The St Bernard is a large breed of working dog which originated in the Western Alps, bred at the Hospice of the Great St Bernard Pass on the border between Switzerland and Italy, which was named after an Italian monk called Bernard of Menthon.
Molossar type dogs were first introduced to the Alps by the ancient Romans, these dogs became known as Sennerhunds, the word senn or senner refers to Swiss herdsmen and dairy farmers. Sometime between 1660 and 1690 the monks at the Great St Bernards hospice crossbred these dogs to create the first St Bernard.
The earliest written records to mention the St Bernard were found at the Great St Bernards hospice in 1707, but there was also drawings and paintings of the breed found pre-dating 1690. The first evidence to suggest the dogs were used as search and rescue dogs by the monastery comes from paintings dated to 1690 by Italian artist Salvator Rosa.
About the size of the German Shepherd the original St Bernard looked very different to the dogs we know today, as puppies they didn’t receive any special training, young dogs learnt search and rescue from the older dogs.
Severe winters from 1816 to 1818 increased the number of avalanches, making search and rescue more dangerous, many dogs were killed while performing their duties. To save the breed from extinction they were cross-bred with Newfoundland dogs, this badly affected their ability as search and rescue dogs, the long fur they inherited would freeze up and weigh them down.
They are no longer used for Alpine rescues, the last recorded instance where St Bernards were used was in 1955, though the Great St Bernard hospice retains dogs for tradition and sentimental reasons. Every year a celebration is held on Little St Bernards pass at a town called Rosieres Montvalzan, where dog enthusiasts and breeders gather dog shows and a parade.
The most famous St Bernard rescue dog to save people at the pass was called Barry, who saved at least 50 and possibly as many as 100 people, he as a monument in Cimetiere des Chiens, and his body was preserved and put in the Natural History museum in Berne.
Since the late 1800s the breed as been constantly refined and improved using other molossar breeds, these include the Newfoundland, the Greater Swiss Mountain dog, the Great Dane and the English Mastiff. After World War II, many breeds were used to redevelop each other, in doing this Rottweiler and English Bulldog was added.
A gentle giant, the St Bernard is calm, patient and sweet, good with adults and children if socialised properly from an early age. The biggest threat the St Bernard poses to small children is its size, it is a bit clumsy and could unintentionally knock a small child over.
Bred to be a working companion the St Bernard is a loyal amiable worker that loves to please its master, the breed as retained its ability for scent work and can still participate in tracking events.
A fully grown St Bernard can weigh anything between 65 to 120kg (140 to 260lb), with a height of 70 to 90cm (28 to 35in) at the withers. The coat of the St Bernard comes in two types, smooth or rough, the smooth coat is flat and close, the rough coat is denser and more profuse around the legs and neck.
Fast growth and weight can cause very serious deterioration of the bones if not given regular exercise and proper food. Like many dog breeds hip or elbow dysplasia as well as osteosarcoma (blood cancer) have been shown to be hereditary.
A healthy well looked after St Bernard will have a lifespan of 8 to 10 years.