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Get to Know the Saint Bernard: The Big-Hearted Saint With the Glorious History

At the St. Bernard Hospice, the dogs became famous for locating more than 2,000 lost travelers over the course of 300 years.

Caroline Coile  |  Nov 25th 2014


The Saint Bernard may be responsible for saving more people’s lives than any other breed. And although they’ve since been replaced with rescue helicopters, some say they’re still saving lives through their loving natures — they are the saints of dogdom.

Read more interesting things about Saint Bernards:

  • The Saint Bernard may be confused with several other giant breeds, but the Saint Bernard is always some combination of red (or less commonly, brindle) and white.
  • The breed is divided into two varieties: smooth (with fairly short hair) and long (with medium length hair).
  • The Saint is one of the all-time most popular giant breeds.
  • 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.
  • When a dog found somebody, he would lick at the person and lie beside him, warming him with body heat.

  • The dogs did not carry kegs of whiskey. (Sigh. There goes that image.) The myth that they did sprang up following an 1820 painting called Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller, by Edwin Landseer, which depicted two dogs, at least one with a barrel attached to his collar, rescuing a fallen man.
  • The most famous of these dogs was Barry, born in 1900, who was credited with saving 40 lives. A myth says he died trying to save the 41st, but he really died of old age at 14.
  • Barry is mounted and on display at the Natural History Museum of Bern. In 1923, a barrel was added to his collar because of the myth of the whisky barrel; it was removed in 1973 but then replaced.

  • The breed was originally known by several names, including hospice dogs and Barryhunds.
  • In the 1800s, many of the dogs were lost to severe weather, disease and inbreeding, so 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.
  • The first Saints, then called “sacred dogs,” came to England around 1810. By 1865, they were called Saint Bernards.

  • The AKC recognized the breed in 1885. It is a member of the Working Group.
  • The Saint Bernard was the most popular AKC breed in the 1890s.
  • It is currently the 47th most popular AKC breed, down from 39th a decade ago.
  • Saints drool. Some breeders claim they breed for a dry mouth (non-drooler) but this is generally only achieved by producing a dog lacking the characteristic deep lips of the typical Saint Bernard.
  • No Saint has yet won Best in Show or the Working Group at the Westminster Dog Show.
  • A 315-pound Saint once held the record as the world’s heaviest dog.
  • Saint Bernards are the mascots of the Colorado Avalanche ice hockey team, the New Orleans Saints football team, and Amstel Light Beer.
  • Saint Bernards have appeared in films such as Beethoven, Peter Pan and Cujo.
  • Owners include Orville Wright, Charlton Heston, Carl Reiner, Betty White, and Marge Schott.

Do you own a Saint Bernard? Have you spent time with one? Let’s hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you’d like us to write about, let us know that, too!

Interested in other breed profiles? Find dozens of them here.

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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.