Did you know that 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 gentle Italian monk is the namesake and breeder of the gentle giants we know and love today. A vet shines the ‘spotlight’ on the St. Bernard in this article.
St. Bernard of Montjoux was originally known for building hospices near two passes through the western Alps. (These passes are now called the Great St. Bernard Pass and the Little St. Bernard Pass.) Although the exact dates and lineages of those early St. Bernard litters are unknown, they must have been born sometime in the 1660’s. Before very long, the pooches had become renowned for their skills at search and rescue. In or around 1690, Fido made an appearance in a painting by artist Salvadore Rosa. The breed’s first official appearance in written records happened in 1707.
A Landslide Appearance
Today’s St. Bernard looks very different from his earliest ancestors. From 1816 to 1818, the Alpine region was pummeled by some unusually hard winters. This caused more avalanches than usual, which unfortunately led to the demise of many St. Bernards. The dogs that survived were bred with Newfoundlands. This saved the breed from extinction. However, this had an unexpected side effect: fur that was heavier, and not as resistant to ice and snow.
One amazing pooch, named Barry (or maybe Berry: there’s some confusion there) reportedly rescued between 40 and 100 people. This very good boy is honored with a statue. In fact, he’s the reason the breed was nicknamed the Barry Dog. Fido has long since retired from search and rescue: the last recorded St. Bernard rescue happened in the 1950’s. Today, the breed is celebrated as the national dog of Switzerland. St. Bernards are also honored by an annual St. Bernard celebration, which happens in Rosiere-Montvalezan in France.
The St. Bernard is the true gentle giant. Fido is loyal, calm, and steadfast. However, that impressive statue does have some drawbacks. For one thing, he has a shorter lifespan than smaller dogs. St. Bernards usually only live about 8 to 10 years, and are seniors by about age six. They’re also prone to certain health problems, 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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