Saint Bernard: Dog Breed Characteristics & Care

History, Care Tips, and Helpful Information for Pet Owners

Saint Bernard walking on grass

 

Capuski / Getty Images

The Saint Bernard is a giant working dog breed from Switzerland with a short- to medium-length coat that typically comes in shades of brown and white with black around the face. There are smooth and rough coat varieties, with the smooth coat being close to the body and the rough coat being denser and longer around the neck and legs.

Saint Bernards are known as gentle giants. They are incredibly loyal to and loving with their family. And their general love of people, eagerness to please, and determination to work have made them proficient search-and-rescue and service dogs.

Breed Overview

GROUP: Working

HEIGHT: 26 to 28 inches (female), 28 to 30 inches (male)

WEIGHT: 120 to 140 pounds (female), 140 to 180 pounds (male)

COAT: Short to medium-length, smooth or rough double coat

COAT COLOR: Brindle and white, brown and white, mahogany and white, orange and white, red and white, or rust and white with/without a black mask

LIFE SPAN: 8 to 10 years

TEMPERAMENT: Gentle, affectionate, protective

HYPOALLERGENIC: No

ORIGIN: Switzerland

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Characteristics of the Saint Bernard

Saint Bernards generally have a calm and affectionate temperament. And their love of kids is a hallmark of their personality. Despite their large size, they’re only moderately energetic and don’t need an excessive amount of exercise.

Affection Level High
Friendliness Medium
Kid-Friendly High
Pet-Friendly Medium
Exercise Needs Medium
Playfulness Medium
Energy Level Medium
Trainability Medium
Intelligence Medium
Tendency to Bark Low
Amount of Shedding Medium

History of the Saint Bernard

The Saint Bernard is a legendary hero of the Swiss Alps. It dates back more than 1,000 years, though its exact origin is uncertain. Some sources suggest that Saints emerged from mixes between native Swiss dogs and large Asian dogs that Roman armies brought to Switzerland (perhaps the Tibetan mastiff or a similar dog).

The breed was named for Archdeacon Bernard de Menthon, who founded a hospice in the Swiss Alps as a refuge for travelers. For centuries, monks developed the dogs as companions, watchdogs, and workers that rescued lost and injured travelers in the Swiss Alps. Their highly developed sense of smell allows them to track people in the snow.

The American Kennel Club first recognized the breed in 1885, and it's become fairly popular in North America. Saint Bernards have been featured in pop culture, including the “Beethoven” movies and the Stephen King novel “Cujo.”

People with Saint Bernards in the Swiss Alps rescuing an injured person
George Pickow / Getty Images

Saint Bernard Care

Plan to exercise your Saint Bernard every day to keep it happy and healthy, and keep up with regular grooming. Likewise, consistent training and socialization are key for a well-adjusted dog. 

Exercise

While Saint Bernards are generally easy-going, daily physical activity and mental stimulation are still important for their health and well-being. Aim for at least an hour of exercise per day via walks, hiking, and vigorous play sessions. Also, dog sports and even search-and rescue or other assistance dog classes can be a good way to burn mental and physical energy. Many owners also get their Saint Bernards involved as therapy dogs.

Be aware that Saint Bernards don’t tolerate hot weather well. So keep outdoor exercise sessions short in the heat. 

Grooming

You can care for both the rough and smooth Saint Bernard coat types in the same manner. Brush at least weekly to remove loose fur and prevent tangles and mats. Periods of higher shedding will typically occur in the spring and fall as the weather changes. During this time, you might have to brush daily to keep up with all the loose fur. 

Bathe your dog roughly every month, depending on how dirty it gets. But check its ears weekly to see whether they need cleaning from wax buildup, debris, and other abnormalities. Check its nails about every month to see whether they need a trim. And aim to brush your Saint Bernard’s teeth every day. 

Furthermore, Saint Bernards are a very drool-prone dog breed. Expect to keep a towel handy for daily drool cleanup around your dog’s face, as well as on furniture, the floor, and other areas where your dog’s slobber might reach.

Training

Start training and socializing your Saint Bernard from as young of an age as possible. It’s key that these dogs learn their manners—especially not to jump on people, pull on leashes, or steal items from tables and counters—before they reach their full size. 

Saint Bernards generally are eager to please and take to training well. Always use positive training methods, as they can be sensitive to harsh corrections. And be consistent in your commands. In addition, make sure to expose your dog to different people, other dogs, and various locations from an early age to boost its comfort and confidence. 

Some Saint Bernards are prone to separation anxiety, as the breed likes to be with its family as much as possible. Work on teaching your dog to be comfortable when you leave the house. Otherwise, destructive behaviors, such as unwanted chewing, can occur. If your dog will be left alone frequently, a Saint Bernard might not be the breed for you. 

Saint Bernard in snow
Westend61 / Getty Images

Common Health Problems

Saint Bernards have a relatively short lifespan when compared to many other dog breeds, and they're prone to some hereditary health issues, including:

Saint Bernards as pets illustration

The Spruce / Kelly Miller

Diet and Nutrition

Always have fresh water accessible to your dog. And select a high-quality, nutritionally balanced canine diet. One that’s made specifically for large breeds is ideal for a Saint Bernard. It’s typical to feed measured meals to ensure that your dog is receiving the correct calorie consumption. And you should always run both the type of food and the amount by your vet. 

Like other deep-chested dog breeds, Saint Bernards are prone to bloat and stomach twisting. This can be a life-threatening condition and often is the result of eating too quickly. Splitting your dog’s daily food allotment into smaller, more frequent meals and restricting exercise around mealtimes can help to prevent bloat. Make sure to ask your vet about these prevention methods, the signs of bloat, and what to do if you suspect your dog has it.

Where to Adopt or Buy a Saint Bernard

The Saint Bernard is a moderately popular dog breed. So it’s worth checking local animal shelters and breed-specific rescue groups for a dog in need of a home. If you’re looking for a puppy from a reputable breeder, expect to pay around $1,000 to $3,000, though this can vary widely depending on bloodline and other factors.

For further information to connect you with a Saint Bernard, check out:

Saint Bernard Overview

Pros
  • Gentle and affectionate

  • Eager to please

  • Typically good with kids

Cons
  • Drools a lot

  • Has a relatively short lifespan

  • Requires training to prevent jumping and leash pulling

More Dog Breeds and Further Research

No matter the breed, it's important to do your research to make sure a dog will fit with your lifestyle. Talk to Saint Bernard owners, reputable breeders, rescue groups, and veterinarians to learn more.

If you’re interested in similar breeds, check out:

There’s a whole world of potential dog breeds out there—with a little research, you can find the right one to bring home!

FAQ
  • Are Saint Bernards good family dogs?

    Saint Bernards can be excellent family dogs as long as they have proper training and socialization. They tend to be gentle and patient with kids. But they should always be supervised around young children. Due to their large size, they might accidentally knock over a small child.

  • Are Saint Bernards aggressive?

    Saint Bernards don't tend to have an aggressive nature, especially when they've received proper training and socialization. They generally like people, though some can be slightly reserved around strangers.

  • Are Saint Bernards good apartment dogs?

    A Saint Bernard might be able to live in a very spacious apartment, as long as you are able to meet its exercise needs. The breed generally doesn't bark much to disturb neighbors. However, getting such a large dog up apartment stairs or elevators might pose a challenge.

Article Sources
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  1. Saint Bernard. American Kennel Club.

  2. St. Bernard Puppies and Dogs. Adopt a Pet