Saint Bernard

Saint Bernard pupSaint Bernard pup

The Saint Bernard is a massively large breed of dog with ancient origins. Developed by Swiss monks centuries ago specifically to rescue people lost in snow blizzards or buried by avalanches, the instinctive behaviour of Saint Bernards is legendary.

The Ancient Trade Route

Historically, the Saint Bernard Pass was the trade route that ran over the top of the Swiss Alps connecting Switzerland and Italy. As it winds through these steep mountains, it passes a Hospice that has been occupied by Monks since around 1,000 AD. It was written in 'The Pilgrims Guide of Saint Iago di Compostela printed in France in 1139 AD that

Saint Bernards 1877Saint Bernards 1877

"Hospices are sacred places, houses of the Lord, indispensable for the welfare of holy pilgrims, the rest for the needy, the consolation of the ailing, peace for the soul of the dead and assistance to the living".[1] 

Saint Bernard was the Archdeacon who founded this famous Hospice. The Monks who lived there became renowned for their hospitality. Food and shelter was offered to all travellers who sought a place to rest during the arduous journey across the ice covered mountains. The dogs who bear the name of the Archdeacon of Saint Bernard would have probably existed long before there were any records of them.

The History of the Saint Bernard

Alpine Mastiffs rescuing a personAlpine Mastiffs rescuing a personBack to ancient Roman times Before Christ, when descendants of the Molossian dogs spread from Ancient Greece across Europe with the early settlers, they occupied valleys including those of what is now Switzerland. Many of these were Livestock Guardian Dogs. Other names they have been given include 'Alpine Mastiffs'. It would be another ten centuries before the trade route between Switzerland and Italy became used by pilgrims. It was even another six centuries later that the Saint Bernard of the Hospice became noticed. So three Centuries before the tunnel through the mountains was built, these giant dogs had already earned considerable fame rescuing people who were caught in avalanches and snow storms whilst attempting this crossing.

Hospice St Bernards pre-1800Hospice St Bernards pre-1800

These dogs of the Hospice are a wonderful example of selective breeding. These dogs had a medium rather short coat, accurately portrayed in the accompanying drawing by Specht (on the left) and described by Schumacher. Short coats were an asset because long hair collected the snow to the point where the poor dogs succumbed under its weight, and perished.

The Monks systematically developed a type of dog which had the amazing ability to find humans by scent during severe snow storms and bark to alert the Monks they had found a person. This could be at a distance of up to 800 feet through blinding winds and snow, or buried at a depth of 5 - 7 feet. Once found, these dogs would not only instinctively dig the person out of the snow, they had the physical strength assist in getting them up on their feet. Whether the Monks had arrived or not, the dog would then guide the person back to the Hospice. The barrels traditionally attached to the dogs' collars brought spirits to travellers found trapped in the snow.

'Barry' in the Bern Museum'Barry' in the Bern Museum

The mind boggles at the descriptions some of these dogs' feats. For example one famous dog 'Barry' supposedly returned to the Hospice carrying a young boy on his back. It is also recorded Barry saved 40 other people. He became so famous that he is now stuffed and mounted the Natural History Museum of Bern, the capital of Switzerland.

Saint BernardsSaint Bernards

The Saint Bernard has been described as:

"As big as canine structure will permit, as heavy in bone as his work requires, as gentle and yet indestructible as we hope all members of our family will be" [1a] 

The Saint Bernard becomes a Pure Breed

Saint Bernards (Rough and Smooth) Saint Bernards (Rough and Smooth)

In Switzerland, the Saint Bernard is recorded in official documents of the Hospice date which back to 1707. These are backed up by numerous chronicles published in several languages as well as verbal reports by Napoleon's soldiers who went over the pass in 1800. But the Swiss Stud Book's records only date back to 1884 with 28 dogs recorded and the Swiss St Bernard Club was founded that year. By 1887, the Saint Bernard was declared the Swiss National Dog during the International Canine Conference[8].

