Alpine Rescues Are Breed’s Claim to Fame
While many of us may have been introduced to St. Bernard dogs via “Cujo,” the rabid and crazed dog that terrorizes a family in Stephen King’s 1981 cult-classic novel and subsequent movie, the breed has actually been making an impression on people for a very long time.
Depicted in novels including "The Call of the Wild," and in films such as "Beethoven," "George!" and "Peter Pan" (the novel depicted a Newfoundland), the St. Bernard is also the mascot for Denver’s ice hockey team, the Colorado Avalanche, New York’s Siena College basketball team, the Siena Saints, and the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.
The St. Bernard, in fact, is considered to be quite legendary — for noble reasons.
The St. Bernard hails from the Swiss mountains, specifically an area called the St. Bernard Pass located in the Western Alps between Switzerland and Italy.
The dogs lived at the Great St. Bernard Pass, a traveler’s hospice run by Benedictine monks and named after its founder, Bernard of Menthon, an 11th century monk who is the patron saint of skiing, snowboarding, hiking,
backpacking and mountaineering.
Written records place the St. Bernard with the monks in 1707, although paintings and drawings suggest the dog had been with the monks for quite some time.
Up until the 19th century, the breed was called “Saint Dogs,” “Barry Dogs” (also spelled "Berry") and “Alpenmastiff.” By the mid-19th century, “St. Bernard” was the breed’s common moniker.
The dogs were utilized as working dogs; they served as watchdogs, hunting companions and guarded and herded livestock for farmers. They are best known for their amazing alpine rescues during which they tirelessly saved people trapped in avalanches.
The most well-known St. Bernard, named “Barry,” (also spelled "Berry") is entombed in the Natural History Museum of Berne, recognized for his reported 100 life-saving rescues, during one of which he evidently managed to pull a small boy out of a snow drift and carry him back to safety.
Considered a loyal and affectionate breed, the St. Bernard is generally not aggressive.
But, like many large breed dogs, the St. Bernard is not always aware of its size — which can be its most threatening feature. Small children can be easily knocked over by such a large dog, and its tail alone can do a great deal of damage at home — much like a bull in a china shop.
As a result, it is always recommended that large breed dogs such as the St. Bernard benefit from socialization and training to prevent any challenging behavior.
One other factor St. Bernard owners may warn about: Drooling. This breed is also known to slobber consistently.
Today’s St. Bernard is a result of crossbreeding the classic St. Bernard with Newfoundlands in an effort to preserve the breed after so many had perished during avalanche rescue attempts in the midst of severe winters between 1816 and 1818.
As a result, the modern-day St. Bernard looks quite different from its ancestors. Their new longhaired fur prevents them from working as alpine rescue dogs because the fur becomes frozen and weighs down the dog.
A St. Bernard’s dense fur coat can be either smooth or coarse, and is typically a predominant reddish color with a white undercoat, and black shading around the face and ears. This breed can have either brown or blue eyes.
Sometimes, the St. Bernard is mistaken for a Newfoundland or an English Mastiff. These breeds, like the Cane Corso and Tibetan Mastiff, are thought to be descendants of the molosser dogs bred by ancient Romans. These are each large dogs, with a weight range between 140 and 250 pounds.
Even a St. Bernard can exceed expectations: In 1981, a St. Bernard named Benedictine V Schwarzwald Hof earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records when he weighed in at 315 pounds.
While these may be common medical conditions, your St. Bernard will not necessarily develop these issues, including those listed below.
- Bone cancer (osteosarcoma) is one of the most common cancers in the St. Bernard. It most often occurs in the leg bones, but can occur elsewhere.
- Dilated cardiomyopathy occurs when weak heart muscles lead to heart failure.
- Entropion, inward curling of the lower eyelid or ectropion, rolling out of the eyelid, is fairly common in the breed. The condition should be corrected surgically to prevent damage to the cornea of the eye.
- Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder characterized by recurrent seizures. The symptoms vary in severity but the dog usually foams at the mouth and appears to be chewing on something. Progressive symptoms lead to violent muscle contractions, loss of bladder or bowel control and fainting.
- Hip dysplasia is a malformation of the hip joints that causes arthritis. The conditions is especially crippling in large breeds of dogs.