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Saint Bernard dog breed profile

Saint Bernards used to be search and rescue dogs.

Whether your dog is a purebred Saint Bernard or a Saint Bernard mix, learning about the breed can explain a lot about your pet's personality, habits and overall health. Or maybe you're looking to adopt a Saint Bernard and want to do a bit of research first — we can help with that.

The original movie "Beethoven" brought the big, hairy, slobbery and loveable Saint Bernards to the forefront of American consciousness. And if you've been thinking about adding a giant dog breed to your home, it makes sense that Saint Bernards would make your list.

Not only are these dogs beautiful and good with kids, but they're smart, too. That said, they shouldn't be adopted without a lot of care and consideration — they aren't the right fit for every family or living situation.

Saint Bernards’ history

Saint Bernards are known for being working dogs — they need regular exercise and mental stimulation and are happiest when they have a job. The breed initially helped mountain emergency response crew teams.

“They’re named after a monk, Bernard of Menthon, who founded the Great St. Bernard Hospice near a treacherous mountain pass in Switzerland. The sturdy, cold-adapted dogs rescued alpine travelers caught in avalanches,” Dr. Elizabeth Devitt, DVM, a general practice veterinarian and veterinary consultant for Fetch, explains. 

According to Dr. Devitt, early monikers for the breed include “Saint Dogs,” “Noble Steeds” or “Barry Dogs” to highlight their good-samaritan status. “Barry was the name of a dog reported to have rescued anywhere from 40 to 100 travelers over his lifetime,” Devitt says.

And that collar featuring a barrel container that the breed is historically seen wearing? Well, it’s not clear whether it’s a fact or fiction, but Dr. Devitt shares that the cask is said to have held brandy “to keep rescued people warm.”

What do Saint Bernards look like?

These dogs are large, muscular and tall, with wide heads and a powerful overall appearance. Males should be at least 27.5 inches at the shoulder, while females are slightly shorter (and slightly smaller), standing at least 25.5 inches tall.

Saint Bernards are a combination of red (or brown-yellow) and white — the chest, feet, tail tip and areas along the nose and neck nape are traditionally white. They can have short or long fur, but the coloring and markings remain the same.

RELATED: German Shorthaired Pointer dog breed profile

Saint Bernards’ characteristics

Knowing that Saint Bernards were initially bred for performing rescues in the cold Swiss mountains, it’s understandable that they would enjoy the outdoors, particularly in chilly environments

“These pets are big, strong and prefer cold weather,” Dr. Devitt says. “Now that it’s cold outside, my neighbor’s Saint Bernard rescue often refuses to return inside after their early-morning walk. It’s not easy to convince the 130-pound dog to leave the chilly weather outside.”

But while the breed enjoys being active outside, that doesn’t mean they’re your perfect race-training buddy. “Calm and slow-moving, these dogs generally reserve their exuberance and affection for family members,” Dr. Devitt adds.

While Saint Bernards are friendly with their family, it might take them a little while to warm up to strangers. “Some can be aloof until they get to know you better. Their size and deep ‘voice’ can be intimidating. They tend to be good with other pets in the house, often acting as the ‘bodyguard’ for smaller household dogs,” Dr. Devitt says.

What health issues do Saint Bernards face?

“Giant-breed dogs are always considered at risk for hip dysplasia, heart disease and bone cancer. Saint Bernards are no different. As deep-chested pets, they’re also at risk for gastric torsion, or bloat, and prone to epilepsy and skin problems,” Dr. Devitt explains.

Being a parent to these big pups means taking on even bigger responsibilities, financially and otherwise. Paying for medications, supplies and food for these extra-large animals costs more than for smaller breeds, which is an important consideration before bringing them into your home. 

“These are giant-breed dogs. Although there’s more of them to love, they also need more room, food and attention to their breed-specific needs,” Dr. Devitt adds.

Saint Bernard rescue

Are you interested in adopting a Saint Bernard, Saint Bernard mix or any pet at all? Check out our shelter partners to find your new best friend.

The Dig, Fetch Pet Insurance's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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