After twenty-six years of serious involvement with Saint Bernard dogs, I had the most amazing opportunity. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance that I simply could not turn down.
I had travelled many times to Europe for WUSB meetings, dog shows and seminars, and in May 2008 I was on my way to France to attend the hundredth anniversary show of the Saint Bernard Club of France. I had travelled to Switzerland to meet up with friends from the Barry Foundation, and we drove to Annecy together. During the drive from Martigny to Annecy, my friends were discussing the problem of hiring a suitable person as a dog keeper for the summer of 2008, to work at the kennels at the Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard.
Now, as you probably already know, the Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard was the original birthplace of the Saint Bernard dog. The Hospice was established almost ten centuries earlier by Bernard de Menthon, in order to assist travellers crossing the Alps between Switzerland and Italy. From roughly 1700, dogs have been kept by the monks at the monastery for guarding and rescue work, and later were developed by the monks specifically for this rescue task, growing into the dogs we know today.
Now, think about this: The Barry Foundation were looking for a suitable person to care for their valuable Saint Bernard dogs, at the oldest, most famous kennel in the world. That person would get to live in the monastery for a whole summer, interacting with the monks and spending all day, every day, in the company of a dozen Saints, thousands of tourists, and also many visiting Saint Bernard breeders, judges and enthusiasts. Any genuine Saint Bernard enthusiast would jump at the opportunity, and that is exactly what I did. I immediately volunteered to work for the Barry Foundation. My friends were a bit surprised, but after some discussion they agreed that it could be a very good idea, taking into account my knowledge and experience with the breed.
I went on to have a fantastic week in Annecy, attending the two shows, several seminars and the judges’ meeting and doing some sightseeing, all the while very excited about my possible return in a few months to work at the Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard. After returning to South Africa, I received an e-mail accepting my offer as a volunteer, and I immediately began planning the event. The rest of this story is the subject of my book, SIXTY-THREE DAYS, and in it there is a very short chapter entitled Mountain Tests on Saint Bernard Dogs.
Here is the full story of those tests.
Living where I do in South Africa means that we do not really have many proper mountains close by. What we do have are little mountains, which are generally rocky outcrops or hills and, although some can be very high, generally a few hundred metres is the average, with maximum altitude of 1 600 metres. Although they do have rocks, our hills also have lots of flat, grassy spaces, very different from the mountains around the Great Saint Bernard Pass. As a Saint Bernard enthusiast of many years, I had always wanted to examine Saint Bernards in their original terrain, climbing up and down rocky mountain slopes. This was, after all, their original function. So here was the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity .
My basic tasks as a dog keeper were to clean the kennels, exercise the dogs in the mountains every day, interact with the tourists and generally do everything necessary to present the dogs to everybody travelling over the pass. Exercising the dogs involved taking them out of the kennels every morning, and again in the afternoon, in groups of two or three and, once clear of the monastery area and the tourists, let them off their leads for a run in the mountains. When I first arrived at the Hospice, I was not as fit as I needed to be, so this exercising of the dogs was also exercising me at the same time. On average, I walked approximately ten kilometres each day in the mountains. Believe me when I tell you that after the first week, I discovered muscles in places that I did not even know I had places! And the altitude was another issue: at 2 500 metres (or 8 400 feet), we were more than 1 000 metres (or 3 300 feet) above where I normally live. And, although we do occasionally have snow in South Africa, it’s usually a few inches at the most, and here there were areas that were still metres deep.
Imagine going, in one day, from living a city lifestyle to climbing ten kilometres every day around steep, rocky, mostly snow-covered mountains! I basically woke up every morning, ate, worked with the dogs and crawled into bed every night exhausted. It was fantastic!
