St. Bernard Temperament: A benign giant dog for the whole family
Are you here to learn more about the St. Bernard’s temperament and what a St. Bernard dog is like in a family environment? Then you’ve come to the right place.
Whether you’re a novice dog owner or have owned dogs before, it’s always good to learn more about the temperament of the dog you’d like to call yours one day. This calm, steady and benign dog might be what you need to balance a busy family life. The following blog will examine their impressive history as human guarding angels, their temperament, and whether St. Bernards are a good family dog. So, without delay, let’s sniff out all the details!
History of the St. Bernard
Saint Bernards were originally bred in a small hospice on the Great St. Bernard Pass on the Italian-Swiss border. They worked as alpine search and rescue dogs, saving thousands of lives in treacherous snowy conditions. The hospice was named after the Italian monk Bernard of Menthon, who lived there in the 11th century and built the monastery to provide food and shelter to travellers. The hospice acquired the dogs sometime between 1660 and 1670.
Initially, they were crossbred from Great Danes and the ancestors of Mastiffs, also known as the Romanian Mastiffs. Back then, they were less bulky and had shorter coats. They accompanied travellers through the pass, and soon the monks discovered their great sense of smell and direction.
Rescue excursions became more and more common in the 150 years that followed. Often, the dogs went in pairs to search for stranded travellers. One dog would stay with the victim, lying on top of them to provide warmth, whilst the other alerted the rescue teams. The St. Bernard was protected from the cold by their thick short double coat.
The St. Bernard back then looked different to the bulky St. Bernard we see today, with wars, avalanches and other difficult conditions pushing the breed towards extinction. To save the line, the monks crossed them with Newfoundlands. This gave them a bulkier look by adding to their size and also resulted in a longer coat. Unfortunately, this crossbreeding backfired. The longer coat was a hindrance in the ice as snow stuck to it, which affected the rescue performance and lead to frostbite.
Today, the hospice still exists and keeps St. Bernards on-site for its tourists and travellers. Regarding rescues, they have long since been replaced by helicopters as they’re too heavy to be lowered up and down the mountain, but the St. Bernard will always stand as a beacon of a great alpine rescuer.
These days the St. Bernard can have a long or short coat with no ill effects.
2023 St. Bernard UK registrations
113 St. Bernards registered with the UK Kennel Club in October 2022. It shows the constant love story of the British people with this benign breed. There have been 499 registrations in total in 2022.
Source: https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/media/2408/quarterly-breed-stats-working.pdf updated March 2023
Now we know about their breeding history, let’s dive into how your life with a St. Bernard might look.
What is the Temperament of a St. Bernard?
Steady and slow. The St. Bernard of today will not win many obedience or agility competitions, but they are great with kids and off the lead. They will never stray far from you and stick with you like a magnet.
The St. Bernard can be a little aloof with strangers at first as they can protect their owner. But they are only like this because they love you and want you to be safe. This wariness, though, can be reduced by socialising your dog. They will follow your lead if you have gained your dog’s trust. So, if you are relaxed around strangers, they will be too. They will gladly follow you and trust your instincts.
They generally tend to be good with other dogs or smaller animals as they don’t understand territory or have a predatory streak in them. Your cat and rabbits will be safe as the St. Bernard is gentle and kind. They won’t get agitated around smaller animals if they’re well-socialised from a young age.
St. Bernards don’t require as much exercise as other breeds. So, if you’re looking for a jogging partner, the St. Bernard wouldn’t be the best choice. A moderate 30 minutes to an hour a day of exercise will be enough for this breed. During puppyhood, it’s important not to exercise them too much as they’re quite heavy and can damage their bones. This is also the case for many giant dog breeds.
The St. Bernard learns quickly and picks up commands well, but this also applies to negative habits too. If you give them a lot of leeway with couch space, you might buy a beanbag so you have somewhere to sit. And once they’re on the couch, it might be difficult to get them to move! They don’t understand how big they are.
You should train your dog as early as possible with a firm and fair hand as the St. Bernard can react sensitively to harsh training methods and tones. Constant praise is important and will encourage your dog to obey as they’re real people pleasers.
Socialising is important to create a well-behaved, calm and rounded dog. Their huge body can be quite clumsy, and they need to learn how to navigate it, especially around small children and animals. A St. Bernard that’s not well-socialised can become boisterous and easily send a child flying. Exposing them to different situations with different humans is important, but it’s also important to teach your children to respect the dog.
The grooming will not be as extensive as you might expect as they will shed either way. But brushing thrice a week should get the biggest matts out of their coat. St. Bernards tend to shed all year round, but more especially in spring and autumn.
If you’re houseproud, this dog is not the right choice for you as their floppy jowls mean they’re prone to drooling a lot. Some owners recommend always having a bib around their neck and a drool towel to hand. Don’t be surprised to find newly shed hair on the floor, even if you’ve just hoovered.
Let’s now have a look at some common St. Bernard questions.
Can St. Bernards live in hot weather?
The St. Bernard has a double coat and can be comfortable outdoors in -20C weather. But how well do St. Bernards cope with hot weather? Not great is the answer. They can easily become overheated, resulting in low energy and excessive panting. You can do a few things to alleviate the problem and help your dog.
