10 Facts About the Saint Bernard: The Alps’ Giant Breed

St. Bernards were bred for rescue missions in the snowy Alps, but today they’ve become lovable family pets. Let’s learn all about these Swiss Saints with 10 intriguing facts.

Apr 22, 2024By Lisa Szymanski
facts about the saint bernard

If there were ever a dog that embodied power and fearlessness with intelligence and friendliness, it would be the Saint Bernard. Many people are intimidated by their enormous size, but truth be told, Saint Bernards are best described as giant lap dogs. Hailing from the Italian and Swiss Alps, this working breed would rescue mountaineers trapped in the snow. Today, much like their famous predecessors, the St. Bernard has become a much-loved family dog. From their avalanche rescues to their personalities, let’s learn all about this magnificent breed.

1. St. Bernards Performed Rescue Missions in the Alps

st bernard with barrel around the neck
The iconic barrel contained a remedy to warm cold travelers.

It all started in the 11th century when Bernard du Mont-Joux established the St. Bernard Hospice in the Swiss Alps. The hospice was located close to the treacherous Great Bernard Mountain Pass to assist pilgrims who were trapped in the snow. Saint Bernards arrived at the facility in the 1600s to protect the resident monks but ended up helping travellers who became lost along the way.

These dogs would go on to track people hidden in the ice and snow. They covered hypothermic victims with their bodies and carried brandy or rum in the canisters around their necks to warm them. Right up until the 1800s, Saint Bernards went as far as protecting Napoleon’s soldiers from the frigid temperatures as they crossed the mountain pass.

2. Barry Saved the Lives of 40 People in the Alps

Barry the Saint Bernard at Museum
A statue of Barry the Saint Bernard at the Natural History Museum in Switzerland.

Barry, the alpine Saint Bernard, deserves a special mention as far as intelligence and devotion go. He’s a Swiss hero who is well known for rescuing a young boy who was found freezing in an icy cave in the 1800s. Barry nudged the boy until he climbed onto the dog’s back and returned to the safety of the hospice. Today, the Saint Bernard is a national emblem in Switzerland and has earned the motto, “Nobleness, devotion, and sacrifice.”

By the late 1800s, the breed had rescued over 2000 people, and 40 of those travellers were saved by Barry. He lived at the monastery for 12 years, compared to the 8 to 10-year lifespan of the modern Saint Bernard. Today, you’ll find a statue of Barry at the Berne Natural History Museum as a tribute to the heroism of these Swiss Alpine dogs.

3. Saint Bernards Weren’t Always Heavy Dogs

saint bernard eating a treat
Modern Saint Bernards are giant breed dogs.

You might be wondering how the St. Bernard got its tremendous size. These mountain dogs were bred from large Molosser breeds known for their broad chests, muscular legs, and incredible strength. This included the great Pyrenees, English mastiffs, Tibetan mastiffs, Bernese mountain dogs, and even Great Danes. However, the earliest Saint Bernards only weighed around 90 lbs, compared to the 180 lb specimens we know and love today.

At the time of Barry’s rescue missions, he weighed 99 lbs. The Saint Bernards of the 18th and 19th centuries were strong yet light enough to trudge through the snow. However, the idea behind breeding heavier dogs was to haul people out of dangerous snow-covered paths. Unfortunately, the larger Saints couldn’t perform rescue duties because they struggled to keep up with the steep and winding mountain paths.

In terms of physical appearance, you’ll find long-haired and short-haired St. Bernards with no difference in personality or behavior. These avalanche dogs are easily identified by their dark masks, droopy eyes, and patchy body markings. There are 9 coat colors officially recognized by the AKC, including orange and white, brown, and white, and red and white.

4. Alpine Dogs Have Special Grooming Needs

wet saint bernard
Saint Bernards benefit from regular baths and brushes.

The long-haired Saint Bernard requires a fair amount of grooming because of their double coat. These working dogs need to be regularly brushed to remove loose hair because they shed so frequently. A simple brush will help to maintain the condition of their coats and skin, and it will prevent tangled or matted hair. If you are interested in a big dog breed that doesn’t shed too much, sadly, the Saint Bernard is not the best choice. If you don’t stay on top of their grooming, you’ll find clumps of hair all over your house. You’ll need special brushes and de-shedding tools to manage the shedding hair as they blow their coats before summer.

5. The St. Bernard has a Gentle Soul

baby hugging a saint bernard dog
Saint Bernards love children.

Goofy, gentle, and brave are a few words that I would use to describe the St. Bernard. It’s hard to believe that such a menacing-looking dog has a heart of gold, but this large breed is incredibly friendly. They are so friendly that you’ve got to be more concerned about children accidentally hurting them by pulling, tugging, or pinching them. These hefty dogs are very tolerant and patient, which is why they make such a great choice for families.

