Recognizable for their role in the “Beethoven” film franchise, the burly Saint Bernard has an even more distinguished record as an effective rescue worker. Though giant-sized, this big-hearted breed is known for their charm, loyalty and gentle nature, making them a beloved companion and diligent guard dog throughout the world.
Saint Bernard Facts
As a member of the working group of dogs, the Saint Bernard has dedicated centuries to saving lives in the southwestern Alps. This physically imposing breed is balanced with a tender heart and a playful spirit.
- Breed Group: Working
- Height: Males, 28-30 inches; females, 26-28 inches
- Weight: Males, 140-180 pounds; females, 120-140 pounds
- Life Span: 8-10 years
- Coat: Long-haired and short-haired varieties
- Color: White and brown, brindle grizzle, and white and red (with red including shades of mahogany, orange and rust), typically with a black mask marking
Saint Bernard Characteristics
Saint Bernard Breed History
On the Italian-Swiss border of the southwestern Alps is a 49-mile-long pathway called the Great Saint Bernard Pass. At 8,100 feet above sea level and with snow drifts reaching up to 40 feet tall, the Pass is treacherous to walk. With the help of Saint Bernard dogs, however, thousands of fatalities were prevented.
In the late 17th century, monks of the Great Saint Bernard Hospice in Switzerland received their first Saint Bernards, thought to be descendants of Mastiff-type dogs brought previously by the Romans. While the dogs likely started out as companions and watch dogs, the monks began to see their value as rescue workers. Starting in the early 1700s, Saint Bernards were tasked with clearing paths for travelers, as well as finding and rescuing lost groups and individuals. A team of dogs would seek out people who’d been buried in the snow, dig them out and then sit on them to provide warmth, while the second dog would return to the hospice to notify the monks.
By 1897, the dogs had been credited with saving more than 2,000 travelers, including some of Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops. The most famous of these rescue dogs was Barry der Menschenretter, a Saint Bernard who lived at the hospice from 1800 to 1812 and saved more than 40 lives. Barry's preserved body is kept in an exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Berne in Switzerland.
The Swiss Kennel Club officially recognized the name Saint Bernard in 1880, and in 1885, the American Kennel Club (AKC) gave the breed official recognition, with the Saint Bernard Club of America founded three years later.
With a current AKC popularity ranking of 48 (out of 195 breeds) and about 60 Saint Bernard breeders registered on the AKC site, it’s not necessarily the most popular breed in the country. But nonetheless, Saint Bernards are considered beloved companions and guard dogs across the world.
So, what’s the average Saint Bernard price? A Saint Bernard puppy can cost you between $900 and $1,500 dollars, but can go higher or lower depending on the breeder and the dog’s bloodline. (Be sure to only work with accredited Saint Bernard breeders on the AKC’s Marketplace.) Alternatively, you can also adopt a dog through dedicated Saint Bernard rescues, like the Saint Bernard Rescue Foundation, Inc., or by keeping an eye out for the breed at your local shelter.
What Does a Saint Bernard Look Like?
This giant, powerful and muscular (yet affectionate) breed weighs between 120 and 180 pounds and stands 26 and 30 inches tall, with females typically shorter and lighter than males.
These deep-chested dogs sport a thick neck, broad shoulders and strong, muscular legs. A distinguishing trait, apart from the Saint Bernard’s size, is the breed’s massive head and wrinkled brow. They have a short muzzle, a large and broad nose, and nostrils that flare at the tip. The medium-sized ears are saggy, pressing against the head, with the flap forming a rounded triangle. The loose skin that hangs from the neck (aka the dewlap) is also distinct. Dark eyes feature lower lids that can droop.
Historically, the Saint Bernard dog was short-haired. During one particularly extreme season, however, the monks were persuaded to breed them with Newfoundlands, which resulted in longer-haired pups. Now both coat lengths are available in this breed.
Both varieties look the same, except the short-haired dogs have a dense, smooth overcoat that rests over an ample undercoat. The long-haired dogs have a medium-length coat that can include a slight wave, and their tales are bushier.
Between the imposing build and thick coat, this is one big breed! Luckily, they typically have a heart to match.
Saint Bernard Temperament
The Saint Bernard temperament is typically mellow and laid-back, adding to their appeal as a family dog. Like many breeds, though, the boisterous nature of Saint Bernard pups can make them a hazard due to their size. These dogs easily could injure a child or older person by accidentally jumping up and knocking them down. That being said, Saint Bernards are good with kids and typically behave with gentle protectiveness toward them.
A well-socialized Saint Bernard feels relaxed and accepting of strangers, though some may be more wary and take their time to interact. When raised with other pets, most get along well with those animals. Some male Saint Bernard dogs act aggressively toward other male dogs.