In England, the first recorded arrival of a Saint Bernard in UK was in 1815. Because of their immense size, the British first regarded them as some sort of curiosity[4]. In 1820, the famous artist Landseer painted a dog and bitch and called them Alpine Mastiffs. More importations followed with scant information about them. As the fame of the Saint Bernard grew, one English source Youatt, called them 'Bernadine Dogs'[5]. Because of their grand colossal form and vast power another English source, Idestone called them 'St Bernard Mastiffs'[6]. Meanwhile a third source, Stonehenge called them 'The Mount Saint Bernard dogs' and described details of their physical features, together with this drawing of the Rough and Smooth Varieties[7]. This variation in names was not unusual during the mid-1800's because dog shows, Kennel Clubs and Stud Books were in still their infancy.

St Bernard (Rough) c 1889St Bernard (Rough) c 1889

By the 1860's what were described as fine specimens were exhibited in Paris and, from 1863 in England. This meant that when severe storms struck at the Hospice of Saint Bernard, dogs from England were sent back to the Hospice of Saint Bernard as replacements. However, this was not altogether a success story as several of these English dogs had an impractical long coat, supposedly influenced by a Newfoundland cross[4]. By 1874, the Saint Bernard became one of the few European breeds to appear in the First English Stud Book.

History of Saint Bernards in Australia

Ch 'Fairfax' imported 1892Ch 'Fairfax' imported 1892

In 1857 the first Saint Bernard came to Victoria when Mr J Kay imported a male. By 1901 a massive 34 more had been imported into Australia, but not many puppies were registered despite the St Bernard, Mastiff and Newfoundland Club being formed in 1891[2].

'Geraint' imported 1892'Geraint' imported 1892

Of these imported dogs, Rhoderick Dhu and Baron of Greystroke were imported into Adelaide by Captain Clarke. Also into Adelaide came Ch.Fairfax (pictured) to Sir Edwin Smith but, although purported to be a magnificent dog it appears he was not used much at stud. Then to Newcastle, New South Wales came 'Geraint' while 'Pattie' came to Victoria. So the foundation was laid in those early days for the Saint Bernard to prosper here. It appears through scant records that the Saint Bernard has enjoyed but consistent popularity by a small band of enthusiasts ever since.

The Saint Bernard Today

Saint Bernard (Short Haired)Saint Bernard (Short Haired)

The first striking feature of the Saint Bernard is his size, with the males measuring 70 cm to 90 cm (27 ½ to 35 ½ inches) and the bitches 65 cm to 80 cm (25 ½ to 31 ½ inches) or even exceeding the upper limits of this height. The height to length body proportion should be 9:10.

They come in smooth haired or long haired varieties. Their primary colour is white with small or large clear red patches or an unbroken clear to dark red or reddish-brown mantle covering the back and flanks. Dark shadings on the head and symmetrically on the mask are desirable but a slight touch of black shading on the body is only tolerated. The chest, feet, tip of tail, muzzle band, blaze and patch on the neck are white, preferably with a white collar.


Saint BernardSaint Bernard

The head is powerful with the length of muzzle slightly longer than one third the total length of the head. The skull is broad and slightly rounded when viewed both in profile and from the front. But when the dog is alert, the set-on of the ears and the top of the skull form a straight line because the occiput is only moderately developed. The sides of the skull slope in a gentle curve over the strongly developed high cheekbones.

Saint Bernard (Long Haired)Saint Bernard (Long Haired)

The stop is pronounced causing the frontal furrow to run up the middle of the skull. The wrinkles on the forehead above the eyes converge towards this frontal furrow and are more obvious when the dog is alert.

St Bernard (Aust) 1936St Bernard (Aust) 1936

The bridge of the nose is broad, square and straight despite a slight groove. The nostrils are well opened and black and the lips are also black. The flews are strongly developed, but not too pendulous, forming a wide curve towards the nose with the corners of the mouth visible. The eyes are of medium size, moderately deep set and dark brown in colour. The completely pigmented eyelids should be as tight as possible with the haw as well as a small fold on the upper eyelids only slightly visible. The triangular, pliable ears are of medium size and have rounded tips. They are set on high and wide with the front edges lying close to the cheeks and the rear edges slightly standing off. The strong, broad jaws close in a normal scissors bite, a level bite or a reverse scissors bite is also acceptable.


