The St Bernard is famous as the rescue dog of the Great Saint Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps where the monks of Saint Bernard keep a hospice for travellers; before tunnels were built through the mountains this was the main route from the south and in 1800 Napoleon stayed at the Hospice on his way to fight the Austrians at Marengo with an army of 40,000 soldiers and 5,000 horses. They are no longer used for Rescue work and the dogs are now maintained by local people as the Monastery can no longer afford to maintain the St Bernards that remain. They spend their winters, now, in the valley in private homes.
The first record of the St Bernard at the Saint Bernard Hospice is in the early 17th century when they were probably used as guards, and it is thought that their remarkable skills for sensing avalanches and finding people buried beneath the snow was discovered almost accidentally. In the 250 years following the discovery of these skills it is recorded that they rescued 2,000 lost travellers. The 1820 painting by Sir Edwin Landseer of two St Bernards rescuing a traveller wearing casks of brandy started a myth; he only added the mini brandy casks to add a little interest to the picture.
Unsurprisingly, the temperament of the St Bernard is superb; the Standard describes him as "Steady, kindly, intelligent, courageous, trustworthy and benevolent". They have their roots in the mastiff dogs brought by the Romans when they moved north into Europe, and were long known as Alpine Mastiffs and were smaller and smoother coated than today's dogs. Outcrossing to larger dogs to re-invigorate the line led to the creation of the dog we recognise now. We know, for example, that the Leonberger was created by crossing Newfoundlands with St Bernards and that the monks were given some of the progeny of these matings, which in turn increased the vigour of the St Bernard.
There are two coat types; the rough, which is dense and flat with a slight mane and good feathering and the smooth, which has a close coat with slight feathering. Colours are orange, mahogany brindle and re brindle with with markings. His size is indicated as being the taller the better, consistent with quality.
The St Bernard is a very big dog and needs a lot of space; some big dogs require less space than you would imagine, whereas a St Bernard is the opposite. Those big feet will plough through your lawn in winter and bring the resultant mud back into the house. A decision to acquire a dog of this size is not to be taken lightly. Doubtless an immensely pleasurable dog to have around if the conditions are right but not to be bought on a whim.
Click here to read the St Bernard Breed Standard.
St Bernard Breed Clubs
St Bernard Rescue and Rehoming
St Bernard Rescue
Miss P H Muggleton 01773 872535
St Bernard Trust
Mrs E Wardle (Co-ordinator) Manchester 01942 884210
Mrs R Beaver Derbyshire 01246 862486
Miss C Clark MBE E Sussex 01580 830297
Mr & Mrs P Cooke Leicester 01455 823373
Mr & Mrs A Burley Glos 01594 516242
Mr & Mrs S Featherstone Cleveland 01740 630412
Mrs K Goodwin Hants 01329 826804
Scottish St Bernard Trust
Ms T Aitken Berwickshire 01890 871461 Email