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Saint Bernard Dog Breed Overview: Your Complete Guide - PawSafe

Saint Bernard Dog Breed Overview: Your Complete Guide

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

Saint Bernard Dog

Welcome to the fascinating world of the Saint Bernard (or St. Bernard), a breed renowned for its history as Alpine rescuers and its current role as a beloved family pet. Originally bred by monks in the Swiss Alps for mountain rescues, these “Gentle Giants” are known for their impressive size, calm temperament, and friendly disposition. 

Today, they are cherished as gentle, protective family members. With their moderate exercise needs and some specific health considerations like hip dysplasia and bloat, they thrive in homes with space to roam. Trained early as puppies and with regular grooming, Saint Bernards are as eager to please as they are easy to love. For more expert insights, check out the knowledge of Dr. Lindsay Butzer, DVM, on this incredible breed.

Pros and Cons of the Saint Bernard

Here’s a table summarizing the pros and cons of owning a Saint Bernard. This format helps highlight the key benefits and challenges associated with this majestic breed, providing a clear and concise overview for potential owners:

Gentle and Friendly NatureLarge Size
Saint Bernards are known for their affectionate and gentle temperament, making them excellent companions and great with families, especially children.Their substantial size means they require more space and can be more cumbersome to manage, especially in smaller living environments.
Good with ChildrenHealth Issues
Often referred to as “nanny dogs,” Saint Bernards are patient and protective of children, making them outstanding family pets.They are prone to several breed-specific health issues such as hip dysplasia, heart disease, and bloat, which can lead to high veterinary costs.
ProtectiveHigh Maintenance
They have a natural protective instinct that makes them excellent watchdogs for the home without being overly aggressive.Saint Bernards require regular grooming, especially the long-haired variety, and their size contributes to significant feeding and care expenses.
Adaptable to Various HomesNot Ideal for Apartment Living
While they do best in homes with space, Saint Bernards can adapt to various living situations as long as their exercise and space needs are met.Due to their size and exercise needs, apartment living is not ideal unless ample space and regular exercise are provided.
Working Dog HeritageExercise Requirements
Their history as rescue dogs means they are intelligent, trainable, and have a good work ethic, which can be channeled into activities like scent work.They require regular, moderate exercise to maintain health, which must be managed to avoid stress on their joints.

This table should help potential Saint Bernard owners weigh the pros and cons effectively, ensuring they are fully aware of what to expect from living with such a breed.

Temperament: Are Saint Bernards Good Family Dogs?

smooth-haired Saint Bernard dog sleeping

Saint Bernards are indeed exceptional family dogs, renowned for their sweet, sensitive, gentle and affectionate nature. Their calm and patient demeanor makes them particularly good with children, embodying the quintessential “nanny dog” persona.

Temperament and Behavior Around Children

Saint Bernards are famously known for their docile and friendly temperament. They are generally very calm around children and can tolerate the playful, and sometimes rough, interactions that come with younger family members. 

Dr. Lindsay Butzer notes, “While you should always be careful when approaching any dog, as they could be timid or become aggressive when approached by strangers, the typical Saint Bernard is calm, docile, and good with kids.” This inherent gentleness makes them trusted companions for families.

Considerations for Families with Small Children or Other Pets

Despite their size, Saint Bernards are usually very aware of their strength and tend to be cautious around smaller children and animals. However, due to their large size, it’s important to supervise interactions with young children who might inadvertently be knocked over or bumped by a playful or excited dog. 

Similarly, while Saint Bernards generally get along well with other pets, introductions should be handled carefully, especially with smaller pets that might be intimidated by their size.

Will Saint Bernards Guard the Family?

Experts agree that the Saint Bernard is not usually aggressive and does not make a good guard dog. Some bloodlines may have a bit more aggression than others. However, one of their breed characteristics is a big booming bark when they sense intruders, and this is usually enough to make a deterrent.

Tips for Integrating a Saint Bernard into a Family Setting

Space Considerations

Saint Bernards need adequate space to move around comfortably. They are best suited to homes with large living areas and secure outdoor spaces where they can play and relax.