Saint Bernard (Short Haired)Saint Bernard (Short Haired)

The neck is strong, of sufficient length with the dewlap moderately developed.The strongly boned forelegs are straight and parallel with a slightly sloping pasterns.The oblique shoulder blades are shorter than the upper arms and the elbow joint fits closely to the ribcage. The feet are strong and tight with well arched toes. The withers are well defined and the chest moderately broad with a deep brisket with well sprung ribs. The back is broad, strong and firm with the topline horizontal up to the loins. The croup is long and hardly sloping, merging gently with the root of the tail.

St Bernard with double dewclaws (1907)St Bernard with double dewclaws (1907)

The hindquarters are muscular and broad with a good turn of stifle and parallel hocks that do not stand too close together. It is interesting to note that the modern Breed Standard calls for dewclaws on the hind legs to be tolerated if they do not hinder the movement. However historically, like the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, hind dewclaws were important to the Saint Bernard so the dog could maintain grip on rocky mountain faces of steep slopes.

Saint Bernard (Long Haired)Saint Bernard (Long Haired)

The tail is long with the last vertebra at least reaching to the hock joint. When relaxed the tail hangs straight down or the last third is slightly turned up, but when animated it is carried higher. The Saint Bernard's harmonious, far reaching gait should have balanced reach and drive from the hindquarters with the front and hind feet moving forward in a straight line.


Saint Bernard (Long Haired) with pupSaint Bernard (Long Haired) with pup

Although the Saint Bernard comes in short-haired and long-haired varieties, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference. The short-haired variety has a dense, smooth topcoat, plenty of undercoat and the breeches and tail have somewhat more hair. With the long-haired variety, there is still plenty of undercoat but the topcoat is of medium length. Also the hair over the haunches and the croup is usually somewhat wavy, the front legs feathered and the breeches and tail have somewhat more hair than the short haired variety.

Comparison between Newfoundland, Saint Bernard and Leonberger

Newfoundland Saint Bernard Leonberger
Historical Purpose Developed on Canadian Island of Newfoundland to rescue people from the sea so can swim strongly. Developed by Swiss monks centuries ago specifically to rescue people lost in snow blizzards or buried by avalanches. Supposedly developed in the mid-1860's as a cross between the Saint Bernard and the Newfoundland.
Size Dogs: 71 cms (28 ins) Bitches: 66 cms (26 ins). Weight: Dogs: 63.5-68 kgs (140-150 lbs) Bitches: 50-54.5 kgs (110-120 lbs) Dogs: 70 cm to 90 cm (27.5 to 35.5 ins) Bitches: 65 cm to 80 cm (25.5 to 31.5 ins) or exceeding the upper limits of this height Dogs: 72-80 cms (28.5-31.5 ins)
Bitches: 65-75 cms (25.5-29.5 ins)
Colour Dull jet black with a tinge of bronze, brown which is chocolate both with or without a splash of white on the chest and toes. Alternatively evenly marked black and white called a Landseer. Primarily colour is white with small or large clear red patches of clear to dark red or reddish-brown covering the back and flanks with dark shadings on the head. The chest, feet, tip of tail, muzzle band, blaze and patch on the neck are white.
The Leonberger is lion gold, red, reddish brown, sandy (fawn or cream) and all combinations in between, always with a black mask but black hair tips permitted.
Coat Oily double coat Smooth haired or long haired The fairly long, close fitting, straight double coat is medium soft to harsh. There should be a mane on neck and chest, especially in males, distinct feathering on front legs and ample breeches on hindlegs.
NewfoundlandNewfoundland Saint BernardSaint Bernard LeonbergerLeonberger

The head is broad and massive, Slightly arched with prominent brows over the eyes and a well developed occipital bone. Muzzle no longer that the skull.

