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The dog of the Alps, the St Bernard is a large and well known character usually depicted in a mountain rescue situation with a welcome barrel of brandy around its neck! The name 'St Bernard' is derived from a treacherous mountain pass in the high Alps of Switzerland and Italy.
The ancestors of the St Bernard are thought to be descended from Swiss Mountain Dogs or Swiss Cattle Dogs, the large farm dogs of the farmers in these high mountainous areas which were used in a multipurpose aspect guarding stock, guarding property, herding, pulling sleds and hunters. It is likely that this breed are also decedents of 'Molosser' type dogs brought into the Alps by Roamns.
The earliest written records of the St. Bernard breed are from monks writings who lived at the hospice at the Great St Bernard Pass in the 1700's. It is thought that there are earlier drawings of dogs similar to St Bernards. The most famous St. Bernard to act in a rescue role in the high Alps was called Barry or Berry, who reportedly saved somewhere between 40 and 100 souls who were in trouble in this region.
The Swiss St. Bernard Club was founded in Basel on the 15th March 1884 and the breed standard was approved in 1888. Since then, the breed has been regarded as the national dog of the Swiss
Average height to withers: Males and females between 27-35 inches.
Average weight: 64-140 kg for both males and females.
The St Bernard is a heavy set and large dog which is perfectly adapted for its life in the high mountains. It has a large head with expressive dark eyes, a large black nose and triangular shaped ears which lay flat to the head. On occasion the eyes may be blue or one brown and one blue. The eyelids are noted for forming a tight barrier against snow and blizzard conditions.
The coat is always heavy and thick and more prolific around the neck and shoulders and legs, giving the appearance of a ruff around the neck. It can be rough or smooth but it is always dense and in colour is usually white and a rich chestnut red, and on occasion black and brindle markings may be seen. The tail is heavy, low and long and well feathered - perfect for covering the nose and face while sleeping.
This is one seriously relaxed dog! Big and lovable, they are famed for their loyalty to humans and will endeavour to please them in whatever they do. They are docile, but not stupidly so and this is something that somewhat negates their great size making them easier to handle than many small dogs. They are affectionate towards almost everyone they meet and are good family pets, although they can easily knock over smaller children or frail people. This is not something that will be done in aggression or with malicious intent.
Their love for their family can sometimes make them too dependent on them and can develop insecurities because of this, especially when left alone for prolonged period of time.
St Bernard's need a moderate amount of exercise and sometimes have to be dragged away from their beds as, on occasion, they can turn into couch potatoes. A well fenced garden is a must for anyone considering owning a St Bernard.
The average lifespan for a St Bernard is around 8 years. Due to the fast rate at which they grow and develop from puppyhood onwards means that damage to the bones, cartilage and muscles can occur if they receive too much or too little exercise or incorrect food.
They are also prone to Hip Dysplasia. Hip Dysplasia (HD) can affect all breeds of dog but is more prevalent in some breeds than others. It is caused by the abnormal formation of the hip ball and socket joint. Normally the ball would form a pivot point in the socket; however, some dogs are born with a genetic predisposition for HD. This means that at birth their hips are normal but as they grow, the hip joint does not grow correctly and as a result the ball no longer fits as it should. After the age of a year or so, the owner can opt to have their dog 'hip scored'. Hip scoring is a method used by vets to determine the degree of HD in dogs and involves the vet assessing a number of criteria during a diagnostic examination. If the dog is then found to have a high probability of HD, remedial action can be taken.
This breed is more likely to suffer from heart defects than other large breeds, the main of which being dilated cardiomyopathy.
St Bernards are prolific shedders and will require grooming at least twice a week which can be a time consuming affair. It is worth investing in professional grooming for this breed at least once every 3 months. In addition, as they are heavily coated, they cannot tolerate the heat. It goes without saying that you should not leave any dog in a hot environment such as a car or in full sun, but this dog needs to be provided with restful, cool and shaded areas.