“Everybody loves a Saint Bernard,” writes Claire Huchet Bishop in her book, “Bernard and His Dogs,” published in 1952 by Houghton Mifflin Company. “He is no lap dog,” the author admits. “But for a real dog, give me a Saint Bernard.”

The larger-than-life Saint Bernard is known worldwide for its imposing size and its legendary rescues of lost Alpine travelers. For nearly a thousand years, the monks of the original House of Saint Nicholas of Mount Jovis, located along the Great Saint Bernard Pass between Italy and Switzerland, have provided refuge for both wayward pilgrims seeking shelter and the dogs named in honor of their patron saint, Saint Bernard de Menthon.

“Although the true origins of the Saint Bernard are not well-documented,” according to the Saint Bernard Club of America’s “History of the Breed,” “some aspects of this extraordinary breed are known.” Written records of the hospice dogs do not exist to document their first 700 years, but a pair of Italian paintings from the year 1695 may place the origin of the breed “sometime between 1660 and 1670,” according to one noted expert.

“From the available written records, it seems that the unique lifesaving work of the dogs began about the year 1700,” according to the SBCA. The dogs seemed to know when an avalanche was about to occur, and eventually they were put to use finding lost and injured travelers, even beneath mountains of snow. “The instinct to dig to people buried beneath snow and to rouse those lying in snow is still evident in the breed today.”

In the early 19th century, a series of particularly terrible winters took the lives of many of the monks’ dogs, nearly wiping them out entirely. “Rumors persisted that the remaining dogs were crossed with Great Danes or English Mastiffs after that near extinction,” according to the SBCA, “but no records exist to confirm that these breedings occurred at the hospice.”

Records do exist, however, of three crosses with Newfoundlands that were made by the monks in an attempt, perhaps, to introduce a longer coat that might afford better protection from the elements. The coats of the puppies that resulted, unfortunately, proved unsuitable for rescue work, and the dogs were quickly dispersed throughout the countryside.

“Selective breeding done by the most dedicated Swiss fanciers resulted in the return to the original hospice-type dog with only the length of hair differentiating the shorthaired and longhaired varieties,” according to the SBCA’s breed history. The efforts of one distinguished breeder, Heinrich Schumacher, resulted in the breed’s first studbook.

In 1880, the breed originally developed at the hospice was officially named the Saint Bernard and, three years later, the Swiss Kennel Club was founded “to preserve the original breed type.” The first standard for the breed was adopted in 1884.

The American Kennel Club recognized the Saint Bernard in 1885, and the breed quickly gained popularity in this country. The parent club was organized in 1888, and became an AKC member club 10 years later.

The Saint Bernard, made famous around the world for its extraordinary ability to save human lives, remains a popular companion among big-dog lovers today. Registrations for the breed in 2011 placed it 49th of the 173 AKC-recognized breeds.

The Saint Bernard did not actually wear a barrel of brandy around its neck as it performed mountain rescues. Photo © Swisshippo/Dreamstime.

A Powerful and Imposing Head

The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard defines the Saint Bernard’s head as “powerful,” with a “most intelligent expression.” According to “An Illustrated Commentary on the Saint Bernard Standard,” published by the SBCA, the term “powerful” has “two interpretations – strength and substance.”

The breed’s “powerful and imposing” head is emphasized by the standard with more detail than any other area. “Gentle” curves, “deep” furrows and “sudden and rather steep” slopes define the breed’s “massive” skull, and its “short” muzzle possesses a “straight” bridge, a “shallow” furrow and a “beautiful” curve to the upper flews.

The illustrated commentary expands on the standard’s four requirements necessary for establishing correct head type: “The head should be powerful and imposing; the muzzle is short, does not taper, and the depth is greater than the length; the flews of the upper jaw are slightly overhanging; and the flews of the lower jaw must not be deeply pendant.”

Additionally, the following head proportions are listed by the illustrated commentary as being desirable for meeting the standard’s requirements: “The flews of the upper jaw are approximately twice as deep as the muzzle is long; the length of the head is approximately twice the length of the muzzle; the rise of the skull above the top of the muzzle is approximately equal to the length of the muzzle; the width of the muzzle at its base is approximately equal to its length; and the width of the skull, measured at the widest point of the cheekbones, is approximately twice the length of the muzzle.”

Proper head type depends on more than just correct proportions of the skull and muzzle. Eyes that create an intelligent expression, ears that enhance this expressive appearance, wrinkles that add character and markings that enhance every other feature all contribute to the Saint Bernard’s famously noble and friendly expression.

A Broad and Powerful Tail

Perhaps not surprisingly, the term “powerful” is also used to describe the tail of the Saint Bernard. From stem to stern, correct type is emphasized with this single word that connotes substance and strength.

Set “directly from the rump,” the breed’s long, very heavy tail is broad at the base and ends in a “powerful” tip. The lower third may curve gently, and the whole tail carried “upward” when the dog is in motion, but it should not be carried too high and never rolled over the back.

The illustrated commentary states, “The role of the tail is often overlooked in creating the image of a ‘powerful’ dog. A small, weakly-tipped tail detracts from an overall sense of power, while a gay tail destroys the image of a powerful animal moving forward sufficiently.”

Short or Long, Mantle or Splash-Coated

The Coat section of the breed standard describes the hair type present on the original hospice dogs: “very dense, short-haired, lying smooth, tough, without feeling rough to the touch.” The thighs are “slightly bushy,” and the tail is “bushy,” but does not form a “flag.”

A separate section describes the coat of the breed’s longhaired type: “medium length plain to slightly wavy, never rolled or curly, and not shaggy either.” Thighs are described as “very bushy” in the longhaired, and the “bushy” tail is never “rolled or curly, and does not form a “flag.” The face and ears are covered with short hair, although longer coat may appear at the base of the ears.

According to the standard’s section on color, the Saint Bernard may be “white with red or red with white, the red in its various shades; brindle patches with white markings. The colors red and brown-yellow are of entirely equal value.” The breed is never a single color and never without white. White must appear on the chest, feet, tip of the tail, nose band, and as a collar or spot on the nape. The standard indicates that the white collar or spot, and a white blaze, are “very desirable.”

The “favorite” dark mask and ears create a more stern expression, and are not considered faults.

The illustrated commentary defines three body color patterns: mantle, torn mantle and splash coats. Although consideration of the Saint Bernard’s markings would be “trivial,” it is cautioned that patterns can create illusions that distort the perception of proportion in this tall, strong and muscular working animal.

In “Bernard and His Dogs,” the author expresses her astonishment when she writes, “After over ten centuries, having weathered wars, invasions, revolutions, and the terrible natural difficulties, the refuge founded by Bernard de Menthon still stands, at 8,120 feet of altitude, the highest point in Europe where men live the year around.”

What is all the more astonishing are the powerful and imposing dogs that have shared the monks’ experiences, and survived in all their magnificence to the present day.