The Saint Bernard never wore a miniature brandy keg around his neck. The image was merely the product of artistic license taken by Edwin Landseer, who painted a portrait of the breed while on a visit to Switzerland in 1819. The public loved it, and the brandy keg remains a symbol of the breed to this day.
It’s true, though, that monks at the hospice of Saint Bernard, high in the Swiss Alps, used the dogs to seek out and rescue lost travelers. These days, the Saint is primarily a family companion or show dog, beloved for his calm and patient temperament. The Saint Bernard has many good qualities, but he may also have health and temperament issues if his breeding isn’t the best. If you want the calm, protective dog of legend, be prepared to do a lot of homework to find him and put in plenty of effort training and socializing him once you bring him home.
Is the Saint Bernard the Right Dog for You?
The Saint Bernard is a member of the Mastiff family, as evidenced by his huge head and tall, powerful body. He is gentle, but his size alone is enough to deter many would-be intruders or assailants. He is only moderately active, making him suited to homes with small yards. If your home is reached by stairs, however, think twice before getting this breed. How will you get him up and down if he is incapacitated?
This is a giant breed. A 25-pound Saint Bernard puppy certainly looks manageable, but he will eventually weigh 120 to 180 or more pounds. His huge size is often what attracts people to him, but the tradeoff is a heartbreakingly short life span of approximately 7 to 10 years. He drools and he is sensitive to heat, so he must live in air-conditioned comfort in hot climates. If none of that fazes you, a Saint Bernard may well be your dog of choice.
In size, the Saint may be larger than life, but his food and exercise needs are modest. He doesn’t eat more than any other large-breed dog, and he will be satisfied with a couple of short walks daily. Like any dog, Saint puppies are inveterate chewers and because of their size can do more damage than puppies of other breeds. They are prone to ingesting items such as socks and dish towels, resulting in veterinary visits or even surgery for intestinal blockages.
Saint Bernards are cautious as a rule and that caution can tip over into shyness. Early, frequent socialization is essential to prevent them from becoming overly suspicious or fearful of anything new or different. Purchase a Saint puppy only from a breeder who raises the pups in the home and ensures that they are exposed to many different household sights and sounds, as well as people, before they go off to their new homes. Continue socializing your Saint by taking him to puppy kindergarten class, visits to friends and neighbors, and outings to local shops and businesses.
Begin training as soon as you bring your Saint puppy home, while he is still at a manageable size. Saints are sweeties, but they can also be stubborn. Teach your puppy to look to you for guidance, and be patient. Saints like to think things through before they act. Use positive reinforcement training techniques such as praise, play and food rewards. Even if force did work with Saints, which it doesn’t, your pup would soon be too large for you to push around.
To keep your Saint’s mind and body active and healthy, involve him in dog sports such as drafting (pulling a cart or wagon) or weight pulling (sort of the monster truck competition of the dog world). Saints also participate in obedience, agility and rally, and some are involved in tracking. Naturally, they make excellent therapy dogs, being the perfect height to stand at a bedside and be petted.
While you might think of him as an outdoor dog, nothing could be farther from the truth. Saint Bernards love their people, especially children, and will pine without human companionship. They are also prone to heatstroke and should never be left outdoors for long periods in hot weather. Saints should certainly have access to a securely fenced yard, but when the family is home, the dog should be with them indoors.
Because the puppies are extremely appealing, be on the lookout for puppy millers and irresponsible breeders. They'll be very happy to cash your check or run your charge card, but not so happy to answer your questions about health testing and temperament in their dogs.
Variations of the Saint Bernard
Saint Bernards come in two coat types: shorthaired and longhaired. The shorthaired Saint has a dense, smooth coat while his longhaired brother has a medium-length coat that is slightly wavy. Either coat type can be white with red or red with white.
Both varieties shed heavily in spring and fall and need weekly brushing year-round to keep loose hair under control. Clean the ears and trim the nails as needed, and bathe the Saint when he’s dirty. Be sure to wipe the mouth after your Saint eats or drinks—before he shakes his head and slings water, drool or food debris everywhere.
6 Tips to Bring Home a Healthy Saint Bernard Puppy
Don’t ever, ever, ever buy a puppy from a pet store or Internet site that offers many breeds and popular mixes, or that ships with no questions asked. If you buy a puppy from these sources, you’ll be more likely to get an unhealthy, unsocialized and difficult to house-train puppy and will be supporting the cruelty of high-volume puppy mills.
- Find a good breeder who will match you with the right puppy, and will without question have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as possible. Start your search for a good breeder on the website of the Saint Bernard Club of America, and choose one who follows the club's guidelines.
- Do not purchase a puppy from a breeder who cannot provide you with written documentation that the parents were cleared of health problems that affect the breed. Having the dogs "vet checked" is not a substitute for genetic health testing.
- Consider an adult dog from a shelter or a rescue group. Many of the health and behavior problems in Saint Bernards aren't apparent in puppyhood, but by adopting an older dog, most of them can be ruled out. Since a Saint Bernard can live to be 10 years of age, even an adult dog will be with your family for a long time.
- Puppy or adult, take your Saint Bernard to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot visible problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues, and in particular to watch out for the early signs of diabetes and skin problems, including ear infections.
- Make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Health Issues Common to Saint Bernards
All purebred dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines.
Saint Bernards have some health conditions that can be a concern, especially if you aren’t cautious about whom you buy from. They include hip and elbow dysplasia, Addison’s disease, cancers such as osteosarcoma (bone cancer), eye problems such as entropion and ectropion, osteochondrosis (an orthopedic problem), immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, immune-mediated thyroiditis and gastric torsion (bloat). Not every Saint Bernard will get all or even any of these conditions, but knowing about them beforehand will help you in your search for a breeder.
Not all of these conditions can be tested for. Some do not appear until later in life. At a minimum ask the breeder to show evidence that both of a puppy’s parents have hip and elbow scores of Excellent, Good or Fair from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, an OFA thyroid test, and certification from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation that the eyes are healthy.
|Condition ||Risk Profile ||Cost to Diagnose and Treat |
|Hip Dysplasia |
|High ||$1,500-$6,000 |
|Entropion ||High ||$300-$1,500 |
|Elbow Dysplasia ||High ||$1,500-$4,000 |
|Osteochondrosis of the Shoulder |
|High ||$2,000-$4,000 |
|Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (Bloat) |
|High ||$1,500-$7,500 |
|Cruciate Ligament Injury |
|High ||$1,000-$4,000 |
|Panosteitis ||High ||$200-$800 |
|Medium ||$500-$1,500 |
|Deafness ||Medium ||$100-$300 |
|Estimates based on claims paid by Embrace Pet Insurance |
Pet Insurance for Saint Bernards
Pet insurance for Saint Bernards costs more than for mixed breed dogs. This is because Saint Bernards are more likely than mixed breed dogs to make claims for hereditary conditions that are expensive to treat.
Embrace pet insurance plans offer full coverage for all breed-specific conditions (excluding those that are pre-existing) to which Saint Bernards are susceptible. The best time to get pet insurance for your Saint Bernard is when he’s a healthy puppy. You can’t predict what will happen in the future, and pet insurance is the one thing you can’t get when you need it the most.