During the summer of 2008 I spent nine weeks caring for the Saint Bernard dogs of the Barry Foundation at the Great Saint Bernard Pass, during which time I exercised the dogs, cleaned the kennels, socialized the dogs with tourists and hikers and generally spent every day in the mountains with the dogs. The kennels at the Great Saint Bernard Pass had an average of three hundred visitors each day. Although I was surprised at the number of club officials and breeders from many countries, the majority of visitors were simply normal pet lovers, interested in interacting with the Saint Bernard dogs. It was during this time that I confirmed the simple truth that I’d already suspected about Saint Bernard dogs, and wrote this article.
This truth is obscured by the multiple agendas of the various people involved with this famous breed. I do not intend the above statement to be derogatory or criticizing, but simply as a viewpoint which seems clear to me right now. But, before I state this “truth” and support it with the facts as I see them, I need to work through a number of important issues.
Firstly, it is important to credit the breeders, exhibitors, clubs and associations all over the world, past and present, for making the Saint Bernard dog the popular breed that it is today. Without the efforts of thousands of people, for whatever reasons, this breed would have remained relegated to the rare-breed section of any registry. It is important to acknowledge this and take it into account in any literature on this subject.
Over the past three hundred years, there have been great developments in the Saint Bernard breed. From the early 17th century to the end of the 19th century documentation has been scarce and photographic records obviously nil. Of course, many artistic impressions exist in different forms but, while these are helpful both in terms of structural as well as historical information, they are not definitive. However, from the end of the 19th century and certainly throughout the entire 20th century recordkeeping in most countries has been very precise and specific, even including photographic archives as well as morphological studies and measurements.
Unfortunately, the pressures of modern day breeding requirements, accepted norms and the desire to win at breed shows around the world have caused a number of problems.
In my opinion, the most influential and destructive of these problems has been the different breed standards in the three main centres for Saint Bernard dogs in the 20th century. These three centres have been Western Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. All three centres claim to be using the original standard!
The only people who are affected by the difference in standards are the breeders themselves. This includes mainly breeders who are producing Saint Bernard dogs in an attempt to meet their own interpretation of the standard they subscribe to. Even amongst breeders in the same centres there are vast differences between dogs produced in different kennels.
Amongst the Saint Bernard-loving public around the world, these breeders account for less than 1%. This means that for every one hundred breeders there are ten thousand Saint Bernard owners who know little or nothing of the breed standards, are not ever going to be concerned with the breed standards and simply love their Saint Bernard dogs for what they are and what they represent. I will cover these two issues later.
It is important not to misunderstand my contention that breeders are breeding to meet their own interpretation of the standard. In every centre, on many, many occasions, groups of conscientious breeders, mostly members of established breed clubs, have organized breed seminars to discuss and agree on interpretations of their respective breed standards. This in itself has been a good thing, since it has led to acceptance of generally agreed parameters of various items in the breed standards, resulting in improved conformity within the groups. This in turn has led to uniformity between groups, which in turn has resulted in a united image of the “ideal” Saint Bernard within that centre. Over the decades, even groups from different centres have joined forces to discuss and agree on certain issues of size, type and numerous other requirements.
Unfortunately, there is still a large division between the three centres, based mainly on the interpretation around structure, size and type. Put one typical dog from each centre together and any novice will be able to correctly assign them to their correct centre, but probably without being able to distinctly enunciate any but the most outstanding differences.
I have personally attended breed seminars, group discussions, specialist breed shows and other events in all three centres and have found that most individuals at these functions do have the best interests of the Saint Bernard dog at heart, genuinely caring for the breed and its future. However, they still account for less than 1% of the Saint Bernard-loving community and really only have a voice within their respective breed communities, unless they are also international breed judges and then they could have some small influence over other centres – but not much!
So, where does that leave us? The Saint Bernard-loving public around the world is looking for a large, lovable, brown and white dog with dark patches over the eyes. Some people require lots of long fluffy hair, a stream of saliva on each side of the jaw and a continuously wagging tail. Others are looking for a dry mouth, short hair and an intelligent yet kindly expression. Somewhere in-between will be the required parameters of the relevant breed standard.
Everybody, however, wants a large friendly dog with the typical markings of the “ideal” Saint Bernard. Three characteristics are more important than all the rest:
- The dog must be large
- The markings are important
- The dog must be friendly and lovable.
