The original search and rescue dog. Saint Bernards have been heroes to thousands---but their biggest admirers are the families they share their lives with.
In the 1600s the monks of the St. Bernard Hospice, between Italy and Switzerland, brought in large dogs to pull carts and turn spits. The dogs became famous for locating more than 2,000 lost travelers over the course of 300 years. The most famous of these dogs was Barry, who was credited with saving 40 lives. the dogs were known by several names, including hospice dogs and Barryhunds.
In the 1800s crosses were made with Newfoundlands, introducing a longer coat. Dogs with longer coats weren’t used for rescue work because the ice tended to clump in their hair. But now Saint Bernards come in two coat types: smooth and rough.
Saint Bernards are one of the heaviest breeds of dogs. They tend to take life easy, but still like to play. Be sure their toys are super heavy duty!
The Saint Bernard's great size brings some special concerns, including joint problems such as hip and elbow dysplasia. Feeding a diet formulated for large breed puppies during the first year of life will help decrease the possibility of hip dysplasia, and probably elbow dysplasia. These diets allow the puppy to grow more slowly, while still achieving the same adult size---just a little later. Joint supplements, such as glucosamine chondroitin supplements, are also vital for protecting joint health throughout life.
As an adult, you must be careful to keep your Saint Bernard at a lean weight. Too much weight stresses the joints, and can worsen arthritic changes. You may need to feed a low-calorie food. When dieting a dog, you must make sure he gets enough vitamins. We suggest supplementing with a good multi-vitamin, probiotics and, if the coat is dry, a fatty-acid supplement.
One of the Saint Bernard's biggest problems is bloat or gastric torsion, a condition in which the gases accumulate in the stomach and can't escape. The stomach may then twist, totally cutting off any ability for anything to leave the stomach. The dog's stomach enlarges as gases continue to accumulate, and the dog is restless and tries unsuccessfully to vomit. This is an extreme emergency that needs immediate veterinary attention to save the dog. Torsion is a major killer of Mastiffs. Nobody knows exactly how to prevent it, but many veterinarians advocate feeding an anti-gas pill with every meal.
Drool can make your Saint Bernard have a stronger doggy odor than you'd prefer. A deodorizing shampoo, applied especially in the neck area, can help fix this. Whitening shampoo can help erase stains on the face and legs.
A few Saint Bernards are prone to ear problems. Apply an ear cleanser any time the ears start to accumulate dark secretions. Some ear wax is healthy; a lot is not. If you must apply ear medication, use the ear cleanser first to remove thick secretions that would block the medication from reaching the surface of the canal. If your dog's ears are painful, don't put any cleansers or medications in the ear until first seeing your veterinarian, as the ear drum could be ruptured.
Saint Bernards have a tendency to form calluses and even bursas on their elbows. Encourage your dog to rest on soft surfaces (even carpeting can be abrasive, but is still better than hard tile). Using a cooling blanket or simply placing a fan so it blows over a soft cushion can help steer him to the better surface. Moisturizers applied to the calloused area can also help, as can wrapping the elbows with padding.
Brush the teeth daily.
Clip the nails every two weeks or so using a heavy-duty dog nail clipper.
Saint Bernards tend to be affected by age-related physical changes, such as arthritis, at an early age. Besides any intervention recommended by your veterinarian, a soft cushion to lie on and glucosamine chondroitin supplements added to the diet can help soothe aching joints, and keep him as young in body as he is in spirit.