Powerful and slightly rounded from the front and in profile. There should be wrinkles on the forehead above the eyes and a moderately developed occipital bone. Muzzle one third the total length of the head. The head should be strong but not heavy, elongated rather than stocky. The skull should look slightly dome shaped, with no wrinkles. The back part of the skull should not be substantially broader than at the eyes. Muzzle and skull of equal length.

Looks steeper when viewed in profile than a closer examination reveals.

Pronounced causing the frontal furrow to run up the middle of the skull. Medium stop.
Foreface The very strong muzzle should be no longer than the skull with square flews which should never be excessive. The bridge of the nose is broad, square and straight despite a slight groove. The black nostrils are well opened. The flews are strongly developed, but not too pendulous with the corners of the mouth visible. The muzzle should be moderately tapered, but never snipey. Nasal bridge of even breadth and slightly arched (roman nose). The black lips should be close fitting with the corner of lips closed.
Mouth Normal scissors or level bite Normal scissors or level bite but reverse scissors acceptable A complete normal scissor bite with complete dentition but a level bite is tolerated.
Eyes Small with tight fitting lids showing no haw Medium sized with a little haw acceptable Medium sized, oval eyes are brown to dark brown with close fitting eyelids showing no haw.
Ears Small blending into and lying close to the head Triangular, pliable ears of medium size with rounded tips Medium sized, fleshy, well feathered ears are set on high, hang close to the head, have have rounded tips and are well feathered.
Newfoundland (brown)Newfoundland (brown) Saint BernardSaint Bernard LeonbergerLeonberger
Neck Sufficient length for a proud head carriage Medium length with moderate dewlap The moderately long neck is strong, flowing into the withers in a slight arch, with no dewlap.
Legs and feet Straight legs with webbing between the toes Straight legs with dewclaws on hind legs tolerated Forelegs straight, well boned and not too close with strong, straight pasterns.
Body Broad with topline as straight as possible with the body swung between the legs Broad, strong and firm with horizontal topline Height at withers to length of body in ratio of 9 to 10. The broad chest should be approximately 50% of height at withers, reaching at least to elbows. The ribcage should be oval, the firm back should be straight with broad loins, and a moderately sloping croup.
Tail Hanging downwards with just a slight curve at the end Long with the last vertebra at least reaching to the hock joint with the last third is slightly turned up. The well furnished, straight tail should never form a ring. It should reach at least to hock and, on the move tail it may curve slightly but never carried above level of back.

References and Further Reading

Also published as 2017 - Jane Harvey "Bred to Save Lives" their instinctive behaviour is legendary Published in Dog News Australia (Top Dog Media Pty Ltd Austral NSW) Issue May 2017, Page 10

[1] Milo Delinger et al 'The New Complete Saint Bernard' Published by Howell Book House New York USA ISBN 0-87605-271-5 Page 16-18

[1a] Ibid., Forward to the 1963 Edition by Rex Roberts Page 9

[2] 'Tyzack's Annual' Compiled by T. W.Tyzack and C.S.Turner Published by the Victorian Poultry and Kennel Club 1912 by Bellamine Bros. Printers, 66-70 Flinders Lane Melbourne Page 91 (Importations) and 48 (Stud Book) Book of Chronicles Page 131.

[3] W. Beilby 'The Dog in Australasia' published George Robertson & Company in 1897 Chapter the Saint Bernard Pages 186 - 194

[4] Vero Shaw B.A, "The Illustrated Book of the Dog" Published by Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co, London, Paris & New York 1881 Chapter VII The St Bernard Pages 54 - 61

[4a] Ibid., 'The points of the Saint Bernard' Page 62

[5] William Youatt, 'The Dog" published 1848 London Charles Knight Fleet Street (under the Superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.) Page 51

[6] 'Idstone', 'The Dog' Published by Cassell, Petter and Galpin London 1872 Chapter XXIV The Saint Bernard

[7] Stonehenge, "The Dog in Health and Disease" Third Edition, London: Longmans, Green, and Co 1879 Chapter IV Watchdogs and House-dogs 111 The Mount Saint Bernard Dog Page 211.

[8] J.M.Paschoud "The Swiss Canine Breeds" Published by Swiss Company SKG Bern Switzerland, 1994 Page 13