The Saint Bernard, also called “Bernies,” is a giant breed of dog that’s both lovable and imposing. At up to 90cm tall at the withers, St. Bernards can seem scary, but they’re actually lovable balls of fluff with a devoted following. An intelligent breed, the St. Bernard is known for its long history of search and rescue work in the Swiss Alps. Read on to learn more about this amazing breed and decide if they’re the right fit for your home.
Researchers can trace the earliest written records mentioning the dogs to 1707 in paperwork from monks at the Great St. Bernard Hospice; however, artistic renditions of the breed date even earlier. Originally known as the Alpine Spaniel in the U.K., the St. Bernard was used to help travelers who’d become lost in the Great St. Bernard Pass. The monks at the hospice never trained the dogs; instead, puppies followed adult dogs in order to learn what to do.
One of the most famous St. Bernards was named Barry, who lived in the early 1800s. Barry was much smaller than the St. Bernards people see today, reaching about the same size as a German Shepherd, in addition to weighing significantly less. Barry saved at least 40 people during his time as a rescue dog, including a young boy who had been trapped in a cave. Barry saved people by warming them up, usually by licking them, before taking them to the nearest shelter. While a monument to Barry at the Cimetiere des Chiens pet cemetery in France claims Barry died saving someone, the dog actually passed away at 14 in Bern several years after retiring from rescue work. Today, Barry’s body is housed by the Natural History Museum of Bern. One of the most interesting aspects of Barry’s legacy was his name being used for the breed. Called Barry Hounds until 1860, the breed finally became known as the St. Bernard by 1865.
Since the 17th century, the monks of the hospice bred the dogs to work in the area, finding they could withstand extreme cold fairly well. However, between 1816-1818, hash winters caused a swift uptick in avalanches. Sadly, many monks lost their dogs to these storms, leading to the possibility of extinction. With limited options, the monks eventually decided to breed their dogs with imported Newfoundlands. This cross-breeding made a breed that more closely resembles the St. Bernard breed of today—including their long winter coat. Unfortunately, these longer coats meant the breed could no longer be used for rescue work to the same extent that its predecessors were a few decades before due to being weighed down by snow.
However, while the breed could no longer work as it once had, it was saved by the monks at the hospice instead of dying out. By the 1940s, the breed was known as a pet around the world, becoming a rare but not unheard-of sight. However, with the outbreak of WWII, many dogs were required to both work for the war effort and simply strive to keep themselves alive. During this time, it was worried the breed would be lost forever, but the dogs rebounded quickly, creating the breed we know today.
Today, St. Bernards are beloved for their warm, friendly nature. They can easily become a family dog, although those with very young children may want to avoid getting a Saint Bernard dog due to its eventual size. If you decide the breed is right for you, make sure you obtain a dog or puppy from a reputable rescue centre or breeder.