Training and Socialization 

Early training and socialization are crucial. Expose your Saint Bernard to various people, environments, and other animals to develop their confidence and sociability. Gentle but consistent training will help manage their size and strength in a family-friendly manner.

Regular Exercise

While they are not the most active breed, regular exercise is important to keep them healthy and prevent boredom. Structured playtimes and walks help manage their energy levels and stimulate their minds.

Health and Grooming

Regular vet check-ups and grooming are vital. Keep an eye on their health, especially for conditions like hip dysplasia and bloat, which Dr. Butzer highlights as common in the breed. Their coats require regular brushing to manage shedding and maintain skin health.

Family Integration

Allow your Saint Bernard to be a part of family activities. They thrive on affection and involvement and can become distressed if isolated or left alone outside. As Dr. Butzer advises, “They do crave love and attention and should be allowed to live outside.”

By following these guidelines, a Saint Bernard can become a loving, integral part of any family, providing not just companionship but also a comforting presence that is both protective and nurturing.

Keep in mind, Saint Bernard mix breeds, such as when mixed with a Rottweiler or a Bullmastiff (the St. Bermastiff), can have a very different temperament.

Saint Bernard Physical Characteristics

Giant Saint Bernard dog showing typical physical characteristics standing on mountain

When you picture a Saint Bernard, think big, cuddly, and gentle! This large breed is known for its strong, muscular build and a coat that’s made to withstand cold weather. Now let’s get into what makes your Saint Bernard look the way they do according to the AKC breed standard.

Breed Size and Weight

Your Saint Bernard is a giant among dogs, both in size and heart. Adult males typically stand 28 to 30 inches tall, while females are slightly shorter at 26 to 28 inches. When it comes to weight, males can be hefty, usually weighing in between 140 to 180 pounds. Females are a bit lighter, with weights ranging from 120 to 140 pounds.

  • Height (males): 28-30 inches
  • Height (females): 26-28 inches
  • Weight (males): 140-180 pounds
  • Weight (females): 120-140 pounds

Coat Varieties

Picture your Saint Bernard’s coat as a personal winter jacket, designed to keep them warm. They have a luxurious double coat that can be either long-haired or short-haired. The long-haired variety has a dense undercoat with a longer overcoat that’s slightly wavy. The short-haired version, also known as the “smooth coat,” has a dense, smooth outer coat that’s straight. Both types have one thing in common: they’re made for snuggling!

  • Long-haired: Dense undercoat with a wavy overcoat
  • Short-haired: Dense, straight outer coat

Distinct Markings

Your Saint Bernard comes in a few different shades. The main colors are white with red, or red with white — the red can range from a deep mahogany to a lighter red. You might also see brindle patches with some white. Markings usually include a white chest, feet, tip of the tail, noseband, and a blaze on the face.

  • Colors: White with red, Red with white, Brindle, Brindle with white
  • Typical Markings: White chest, feet, tail tip, noseband, facial blaze

Remember that the Saint Bernard is not just a pretty face; their physical characteristics come from a history of hard work and adaptability. Whether long or short-coated, red or brindle, each one has a look that’s been tailored by and for the snowy Alps.

Are Saint Bernards Expensive?

Saint Bernard puppy with tilted head for sale how much does it cost

Owning a Saint Bernard can be quite costly, from the initial purchase to ongoing care and potential medical expenses. Their size and specific breed needs contribute to the higher cost of ownership.

Initial Cost of Getting or Buying a St. Bernard Puppy

The price for a Saint Bernard puppy from reputable breeders can vary significantly, typically between $800 and $5000. 

Here’s a table that outlines the different costs of purchasing a Saint Bernard puppy from various reputable breeders, including links for potential buyers to explore further:

Breeder NamePrice Per PuppyLink
Johnson Farms$4,500Johnson Farms
Sierra Nevada Saints$3,500Sierra Nevada Saints
Heather Carlisle$800Heather Carlisle
Harbor Saints$1,300Harbor Saints
Saint Bernard Club of AmericaVariableSaint Bernard Club of America

This table provides a snapshot of the range of prices for Saint Bernard puppies from reputable sources, helping potential owners make an informed decision while ensuring they support ethical breeding practices. Remember, the initial cost of the puppy is just one part of the total cost of ownership, as ongoing care and potential health issues should also be considered.