Fortunately, I was able to acclimatize very quickly, and soon I was enjoying my walks in the mountains with the dogs. When I first started exercising the dogs in the mountains I was amazed at how agile and confident they were. I started to closely observe their movements and made extensive notes and took hundreds of photographs. I examined how they climbed up different sized rocks, how the angle of inclination affected their rear drive, and how their front assisted that drive by carrying a large proportion of their weight. I especially observed how their feet were placed at different speeds, and what their overall movement looked like.
The relationship between the front and rear legs was fascinating to watch when they moved over difficult, rough terrain. They would run at top speed right up to a rocky cliff and turn in an instant, never slipping, never falling or ever placing a single foot wrong. It was as if they always knew exactly where to place their feet, which is, of course, the reason that they never fell. I soon realized that they were indeed true mountain dogs, bred for exactly this task. I should not have been surprised by this, but their agility and conservation of energy through efficient movement continued to amaze me. On my days off I climbed many of the peaks in the area, and spent most of my time alone in the mountains, or with the dogs, whenever I had the opportunity.
So, here I was, in exactly the correct situation to start doing some tests on the dogs. I carefully thought about what I wanted to achieve, and devised a set of tests that could realize my long time dream of evaluating the Saint Bernard dogs in their original environment.
The myths tell of Saint Bernard dogs rescuing people on the mountain trails, keeping them warm, carrying provisions and leading travellers back to the safety of the Hospice in mist, snow and poor visibility. They also were alleged to be able to sense pending avalanches, and smell people buried twenty feet under the snow, and dig them out. These tasks involved great strength, agility, endurance, intelligence and compassion.
I had a number of specific objectives that I wanted to establish, the most important ones being:
a) Were the dogs capable of these strenuous tasks?
b) How did the temperature changes, altitude and hard work affect their health with regard to heart, lungs and general body condition?
c) What structure was required in terms of skeleton, weight and muscles?
I had other questions, but decided that these three were the most important, and that it would probably take all my available time to obtain reasonably accurate answers to them.
So, here is what I did: All around the monastery area are mountains, with two on either side of the monastery, forming a natural pass where they meet, which is where the monastery is built. On the one side is a mountain named Petite Chenallette. About 220 metres up the side of this mountain is a small plateau, where you can find three natural lakes formed by melting snow. To reach the three lakes involves climbing up the steep, rocky side of the mountain. A straight direct route is not possible, so one has to wind in a crisscross manner, up the slope. This means that, although the altitude difference from the kennels to the three lakes is about 220 metres (or 700 feet), to reach there was very much further. This height is equal to a seventy-five-storey building. Think about this: Can you climb up the stairs to the top of a seventy-five-storey building? Also remember that these “stairs” were totally unevenly spaced and of different heights, so it was very difficult to develop a rhythm and run up these rocky stairs – and that they were covered in snow in the beginning of the summer, and there were no walls or banisters to hold onto; if you slipped and fell you were done for!
When I first started the Mountain Tests, I was fifty-one years old and it took me forty minutes to reach the three lakes.
During the tests, what I did was this: I started each test at exactly 9am in the morning. On every test I took two dogs, each on their own lead. I started in the kennels by first measuring the temperature and pulse rate of each dog. We then left the kennels and climbed as quickly as possible up the steep rocky slope (seventy-five storeys) to the three lakes’ area. As soon as I reached the top, I again took the temperature and pulse rate of each dog. We then all had a rest, mainly because we needed it. Once we had rested for fifteen minutes, we climbed back down as quickly as possible to the kennels. Remember: snow, rain, mist, slippery, uneven, and the same seventy-five storeys back down.
When we reached the kennels, I measured the temperature and pulse rate of each dog after a one minute rest, and then again after fifteen minutes. I wanted to determine how quickly their readings returned to normal. I then used my own observations made during the climb, and allocated a Mountain Rating to each dog. This rating was basically my view of how well the dogs managed the climb, both up and down, and how they managed physically with issues such as breathing, slobbering, willingness to climb and tiredness. On my scale, 10 was excellent and 1 was poor.