1. Cut their coat short and brush it to keep it free of knots (knots trap body heat)
2. Always have a full water bowl
3. Have aircon and tiles
4. Don’t over exercise and walk them either early morning or after sundown
5. Give them snacks from the fridge like cucumbers or watermelons with a high-water content
6. Put damp towels on them or on the floor
When is a St. Bernard full grown?
St. Bernards mature slower than other dogs but grow quicker than other puppies. In the first 6 months, the changes will be very visible, and you might be wondering when your puppy will stop growing! They’re typically considered mature at around 2-3 years old. They can even continue growing until that age, although this is usually just them “filling up”. Although giant breeds grow faster, they reach their full size slower. This is probably to protect tendons and bones from too much weight too fast.
Are St. Bernards good family dogs?
Yes, the St. Bernard is an outstanding family dog and great with well-behaved children. They tend to be patient with little ones, but either way, it’s best to supervise their interactions. St. Bernards love being around their family and truly thrive in activities involving people.
You should especially supervise play sessions with the dog if they’re younger. They can easily knock a child over, although this is never done in a malicious way. They’re just unaware of their own strength and are a bit clumsy while they’re filling out. Socialisation will easily help alleviate this issue as the dogs learn to navigate themselves better.
As they age, they will become laidback, loving snuggle sessions as they tend to have their emotions under control. Take the time to train your St. Bernard; you will never have temperament problems with this breed.
St. Bernard temperament in a nutshell
St. Bernards are real cuddle monsters. They love a cuddle
Due to their sensitive nature, they require firm but gentle and positive reinforcement training
Due to their size, early socialisation is an absolute must so they learn how to navigate their body around smaller animals and children
They will stick with you like glue and follow you everywhere
Be prepared for extensive drooling and a lot of cleaning
Potential health issues in the St. Bernard breed
As a new owner, you should be prepared to pay medical expenses associated with the breed. The sheer size of this dog will make medical treatment expensive. Thus, always opt for comprehensive insurance. Medicines are dosed based on body weight, so a St. Bernard can set you back massively.
Hereditary diseases are genetically predisposed. For this reason, it’s important always to choose a reputable breeder who has screened their dog’s DNA and knows from which family they come. Good pre-work and research can help minimise the below upsetting conditions.
Dilated Cardiomyopathy: enlarged heart and thinner walls of the heart, which can lead to arrhythmia, decreased activity level and sudden death. Speak to your vet if you feel that your dog is showing symptoms.
Bloat: when it comes to Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus Syndrome or simply bloat, all deep-chested breeds are susceptible to it. It is recommended not to exercise St. Bernards 1 hour before they eat and at least 1 hour afterwards. Please consult your vet for more details and tips.
Ear infections: This dog has a lot of loose skin and floppy ears. Floppy ears are susceptible to infections due to less air circulation.
Hip Dysplasia/Elbow Dysplasia: is an inherited skeletal condition but can be exacerbated by quick growth and obesity.
Ectropion: is an outward rolled eyelid that can cause irritation and discomfort and lead to conjunctivitis.
Entropion: is an inward rolled eyelid that can result in the same symptoms as ectropion. Both conditions can be corrected surgically.
Due to their size, the St. Bernard has a shortish life span. On average, it’s around 8-10 years.
Many of these conditions can be treated if caught early, but working with a reliable veterinarian familiar with this breed is important to ensure your dog receives proper care.
Most diseases are inherited in a recessive manner. It means the puppy must inherit both parents' genes to become affected. The puppy becomes a carrier if the mutation is only present in one parent. Hence, choosing a reputable breeder who has done genetic testing on their litters is important.
The more aware you are of these diseases, the higher the chances you can prolong your dog’s life if problems arise. Same as with your child, be aware of all required vaccinations and risks outside your home. This blog post, for example, outlines all toxic spring plants that can be harmful to your dog.
Many dog owners underestimate the danger in some pet toys and accessories that can worsen health issues, when they innocently buy cheap products from the Far East. Avoid synthetic rubber playthings like chew bones or tug o' war ropes from polyester; polyester collars could cause skin irritation and are not breathable like natural materials. Swap out those harmful materials with eco-friendly pet products from hemp here at Hooman’s Friend. Breathable, eco-friendly and sustainable!
St. Bernard fun facts
If you’re ever visiting Switzerland, stop in at Martigny. There is a museum called “Barryland”, a foundation and a kennel. There you can learn about the history of the Saint Bernard and play with puppies and St. Bernards of all ages. The museum is dedicated to Barry I who is recognised as a Swiss national hero, and who was one of many dogs who saved people from certain death. Barry lived in the 1800 and today you can find him preserved in the Natural History Museum in Bern. It’s said he saved over 40 people.
The Barry Foundation took over breeding from the Great St. Bernard Hospice and they have roughly 20 puppies a year.
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After reading our blog about the temperament of the Saint Bernard, you’re probably as smitten as we are. This dog might be exactly what you’re looking for. A calm, steady and loving giant, who loves nothing more than to play and cuddle up with you. All dogs require positive reinforcement training to develop into well-rounded companions who will be amazing with your children.
They’re not right for you if you’re house proud, though, as the cleaning will be extensive. These dogs will also need space, and you need a good training schedule. Before you decide that the St. Bernard is the dog for you, be sure you can cope with and afford them.
St. Bernard Summary Info box
Tendency to drool
Tendency to bark
Tendency to dig