This steady, solid giant loves romping in the snow and requires room to exercise or they may become bored. Beware, too, that Saint Bernards drool and snore—you might want to get some earplugs!
Keeping Saint Bernards Healthy: 4 Issues to Watch Out For
With the proper care, the average Saint Bernard life span is 8-10 years. However, Saint Bernards do have some genetic conditions specific to the breed. You can minimize the risk of genetic diseases by purchasing a Saint Bernard puppy from a responsible breeder who has papers to show that their dogs are disease free. If you choose to adopt, be sure to get as much of the dog’s health history as the organization is able to provide.
Bloat, also known as gastric torsion, is a life-threatening condition that causes the stomach to twist, cutting off the blood supply to the stomach. Bloat is an emergency condition that can kill a dog very quickly and must be treated immediately, usually with surgery. Signs of bloat include an enlarged stomach, vomiting, pale gums and weakness. Bloat can be prevented with stomach tacking surgery early in life, which can be done at the same time as a spay or neuter surgery.
Saint Bernards are predisposed to developing two eye disorders: ectropion (where the eyelids roll out) and entropion (where the eyelids roll in). Both conditions can cause eye irritation and, in severe cases, blindness. These conditions are considered inherited in Saint Bernards, and surgical treatment is available.
Hip Dysplasia and Elbow Dysplasia
Joint dysplasias are diseases that affect the development of hips and elbows, and they predispose affected dogs to early onset arthritis and pain. Surgical treatment is available, and early detection is key to successful treatment. If you choose to get your puppy from a breeder, you can avoid hip and elbow dysplasia by choosing a breeder who certifies their dogs to be free of any joint dysplasias via Orthopedic Foundation for Animals certification or PennHip studies.
Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a genetic condition reported in Saint Bernards, as well as other breeds. Signs include coughing, weakness or fainting and pale gums. DCM is managed with medication. Avoid DCM by purchasing puppies from breeders who certify their dogs to be free of heart disease.
Caring for Your Saint Bernard Dog
Like all dogs, Saint Bernards requires general care, but special attention needs to be paid to a few of their distinct needs.
First thing’s first: Do Saint Bernards shed? Yes, they do—a LOT! Both long- and short-haired Saint Bernards shed moderately year-round and heavily twice a year. You can minimize shedding by brushing your Saint Bernard daily with a product like the Dakpets FURblaster Deshedding Tool. You can bathe a Saint Bernard once a month or as needed for heavy soiling, or you can take the dog to the groomer once a month for bathing and clipping. Shaving Saint Bernards is not recommended.
Saint Bernards need complete and balanced nutrition to support their enormous frames. Large or giant breed dog food for both adult and puppy Saint Bernards is the best way to provide adequate nutrition, as giant breed dogs have different nutritional needs than smaller dogs (such a careful protein-to-fat ratio to help keep them lean). Purina Pro Plan offers giant breed dry dog food formulations for adults and a large breed puppy food that work for Saint Bernard puppies.
If you choose to cook at home or feed raw, avoid nutritional imbalances by consulting with a veterinary nutritionist to help you formulate a complete and balanced diet for your Saint Bernard.
Healthy adult Saint Bernards need 30 minutes of moderate, low-impact exercise daily. This can be walks, swimming or playtime. Saint Bernards do not make good running partners, as the activity can put stress on their joints.
Chewing is an important mental exercise that can be supported by giving your Saint Bernard safe items to chew. Extra-large Kong toys are excellent chew toys that can be stuffed with treats.
Training Your Saint Bernard
While these big, loveable dogs can be easygoing, they are so smart that many show a stubborn streak when it comes to training. This powerful, stern-looking dog breed tends to be a slow learner who easily is distracted by scent.
Because of their size, take charge of training early and enforce the rules with consistency. Begin practicing obedience as soon as you get your pup. Teach the basics so they know and understand the “sit” and “down” commands and how to not pull on a leash.
You don’t have to be physically stronger than your dog to enforce the rules. While training treat rewards work well in inspiring good behavior, rewarding them with attention is also an option. For example, teach your Saint Bernard puppy to offer a polite “sit” if they want attention or for you to open the door. You’ll only shower them praise and attention if they obey the command. And if they maintain the sit, you’ll open the door—but the door shuts each time they get up without permission. Your pup may grumble but quickly will learn that a sit (or other requested behavior) results in all good things!
From an impressive ancestry that includes saving lives to a gentle and loyal nature, there’s a lot to love about the Saint Bernard. These goofy, gentle giants can be great family dogs, but it’s essential to do a deep dive into any breed before making a lifetime commitment. Saint Bernards are BIG and have a lot of hair and drool. Knowing what to expect with a Saint Bernard is an important part of pet care.
Paula Fitzsimmons and Amy Shojai, CABC contributed to this report.