Puppies, on the other hand, have a tremendous amount of energy, and they’ll get up to mischief if you don’t redirect their curiosity. A necessary part of training a Saint Bernard is teaching them to walk correctly on lead. These dogs can weigh up to 200 lbs, so you’ll want to control them on walks. Because they’re so responsive to training, you’ll easily have them walking and heeling with some encouragement and positive reinforcement.

6. They’re a Family Pet and Guard Dog

face of saint bernard panting
A Saint Bernard will be your furry best friend.

As with any dog breed, Saint Bernards should be socialized with other animals and people from a young age. Positive experiences can prevent fear and aggression in dogs, which are important when handling such a powerful breed. While they don’t have a history of aggression and aren’t known for viciousness, Saint Bernards do well with obedience. They’re generally quiet dogs, but they will alert you if a stranger approaches. Saint Bernards are family guard dogs because they’re the perfect combination of a friendly family pet with a protective nature. Training is the best way to encourage a social dog with an even temperament that will defend you if you’re threatened.

7. Saint Bernards Have Made Several Film and TV Appearances

Beethoven dog with family
The famous Saint Bernard Beethoven with his on-screen family.

Regarding intelligence, the Saint Bernard is a quick and eager learner. It only takes about 20-30 minutes for them to learn new dog tricks. Despite their 65th ranking for most intelligent dogs out of over 100 breeds, they have “canine intuition” that simply cannot be taught.

Being natural-born rescue dogs, it’s no surprise that the Saint is easy to train. Their ability to perform basic obedience has led to multiple appearances on the silver screen. The television show Topper had a martini-loving St. Bernard played by Neil, and who can forget Beethoven’s hilarious antics! George was another popular 1970s TV series about a Saint Bernard living in the Alps. Despite German shepherds and poodles having the most television appearances, they’re closely followed by the trusty Saint Bernard.

8. St. Bernards Enjoy Agility Training and Swimming

Saint bernard swimming in pool
Saint Bernards should be monitored in and around pools.

You might have heard about Saints being lazy and low-energy dogs, and this might be true as they get older. However, a puppy or young St. Bernard is exuberant and requires a fair amount of playtime with other pets and their favorite chew toys. They get bored quickly and become destructive. To keep your giant breed puppy’s excitement and energy in check, stick to no more than 20 minutes of walking on lead per day.

Despite their strength and size, St. Bernards do well with agility training. They perform at a much slower pace than a border collie, but they thoroughly enjoy obstacle courses. Saint Bernards are attracted to water and are the kind of dogs that love to swim. Adult Saints do well with moderate activity, including daily walks. It’s not a good idea to run with these massive canines because it puts strain on their hips and knees. This type of physical stress can lead to injuries such as a luxating patella.

9. Saint Bernards Love to Be Indoors

girl relaxing with saint bernard on sofa at home
A Saint Bernard can cuddle with you all day.

The question you should be asking is how to keep a St. Bernard out! Think of this breed as a giant cuddle bug, always looking to be close to you. They love to spend time lounging around indoors and will relax on the sofa or the floor for hours. This doesn’t mean that they don’t need a yard to run around in. Saint Bernards are very big dogs, and it wouldn’t be fair to keep them in a small environment. They’re not apartment dogs and enjoy sniffing about the garden and having enough room to play. They’re also big slobberers because of their enormous jowls, so be prepared for never-ending drool if you’re thinking of bringing a Saint Bernard home.

10. Why the Saint Bernard Remains a Treasured Breed

Saint bernard standing on snow covered mountain
The Saint Bernard is an impressive dog.

The St. Bernard is known for its imposing size, yet they have a playful and loving personality. Their history dates as far back as the 17th century when their instinct to protect led to their legendary tales of dangerous rescue missions. They’ve earned their place as one of the most loyal dog breeds in the world because of their devotion and protective nature. As a giant dog breed, they need lots of space and strong leadership to manage their size. The Swiss dog remains a treasure because of their historic significance. These avalanche dogs would risk their lives to save people caught in the snow, and their steadfast dedication remains a part of their personality today.

Lisa Szymanski
By Lisa Szymanski

Lisa is a wildlife enthusiast who enjoys hiking and gardening and has four years of experience volunteering at pet shelters. She is the proud mom of two dogs, a Pitbull named Ragnar, a Boerboel named Blueberry, and four feisty chickens, or as she calls them, the "queens of the yard," Goldie, Gray, Peaches, and Brownie.