I originally had twelve dogs in the kennels, plus four small puppies. I did not test the young puppies or the two young females as they were only one year old, and this exercise was too strenuous for Saints of that age. I also did not test the two oldest females, as I did not wish to stress them either. Four more dogs were brought up to the kennels from Martigny during the summer, so I included them in the tests.
That left me with twelve dogs between two and six years old. I did the test with each dog twice, and then took two of the dogs a third time, because they showed very different readings between their two first tests. One of my tests was interrupted at the top of the climb, so had to be repeated. On a few tests I had members of the Barry Foundation accompany me, and then they assisted by repeating the temperature and pulse rate readings.
This means that, for the tests, I climbed to the three lakes and back, at a fast pace, on fourteen occasions – that same seventy-five-storey building. The three lakes’ area was very popular for tourist hikes with the dogs, so I also climbed it with tourists on many occasions with the dogs off lead, but at a slower pace. Before I left the Hospice to come back to South Africa, I made one last, fast-paced climb to the three lakes, and did it in seventeen minutes!
After testing all the dogs, and assigning a Mountain Rating, I was ready for the next part of my tests. It was very important to complete the first section up to this point without contaminating my data with the results of the second phase. This second phase was a vital component of the tests, and I would not be able establish answers to my three questions if I had not separated the two phases completely.
Every week, each dog was accurately weighed, so I already had a record of their individual weights. Interestingly, none of the dogs lost or gained any meaningful weight while at the Hospice, except for one male, who had been a bit thin to begin with. What I now had to do was measure the structural components of each dog in my tests. It was important to only start this measuring process after I had completed my tests and had allocated the Mountain Ratings, so that I did not pre-judge any of the dogs, and confuse the Mountain Rating with structural conformation. I conducted no measurements or tests involving the head, except to examine the flews and lower lip structure regarding slobber. I did measure all the other aspects of each dog, and these measurements included neck length and circumference, chest circumference and depth, length of forelegs, upper arm and shoulder, height at the withers, length of body, length of rear hocks and front pasterns, angle of front pasterns, angle of shoulders, stifle, rear leg angulation with hock, length of upper and lower thigh, and even the circumference of the front legs above the pasterns, and the rear legs above the hocks.
I accept that all my measurements were field measurements, but each dog was measured in the same position and using the same instruments, so I am happy that my measurements were all consistent and fairly represented the true structure of each dog.
Measuring aspects such as height, length and circumference is reasonably simple, and when it came to angles, I used a simple strategy which is as follows: Shoulders were either greater, equal or less than ninety degrees. Other angles, such as pasterns, hocks, stifle and rear were likewise greater, equal or less than what is required by the FCI standard.
Below are the statistics as recorded. Simply enlarge the page to read the data.
While I am the first to agree that tests such as these are certainly not conclusive, I do believe that these results are a valid indication of typical structural requirements and could form the basis of any breeder’s objectives for a successful breeding program.
I have included a spreadsheet showing the measurements and results of the tests I carried out, together with some notes regarding my conclusions.
I personally believe that it is important to maintain the typical markings of the “ideal” Saint Bernard since these have become a characteristic of the breed and remain one of the universally accepted features of all three standards.
I also firmly believe that, similar to special requirements in many other breeds, a special requirement in the form of a mountain trial should be introduced. I fully understand that many current Saint Bernards world wide would be eliminated from the breeding programs if they cannot spend a few hours successfully climbing up and down a steep, rocky slope, but imagine how a test of this nature would improve the health of our breed? Hips and shoulders would have to be correct, as would other structural features such as proportions, musculature and strength. Other simple requirements such as fitness, correct weight and enough exercise would be an added bonus.
In many countries, Saint Bernard dogs are already tested for hip and elbow dysplasia, and there is also temperament testing in some countries. These are all good ideas which could be supplemented by a mountain test. A mountain test carried out when the dog is between twenty and thirty months old would help to ensure that only dogs of the correct size and structure are used for breeding and shows, returning the Saint Bernard to the correct type required for its original work.