Alternatively, rescuing a Saint Bernard from organizations like Saint Rescue can be a more affordable option, typically around $300, depending on the rescue.

Ongoing Costs

Saint Bernards consume a lot of food due to their size, which can be a significant ongoing cost. Their grooming needs are also considerable, especially for those with longer coats who require regular brushing to avoid matting and to maintain skin health. Regular professional grooming sessions may also be necessary.

Potential Medical Expenses

Saint Bernards are prone to breed-specific health issues such as hip dysplasia, bloat, and heart conditions, which can lead to substantial veterinary bills. It’s crucial to have a good pet insurance plan or set aside a budget for unexpected medical expenses. Due to their large size and genetic predispositions, the cost of treating health issues can be higher compared to smaller breeds.

Overall, while the companionship of a Saint Bernard can be incredibly rewarding, potential owners should be prepared for the financial commitment that owning such a large and somewhat rare breed entails. Their breeding costs are higher due to the logistical challenges and the need for careful management to avoid overbreeding and ensure the health of the mother and puppies.

Living with a Saint Bernard: Day-to-Day Considerations

Large Red and While Saint Bernard dog walking on grass for daily exercise needs

Owning a Saint Bernard is a delightful experience filled with slobbery kisses and gentle nudges. However, their sheer size and specific needs mean they’re not the right fit for every home. Here’s what you need to know about the daily realities of living with one of these gentle giants.

Space Requirements

Due to their considerable size, Saint Bernards need plenty of space to move around comfortably. While they are relatively inactive indoors, they do best in homes with large living areas and a spacious yard where they can stretch out and play. Apartments or small homes can feel cramped, so it’s important to ensure they have enough room to navigate their environment without knocking over your favorite vase!

Remember, these dogs are prone to overheating and prefer colder climates!

Compatibility with Other Pets

Saint Bernards are generally very good-natured and can get along well with other pets, including dogs and cats, especially if they are raised together. However, due to their size, play should be supervised, particularly with smaller animals, to ensure their enthusiastic pats don’t accidentally become more like a heavyweight smackdown.

Daily Routines

Feeding Schedules

Given their size, it’s no surprise that Saint Bernards need a significant amount of food. However, it’s crucial to manage their feeding schedule to avoid overfeeding. Split their daily food intake into two meals to aid digestion and reduce the risk of bloat, a common health issue in large breeds.

Exercise Routines

Despite their calm demeanor, regular exercise is essential to keep a Saint Bernard healthy. Plan for at least one or two short walks daily, and include some playtime in a fenced yard. Remember, their exercise needs to be low-impact to protect their joints.

Family Interactions

Saint Bernards thrive on interaction and are known for their deep bond with family members. They’re part of the family and should be involved in daily activities, whether it’s a movie night on the couch or a backyard BBQ. They love attention and affection, so make sure to carve out plenty of time for cuddles.

Is the Saint Bernard a High-Maintenance Dog?

Saint Bernards are indeed considered high-maintenance due to their size, grooming needs, and exercise requirements. This gentle giant requires careful handling to ensure they remain healthy, well-groomed, and well-behaved.

Grooming Needs

Saint Bernards come with two different coat types: short-haired and long-haired. Both types require regular grooming, but the long-haired variety is particularly prone to matting, especially behind their ears, and needs regular brushing to prevent tangles. 

Due to their heavy flews or jowls, Saint Bernards also drool considerably, which can lead to lip fold pyoderma if not cleaned regularly. Owners should pay attention to dental care, nail trimming, and ear cleaning to keep their Saint Bernard in top condition.

Exercise Requirements

The exercise needs of a Saint Bernard must be tailored to their giant size. Puppies, adults, and seniors all need steady, low-impact exercise to protect their joints. 

Overly strenuous activities should be avoided as they are prone to arthritis and cruciate ligament tears if they engage in excessive running or jumping. Regular, gentle walks and play sessions in a securely fenced area are ideal for keeping them active without overexerting them.

Training and Socialization

Saint Bernards are intelligent and eager to please, making them generally responsive to training. Dr. Lindsay Butzer advises starting training early: “They are smart and want to please their owners, but start training as soon as you bring your puppy home while they are still a manageable size because they still have a stubborn side from time to time.” 

