August 20th is a special day for some of our largest canine pals: it’s St. Bernard’s Day. As you can probably guess, this Italian monk is the namesake and breeder of the gentle giants we know and love today. A veterinarian shines the ‘spotlight’ on the St. Bernard in this article.
St. Bernard of Montjoux—who is also sometimes called St. Bernard of Menthon—was originally known for building a hospice near two passes through the western Alps. (These passes are now called the Great St. Bernard Pass and the Little St. Bernard Pass.) Though the exact dates and lineages of those first St. Bernard litters are unknown, they seem to have been born sometime in the 1660’s. Before long, the pooches had become renowned for their skills at search and rescue. In 1690, Fido made an appearance in a painting by artist Salvadore Rosa. His first official appearance in written records happened in 1707.
A Landslide Appearance
Today’s St. Bernard looks quite different from his earliest ancestors. From 1816 to 1818, the Alpine region was pummeled by unusually rough winters. This caused more avalanches than usual, which unfortunately led to the demise of many St. Bernards. The pups that survived were bred with Newfoundlands. However, this had an unexpected side effect: fur that was heavier, and not as resistant to ice and snow.
One amazing pup, named Barry (or perhaps Berry: there’s some confusion there) rescued between 40 and 100 people. This very good boy is honored with a statue, and is the reason the breed was known as the Barry Dog for some time. Fido has since retired from search and rescue: the last recorded St. Bernard rescue happened in the 1950’s. Today, he is celebrated as the national dog of Switzerland. He’s also honored by an annual St. Bernard celebration, which happens in Rosiere-Montvalezan in France.
The St. Bernard is the true gentle giant, known for being loyal, calm, and steadfast. However, Fido’s stature does have some drawbacks. He has a shorter lifespan than smaller dogs: St. Bernards usually live about 8 to 10 years. They’re prone to certain health issues, including hip dysplasia, bone cancer, and epilepsy. Training and socialization are also crucial for these big boys. Ask your vet for specific care tips.
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