs, feet and end of tail, black shadings on face and ears.

Any departure from the foregoing points should be considered a fault, and the seriousness with which the fault should be regarded should be in exact proportion to its degree and its effect upon the health and welfare of the dog.

Did you know? The world record for the heaviest and largest dog is claimed by a St Bernard named Benedictine, which weighed 162kg (357lbs).

Temperament, training & exercise
St Bernards are best described as gentle giants, but, like all very large dogs, must be properly trained and socialised from a young age to mix with people and other dogs. Long-time St Bernard owners will attest the breed’s extreme loyalty, with most St Bernards being eager to please their owners and able to learn relatively quickly. Top St Bernard breeder Diane Deuchar Fawcett says: “Training and socialisation need to be addressed at an early age. A kindly and gentle approach pays dividends and produces a dog that is a pleasure to own.” The breed is described as good-humoured, trustworthy and benign, loving family life and being very happy to play with children. They generally mix well with other pets and accept new additions to the household with the minimum of fuss. They may not be the most extroverted of dogs, but are deep thinkers. As far as exercise is concerned, they need about 60-90 minutes a day. Diane says: “Small puppies need very little exercise – just let them do their own thing, such as potter in the garden, or take them into town to socialise them, but be careful to keep them off slippery floors and stairs. “Gradually increase their exercise, but don’t overtire them, as their growth is phenomenal and bone is very soft and easy to spoil. At approximately a year old, a walk of one mile a day for a St Bernard is fine. From then on, whatever exercise you wish to give them is fine within reason and they’ll adapt accordingly.”

St Bernard rescue
It is a sad fact that there are St Bernards in this country who are in need of help, largely due to their high-profile, cuddly image on TV and in films. The reasons are varied but one thing that they all have in common is that they need a loving home. The St Bernard Trust helps St Bernard dogs in need. Liz Derrins, the Trust’s national coordinator, says: “Our work covers the whole of the United Kingdom. In any given year we deal with well over 100 dogs and we often have 30 dogs on the books at the one time. “Owners call us wanting to have their dog rehomed. The main reasons for rehoming the dog are divorce or separation, house move, a new baby in the household and the dog has to go, owners out working all day, or they cannot afford to keep the dog. Most of the dogs we rehome continue to live with their owners until a new home is found for them, but some are found abandoned or as strays or where owners’ circumstances do not allow them to keep the dog. Then we have to use boarding kennels.”
Anybody wishing to take on a rescued St Bernard should contact the Trust. All prospective homes are checked and the potential owners vetted. An adoption fee is payable by the new owner. Liz adds: “We always point out that the St Bernard is a highly specialist breed whose lifespan is not particularly long and who is predisposed to certain ailments. We do not rehome where there are children under seven years old living in the household. “Owning a St Bernard is a lifechanging experience. If you would like to have this experience and are prepared to persevere and give a second chance to a ‘gentle giant’ we would love to hear from you. If you do not feel able to take a rescue dog but would like to help by making a donation or fund-raising for us, we gratefully receive and acknowledge all gifts.”
If you are interested, please call Liz Derrins on tel. 01333 312068.

St Bernard fact
A St Bernard is often credited with saving Manchester United Football Club from financial ruin in its earliest days. The story goes that in 1902 when the club owed sizeable debts, the then captain Harry Stafford was showing off his prized St Bernard at a fund-raising event for the club when he was approached by JH Davies, a wealthy brewery owner, who offered to buy the dog. Stafford refused the offer but managed to convince Davies to buy the club, thus saving Manchester United from going bankrupt.

Useful contacts
Eastern St Bernard Club, Mrs Tanya Booth (secretary), tel. 01636 613523.
English St Bernard Club, Miss Pat Muggleton (secretary), tel. 01773 872535.
South of England St Bernard Club, Mr J Cootes (secretary), tel. 01293 771326.
St Bernard Club of Scotland, Mrs Judy McMurray (secretary), tel. 01563 520897.
United St Bernard Club, Mrs Sue Bradshaw (secretary), tel. 01282 452561.

Where to get a St Bernard puppy
It is always best to contact the Breed Club to enquire whether any members have puppies in your area. If you go to a breeder recommended by the club, you can meet the puppies with their mother – which is always recommended – and ask advice on selecting the ideal puppy for you by experts within the breed. It’s also useful to join a breed club, even if you don’t want to show your St Bernard, as you will maintain contact with other owners and there will always be an experienced owner or breeder on hand to ask for help if you encounter any problems with your dog, such as feeding, training and general care. Cute when small, adult St Bernards do slobber – but if you love the breed you’ll always have a ‘slobber cloth’ handy Bernards today, these dogs and not be too house-proud!

Expect to pay… between £900 and £1,000 for a St Bernard, depending on whether it is pet or show quality.

Famous St Bernards
Cujo – the St Bernard anti-hero of Stephen King’s book of the same name
Gumbo – team mascot for US football team the New Orleans Saints
Beethoven – star of the 1992 movie of the same name – and interminable sequels!
Schnorbitz – the St Bernard stage partner of comedian Bernie Winters
Båtsman – a St Bernard in Astrid Lindgren’s story (and later TV series) Vi på Saltkråkan

5 St Bernard facts
Height & weight The St Bernard is an extremely large dog with a large head in proportion to its muscular body. Ideal height (at withers): 75cm (30ins), bitches 70cm (28ins). Weight: males can weigh between 75 and 91kg (165 – 200lbs) or more while bitches are between 68 and 91kg (149 – 200lbs). Size is desirable, says the KC, but only if combined with quality and if absolute soundness is maintained.

Feeding One of the most important parts of St Bernard care is their feeding. Being such big dogs, they need the correct diet. Breeders will be happy to advise prospective purchasers as to the best diet for their dogs, but mostly plain food suits their digestion, such as good medium-protein content complete meal, and raw beef tripe or chicken. It is recommended that adults are fed twice daily. Supplements are unnecessary and can cause digestive problems.

Grooming Generally, they require very little grooming, and can be easily kept tidy by daily brushing with a short-toothed slicker brush and a good wide-toothed comb to remove loose hairs. Special attention should be paid to keeping their ears and eyes clean, as sometimes St Bernards can suffer from entropion and ectropion, which affect their eyelids. Good dental care is essential, using veterinary recommended dog toothpaste.

Health Health-wise, St Bernards are very robust dogs and usually enjoy good health. Respectable breeders are trying their hardest to breed healthy dogs. Hereditary heart and epilepsy conditions are being monitored by breeders and it would be advisable to check that the parents of your prospective puppy have been hip and elbow scored under the KC/ BVA Canine Health Scheme to avoid hip and elbow dysplasia, which can be hereditary in the breed.

Lifespan The average lifespan of the breed is between eight and 11 years, although dogs can sometimes live to 13 or 14 years of age.

Special thanks to Pat Muggleton and the English St Bernard Club for help and advice with this feature.

About the author Nick Mays is a journalist specialising in animal media. He lives in Yorkshire with his family and four dogs. Nick is also the author of several books on animal care.