Due to their sensitive nature, Saint Bernards respond best to positive reinforcement techniques. Harsh training methods should be avoided. Remember, while training and socialization is important, this is not really a working breed and once grown, they tend to sleep most of the day.

Short, engaging training sessions are beneficial since they lack the energy or focus for prolonged periods of work. Scent work is a highly recommended activity for Saint Bernards, tapping into their natural inclinations for tracking and rescuing, which can be both mentally stimulating and rewarding for them.

Common Health Issues in Saint Bernards

Saint Bernards are beloved for their size and gentle nature, but they come with a range of breed-specific health challenges that potential owners should be aware of. Managing these health issues is crucial for extending their lifespan and improving their quality of life.

Cardiovascular Conditions

In a Swedish study, Saint Bernards had the fourth-highest breed incidence of death from heart disease, highlighting the importance of regular cardiovascular monitoring.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM)

This condition is especially prevalent in males of large and giant breeds, generally occurring between 5–8 years of age. Saint Bernards have been noted to comprise a significant percentage of DCM cases in studies from various countries, with a median survival time post-diagnosis of about 19 weeks. 

Dermatological Conditions

Dermal Arteritis of the Nasal Philtrum: This condition has been specifically described in related Saint Bernards in the USA, affecting the skin around the nose.

Endocrine Conditions

Hypoadrenocorticism (Addison’s Disease): Saint Bernards show a complex inheritance pattern for Addison’s Disease and are over-represented among breeds affected by this condition.

Primary Hypoparathyroidism: Notable for being the most common breed affected in Australia, this condition in Saint Bernards can be managed with synthetic vitamin D.

Gastrointestinal Conditions

Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus (Bloat/GDV): A critical condition for large breeds, GDV is particularly prevalent in Saint Bernards, with a significant percentage of deaths within the breed due to this condition. Preventive measures include dietary management and possibly preventative surgery.

Musculoskeletal Conditions

Cranial Cruciate Ligament (CCL) Disease: Highly heritable and a common issue in Saint Bernards, with a prevalence much higher than many other breeds.

Elbow Dysplasia: This condition is prevalent, with a notably high occurrence in the breed compared to crossbreeds.

Hip Dysplasia: One of the most well-known issues in large breeds, Saint Bernards have a notably high predisposition to hip dysplasia.

Neoplastic (Cancerous) Conditions

Osteosarcoma: Saint Bernards are at a high risk for bone tumors, particularly osteosarcoma, with one of the highest incidence rates among breeds.

Lymphoma and Haemangiosarcoma: Both conditions are significantly more common in Saint Bernards than many other breeds, necessitating regular health screenings.

Neurological and Reproductive Conditions

Conditions like Fibrocartilaginous Embolic Myelopathy (FCEM) (spinal stroke) and reproductive challenges like Dystocia (difficulty giving birth) and Pyometra (infection in the uterus) are also concerns within the breed.

Lifespan and Factors Influencing Health

While an article in a veterinary journal indicated that the average lifespan of Saint Bernards was surprisingly low at 4.1 years, it is important to note that with proper care, many live much longer, typically 8 to 10 years. Factors influencing their lifespan include the management of breed-specific health issues, diet, exercise, and regular veterinary care.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the Saint Bernard is a breed that embodies loyalty, compassion, and a gentle demeanor, making them exceptional family pets and companions. While their origins as Alpine rescuers have transitioned to more domestic roles, their endearing qualities have not diminished. They thrive in environments where they can be part of the family, receiving love and participating in daily activities.

However, prospective Saint Bernard owners must be prepared for the significant commitment these gentle giants require. Their size and specific health issues necessitate considerable space, specialized care, and financial investment. The rewards of owning a Saint Bernard are immense, offering deep bonds and a protective presence in the home, but they come with the responsibility of proactive health management and accommodation of their needs.

By understanding the breed’s characteristics, health concerns, and requirements for a happy life, potential owners can ensure that their Saint Bernard not only survives but thrives in their care. Owning a Saint Bernard is a journey filled with affection and challenges, but for those ready to embrace these majestic dogs, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe


Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.