The Gentle Giants of the Swiss Alps: Saint Bernards

The ultimate guide to owning a gentle alpine giant

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By Kenny G

Saint Bernard dog

Discover the illustrious Saint Bernard dog, a breed renowned for its heroism and gentle nature. Explore their history, characteristics, and care needs in our comprehensive guide, and learn what makes these Alpine rescuers the perfect family companion.

In the heart of the Swiss Alps, amidst snow-capped peaks and verdant valleys, thrives a breed of dog as noble in spirit as it is grand in stature: the Saint Bernard. These gentle giants have captured the hearts of dog lovers worldwide, not only for their impressive size and striking appearance but also for their historical significance as mountain rescue dogs. This comprehensive look into the Saint Bernard will offer insights into their origins, characteristics, and the role they play in the lives of their human companions.

Historical Beginnings of the Saint Bernard dog

To fully appreciate the Saint Bernard, we must journey back to ancient times. While the breed as we know it today began to take shape in the 17th century, its ancestors were likely the large farm dogs of the Roman Empire, which were brought to Switzerland over 2000 years ago.

These dogs were the forebears of the Alpine Mastiff, an essential contributor to the genetic makeup of the modern Saint Bernard.

The breed gets its name from the Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard, a traveler’s refuge founded in the 11th century by St. Bernard of Menthon. Nestled atop the treacherous Great Saint Bernard Pass, the monks and canons who resided there recognized the dogs’ potential as working animals.

The earliest records of the Saint Bernards as rescue dogs date to around 1660, with the breed’s rescue exploits reaching legendary status by the early 1800s.

The Saint Bernard: A Rescue Dog Par Excellence

The Saint Bernard’s reputation as a rescue dog is woven into the fabric of Alpine folklore. These dogs were indispensable to the monks of the Great Saint Bernard Hospice, where they helped to locate and save lost or injured travelers buried under avalanches. The most famous of these dogs, Barry, is credited with saving over 40 lives during his lifetime in the early 19th century.

The innate ability of the Saint Bernard to navigate through treacherous conditions and their unerring sense of direction made them ideal for rescue missions. Their thick coats protected them against the cold, while their size and strength allowed them to traverse deep snow with relative ease. They were said to possess a keen sense of smell, which enabled them to detect humans under the snow.

Physical Characteristics and Temperament

The Saint Bernard is an embodiment of strength and gentleness. Standing at nearly a meter tall at the shoulder and weighing as much as 100 kilograms, they are one of the largest dog breeds. They possess a powerful build with a muscular frame, topped with a massive head and a kind, expressive face.

Saint Bernards are known for their luxurious coats, which come in two varieties: short-haired (or smooth) and long-haired. The base color of their coat is predominantly white, with contrasting patches of red, brown, mahogany, or brindle. Their iconic look is completed with dark eyes, a black mask, and often a hospitable smile.

Despite their formidable appearance, Saint Bernards are gentle at heart. They display an immense loyalty to their families, showing a particular fondness for children. Known for their patient, calm demeanor, they are friendly and peaceful with other animals and humans alike. However, their protective instinct is strong, making them excellent watchdogs. Their amiable nature does not detract from their courageousness and willingness to protect those they love.

Living with a Saint Bernard

Welcoming a Saint Bernard into your home is a commitment that should not be taken lightly. These dogs thrive in environments where they have ample space to move around. Apartment living is not recommended for this breed due to their large size and need for regular exercise to maintain their health.

When considering adding a Saint Bernard to your family, seek out reputable breeders who prioritize the health and well-being of their dogs.

Puppies from distinguished bloodlines and those that conform to breed standards may range in price from $2,000 to $3,000 USD. Prospective owners should ensure they obtain all necessary health documentation and understand the breed’s needs.

Saint Bernard dog

Always insist on seeing health clearances for both of the puppy’s parents. These should include certifications from organizations such as the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for hips and elbows, and the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF), certifying that eyes are normal.

Saint Bernards have specific dietary requirements to support their large frames and active metabolisms. High-quality food, rich in nutrients, and appropriate for large breed dogs is essential. Regular veterinary checkups, vaccinations, and preventative health measures will contribute to a long and healthy life.


The Saint Bernard is more than just a breed; it is a symbol of benevolence and strength. Whether saving lives in the snowy Alps or providing companionship in a family home, these dogs leave an indelible mark on the lives of those they touch. The decision to welcome a Saint Bernard into your life should be made with a full understanding of the responsibilities that come with such a noble and sizable breed. For those who are ready, a Saint Bernard can be asource of boundless joy and a testament to the unique bond between humans and canines.

Each Saint Bernard is a living legacy of the monks of the Great Saint Bernard Pass, a reminder of the breed’s history of service and companionship. As you consider becoming a part of this breed’s future, remember that the love and affection of a Saint Bernard come in large measures, as grand and expansive as their storied past.

Embrace the journey with your gentle giant, and you’ll find that a Saint Bernard’s heart is as vast as the mountains they once roamed. With proper care, a supportive environment, and a strong bond with their family, these dogs will continue to be the epitome of loyalty and love.

In the comments below, we invite you to share your experiences or ask any questions you may have about the Saint Bernard. And if you’ve found this article enlightening, be sure to subscribe to our Youtube channel for more insights into the fascinating world of animals. Your next best friend, draped in fur and bearing a heritage of heroism, may just be a Saint Bernard waiting to enter your life.

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