Where does this leave the various standards? They are only important to the breeder who is trying to maintain conformity for future generations: a noble and thankless task of no concern to most Saint Bernard fanciers around the world.
But let’s get back to the title of the article: THE GREAT TRUTH.
To discover the great truth we have to go back in time to the period between the 17th and the 19th century. According to legends, this was the time of the discovery of the talent of the Hospice dogs for trail making, prediction of storms and assisting with rescue of travellers around the area of the Mont Jeux pass, between Switzerland and Italy. Stories tell of the intelligence, bravery and strength of the dogs that worked with the cannons of Saint Augustine in their daily tasks of assisting travellers over the pass.
While there remain many sceptics regarding the role of the dogs during these earlier centuries, there is certainly documented proof of the work of the cannons (referred to as “monks” by most people) and the role played by the Hospice situated at the top of the Mont Jeux pass. However, during the first half of the 20th century there are also records of the work of the dogs, as well as attempts by the monks and other breeders to enhance the required capabilities of the dogs. These enhancements included development of the already impressive olfactory senses, their agility and ground-covering movement which ensured their safe passage over treacherous snow-covered terrain, and their size and strength to enable them to carry provisions and work for long periods in the exhausting conditions prevalent in the mountainous area around the Hospice.
By the end of the 1950s, the use of the dogs for rescue work had ceased almost totally, due mainly to the development of more technologically advanced search and rescue methods, together with safer and more reliable transport. These changes made the Saint Bernard dog obsolete for its original function. These developments left the world with another breed of dog unsuited for continued existence in the modern world: a valuable and venerated breed without a purpose.
At that point the Saint Bernard was already a successful show and working dog and enjoyed the reputation of being an excellent family pet, since it had fulfilled these functions for over half a century in countries around the world. It was really from this time on that the Saint Bernard dog evolved into different things for different people. Some breeders strived to maintain the original form required for work in the mountains, while others developed the breed for the show ring, as a symbol of the noble breed no longer required. Others capitalized on the noble character and myths of the original mountain rescue dogs, developing a line of dogs with enhanced physical and mental attributes designed to emphasize the original good points of the breed which were: great size, typical markings and a gentle and loving character.
Here then is THE GREAT TRUTH:
Saint Bernard dogs are mountain dogs with specific markings and enough size to call them a giant breed.
Of necessity, their structure is one of long legs, deep chests and a short-coupled body exhibiting agility and leanness. Anything else is a hindrance. If we take into account their original function, we must include great strength and superior intelligence, both essential for success in their daily function. The typical markings were apparently developed to emulate the attire of the monks, and while this may or may not be true, it is of no structural importance.
The current requirements of the three standards in this scenario are irrelevant!
In the past, if the dog was unable to perform the required function, it was basically of no use. This was a time of extreme hardship, totally merciless elements and a harsh lifestyle. Natural elements in the Hospice area during the long winter months were totally unforgiving. Only the strongest and best-suited survived and this is the background of the Saint Bernard dog. Only someone who has seen a Saint run at full speed up the steep, rock-covered side of a mountain, and then back down again, also at full speed, never faltering or missing a step, can truly appreciate the type of structure required to enable the dog to fulfil its original function!
Dogs with forelegs that are too short, with too-short hocks, too-long backs, too-heavy heads or too-heavy bone structure, having soft musculature or being overweight, with incorrect stifle or shoulder angulations, or other angulations inconsistent with climbing both up and down, could never function efficiently in the mountains of their birth right.
The markings of the dogs were of absolutely no concern! They are simply an enhancement of their mythical background, a re-enforcement of a bygone era, used to solidify and protect their continued existence.
The Great Truth is that the Saint Bernard dog perceived by 99% of the general public is a large, friendly, lovable giant breed, typified by a brown and white coat with a dark patch over each eye. That is how most people think of a Saint Bernard, not the proportions, heights, lengths, eye shape or colour, or the number of teeth!
It’s that simple!
It is my belief that the other 1% need to get together to agree on a universally accepted interpretation of the three standards to preserve this historical breed for future generations, for the benefit of the breed itself and not the breeders.
The main objective in setting a universally agreed standard would be to prevent the continued separate development of the breed, already quite different in the three centres. If the current trend continues, dogs in each centre could develop so differently from each other that they could eventually become three distinct breeds, with the same basic markings, each claiming to be a Saint Bernard!