The St. Bernard is one of the most easily recognizable of all the dog breeds. Even those who aren't proclaimed "dog people" will recognize the distinctively marked coat and the huge size -- up to 200 pounds when fully grown.
But for centuries, the St. Bernard has been bred not only for their size, but for their gentle temperament. This gentle giant has been around since about 980 A.D., developed by crossing other massive, ancient breeds like the mastiff, the Great Dane, and the Great Pyrenees. This careful cross-breeding was done by the same man who would give the breed his name -- Saint Bernard of Menthon.
One of the first images that mention of the breed conjures up is that of a concerned rescue dog pushing his way through the snow, searching for lost travelers, armed with a cask of brandy around his neck to warm the stranded. That's no coincidence, and it's an image that is rooted in much more than stereotype. The human Saint Bernard was the founder of a hospice strategically placed at one of the highest points overlooking the Pennine Alps, the western range of the Swiss Alps. One of the only ways through the mountain range, the Great St. Bernard Pass (also named for the man), has been used as a major travel route through Europe since the bronze age. However, even in the best of weather it can be covered with snow eight feet deep, with storms that ravage the area with up to forty and fifty foot drifts.
The St. Bernard dog was bred to help in the hospice's mission to guide travelers through the pass safely. Large, powerful dogs with a thick coat of fur as protection against the snow and freezing temperatures, St. Bernards were the ideal rescue dog for use in such inhospitable climate. A tough physical statue was coupled with high intelligence and a gentle demeanor; over the years, countless travelers were guided to safety by these gentle giants.
When employed as rescue dogs, they would often be sent out in pairs or larger groups. If travelers were found incapable of following the dogs to safety, one dog would remain with the person to watch over him while the another returned to the hospice for more aid. Once at the hospice, weary travelers would find food, shelter and relief.
While there is no longer a need for St. Bernards to work at the hospice, there are still kennels and dogs in residence. Now, the hospice functions as a retreat; visitors can still see the descendants of the dogs who served and gave their lives so many years ago.
Many of the traits that made the St. Bernard invaluable as a rescue dog make them ideal family pets. Mild-mannered dogs, they are patient and gentle with children in spite of their intimidating size. They have a high tolerance for rough and tumble play, but a relatively low energy level makes them well suited to life in any home from an apartment to a farm. Exercise is important, though, as the large build of the dog makes them prone to conditions such as hip dysplasia.