My definition of the Saint Bernard dog is as follows:
The Saint Bernard dog is an agile, long-limbed, short-coupled MOUNTAIN dog with a deep chest, and requires the correct structure and proportion in order to function correctly in the mountains of its origin. The correct movement associated with this required structure is also quite specific, exhibiting tremendous drive on both the FRONT and REAR assembly, assisted by a bone structure of the correct proportions and angulations, enabling the dog to move almost effortlessly over rough terrain with great strength and endurance, for sustained periods in cold or hot weather!
Running three times around a show ring would be a walk in the park for such a dog!
SUMMARY OF RESULTS
In my opinion the tests carried out showed a number of important facts that are as follows:
1) The dogs all showed normal heart functions and heart beat rates within normal parameters, even at the most strenuous point in the tests.
2) All the dogs showed temperature increases and decreases within a normal range.
3) Most of the dogs’ structural measurements conformed closely to the requirements of the FCI standard.
I found a direct correlation between structural requirements and “mountain ability”.
You will notice in the test results that those dogs that more closely conformed to the proportions as required in the FCI Standard and listed in the “comments to the standard” in The International Saint Bernard Book 2000, published by Club Italiano San Bernardo, were more suitable in the mountains and received a better Mountain Ability rating.
4) In my opinion, the most important issues were the following:
a) No dogs were overweight.
b) The required correct proportion of height to length is 9:10.
c) The required correct proportion of front legs to chest depth and height at withers: 50/50 or, better, 55/45.
d) The required correct shoulder angulation (ideally 105 degrees) is above ninety degrees, between the shoulder blade and upper arm, which assists in creating “drive” from the front.
e) The required correct rear angulation should be moderate, providing drive both upward and forward from the rear.
f) A relatively flat croup is required to support “upward” movement.
g) Required are long hocks of between 25% to 30% of height at withers.
The requirements listed above are clearly indicated in the diagram in the FCI standard, as below, and those dogs that received a lower Mountain Rating because they were less capable also did not meet some of those requirements. Remember that these ratings were assigned before any measurements were taken, and have not been influenced by the measurements at all.
5) In my opinion most of the dogs I tested were capable of doing the required work in the mountains to some degree, and suffered no stress or hardship whatsoever during the tests. Obviously, some managed to complete the tasks more efficiently than others so, while I do believe that other Saint Bernard dogs of the required structure would similarly be perfectly capable of carrying out the difficult work in those conditions and likewise suffer no hardship or ill effects, it is clear that the better the structure conforms to the requirements, the more efficiently the dog can carry out the original function of working in mountainous terrain.
SOME INTERESTING OBSERVATIONS
1) Dogs with straight pasterns did not move as comfortably over the rough terrain as those with angled front pasterns.
2) The four dogs with the best mountain ratings were the dogs with deeper chests. They panted noticeably less, and seemed eager to continue walking, and they all had forelegs greater than 50% of the height, with no chests falling below the elbows.
3) The movement required of the dogs in the mountains is not really the same as movement required in a flat show ring, so judges should never compare the smooth graceful movements of other breeds with that of correct Saint Bernard movement. Each individual breed should rather be judged according to the movement requirements of that breed.
One of the most import issues that always amazed me was footfall. None of the dogs ever misplaced their feet, and in every instance the rear foot always replaced the front foot in the same position. This was easy to see since the dogs were mostly moving from rock to rock, and would have fallen if their feet placings were incorrect. This correct footfall could not be achieved if other aspects of their construction was not balanced and correctly proportioned.
4) One of the dogs in my test group had certified HD level 4 in both hips. The dog was not in any breeding program. The dog showed absolutely no difficulty with the tests, and in fact was one of the dogs assigned the highest Mountain Ability Rating. In my opinion, this was due to the correct overall structure and proportions, as well as his excellent overall muscle development and good condition .
Other related articles on this site are: Fit for Function and The Great Truth.
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