by Doris Donnerman
(last updated April 6, 2009)
Perhaps no breed of dog has the world-wide reputation enjoyed by the Saint Bernard. This breed is relatively rare as compared to some of the Terriers and sporting dogs, and even some other Swiss dogs. His origins are shrouded with as much mystery as cloaks many other breeds. Yet, in his present form, he is really one of our oldest breeds.
It is supposed that the breed takes its name from the noted Monk, Benard de Menthon, but it is more correct to say that the dogs were named from the Hospice at the Saint Bernard Pass, in the Swiss Alps. There is no evidence to show that dogs were used at the time of Saint Bernard, the first reference to them in the Hospice records being in 1774.
What the early dogs were, or even what they looked like, is a matter of conjecture. It has been said that the monks did not breed dogs at the Hospice, but farmed out the females at farms in the valley. Only males were used in the work at the pass. Performance, rather than looks, counted. In the earlier days, there is no evidence that the monks bred for anything else. The dogs, therefore, could have come from very mixed stock.
It was Sir Edwin Landseer, the painter, who was responsible for the popular conception of the Saint Bernard as a dog going through the snow drifts with a small cask of wine or rum tied to his neck. In this picture, two dogs are standing over a fallen traveler. One appears to be baying to attract attention. The dog with the wine cask licks the fallen man's bare hand and wrist.
The kennels at the Saint Bernard Hospice appear to have been badly depleted in 1815, and again in 1830, once by distemper and once by an avalanche. According to Herr Schumacher, who wrote a history of the breed covering the years 1815 to 1880, the monks then used Newfoundland and Great Dane stock to bring up the size and vigor of the remaining dogs. Other writers say that Mastiffs and Pyrenean Sheep Dogs were used also.
Whatever the truth of these statements, it would appear that the monks were not any more interested in size and strength than they were in type. Also, there is positive evidence that short-coated dogs were preferred. Finally, the evidence is strong to show that there was a true Alpine Mastiff in existence in Switzerland at that time. This dog, perhaps a cast-off from the Hospice, may have been used in reconstituting the Saint Bernard breed, and in getting the long coat.
We owe the modern Saint Bernard to British breeders of that period. They fixed the type, color, and coat, and increased the size to the present standard. For that reason, one can examine the pictures of Saint Bernards of the period from 1880 to 1900 without using imagination as a means of guessing the breed.
It is believed that the first Saint Bernard was brought to America in 1828. A famous artist of that time who brought the world famous "Dogs of all Nations" exhibit to the San Francisco International Exposition in 1915, gives us an excellent picture of the dogs of that period. According to him, the typical dogs of the period were about thirty inches tall and weighed around two hundred pounds.
This breed of dog is powerful, tall (upstanding), strong and muscular in every part, with a powerful head. He is very intelligent, and never ill natured. However, due to their great size and weight they are extremely dangerous if aroused. A bite from a Cocker Spaniel and one by a Saint Bernard are defiantly two different things. The Saint Bernard makes a great companion but due to size and appetite this keeps him from becoming as common as his fame would dictate. The height at the shoulders for the male is around 27-1/2 inches with the females height of about 25-1/2 inches.
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