The Expected Temperament of a Saint Bernard

Supplement to an article in the book "Saint Bernards From the Stoan Perspective"


Your dog should befriend strangers not eat them! St. Bernards are expected to be people friendly. Don't settle for anything less....


As I travel about this country and others throughout the world, I find a large variation in the temperament of the Saint Bernard. My image of the loving, friendly, benevolent animal that first attracted me to these dogs does not seem to be universally accepted as correct for the breed. This is a source of great concern to me; a concern that needs sharing.

I despise seeing a St. Bernard at ring side being held in a viselike grip for fear of the consequences should the dog get loose and give vent to its instincts. I have seen Saints that had to be muzzled before they could be taken to and from the ring. I have seen Saint Bernards bent on getting into a dog fight the whole time they were in the ring. I have seen Saint Bernards who hesitate not at all to bite anybody who tries to make it do something other than suiting itself. To my mind, these are not proper Saint Bernards.

It would be belaboring the obvious to say that St. Bernard breeders and owners should be especially careful about the temperament of their dogs. Clearly, Saints are simply too large to have a dangerous temperament. The question is, however, "Just what is a dangerous temperament?" I doubt that many will argue with the contention that any indication of viciousness in a Saint Bernard is dangerous. Furthermore, we usually think that there is no distinction between a dangerous temperament and a vicious one. Unfortunately, in our breed the problem is much more extensive than that. My job here is to convince you that other traits can be just as unacceptable, and that in a dog the size of a Saint the term "dangerous" can take on many forms.

The first such trait that needs denigrating is shyness or fearfulness. The trouble with having a very big St. Bernard who is shy or timid is that you have on your hands an animal who is afraid of every out-of-the-ordinary element in its environment. At the first event such a dog is very likely to bite someone, and that bite probably will be quite serious. The overly fearful dog will retreat whenever it has the option, but whenever it feels unable to escape from a frightening situation it will unhesitatingly resort to growling and/or biting.

Often, these biting events happen when the situation is not truly threatening to the dog, but only is perceived as such because of the dog's unstable personality. You often hear stories such as, "He was sleeping on the floor when the four-year-old walked past. He just woke up and attacked the child, and then he seemed ashamed of himself."

According to the accepted dog lore, a fearful personality may be other than hereditary in nature. Supposedly, shyness may be something a dog gets through some sort of shock or trauma; or the dog may act shy because it was never properly socialized -- the so called kennel personality. It is usually accepted that hereditary shyness is permanent and incurable; that it is sometimes possible to cure, or at least reduce, traumatic fear; and that kennel shyness usually gives way to confidence, given time. At least that is what the consensus of the dog fancy would have you believe.

I have trouble with the idea of there being different types of timidity. My problem is that I have not been able to find any way to make reliable distinctions between these various categories of shyness. I subscribe to the school of thought that claims that a basic stable temperament never becomes shy under any circumstance.

It's been observed that, more often than not, people want to make any excuse other than heredity for their dog's behavior. If you will investigate you will find that almost every condition of a shy Saint Bernard is traceable to its ancestors.

"So," you ask, "what's the big deal about shyness? How can shyness be considered as important as viciousness?" It has long been my contention that hereditary shyness and viciousness are simply two sides of the same coin. The nasty dog and the shy one will often come from the same background. Their personalities being simply two different outward expressions of the same genetic flaw in their character; a flaw that cannot be tolerated in a Saint Bernard.

That's enough about shyness. Let's now talk about another kind of dangerous temperament, the overly boisterous Saint Bernard. There is a type of personality occasionally found in our breed that features an over abundance of exuberance, which I call the "Labrador" personality. While we can all agree that a Saint Bernard with a propensity to bite is dangerous, we may have trouble agreeing that uninhibited and unruly behavior should have the same label. Let me present my arguments that boisterousness should be identified as dangerous in a dog the size of a Saint Bernard.

This turbulent type of dog shows little interest in what its owner wants in the way of behavior. It shows, however, a keen interest in anything and everything in its environment, and feels no compunction about launching an immediate investigation into whatever is foremost in its mind's eye. One usually thinks of these dogs in terms of crash, leap, bang, bash, crunch, lunge, knocking-over, or knocking-down.

This lack of concern about what its master wants is decidedly not what Saint Bernards are about. Nor can you deny that such behavior is dangerous to children, to the elderly, and to anyone who lacks the size and strength to withstand this kind of onslaught. Heads have been fractured, limbs have been broken, cuts and contusions have ensued from such out-of-control Saint Bernards.

The case for this sort of behavior being genetic is not as clear as for the propensity to bite. One often thinks of this as puppy behavior that was never corrected; that is, learned behavior that is obviously the owner's fault.

But, is it? Is it really learned behavior? I think not, and let me tell you why!

The type of temperament the breeders should be seeking is the kind found in dogs who were sent out unattended, in packs of two or three adult males, in terrible weather conditions and over a treacherous landscape, to seek out strangers so that they could render assistance to those they found in trouble.

In short, dogs who are gregarious with strangers, unaggressive toward other dogs and people, intelligent, eager-to-please, and devoted to their assigned tasks. This is not a description of the self-centered and uncaring behavior characteristic of an overly boisterous animal.

Since I believe that one can and should breed for the personality characteristics that are supposed to be typical for the breed, then it follows that not having those same personality characteristics is a genetic flaw in a Saint Bernard.

This will hold as true for the characteristic of being aggressive toward other dogs as it does for being boisterous. Many will tell you that they can forgive a male being aggressive toward another male. "Why?", I ask. The breed is not supposed to be like that, so why would anybody want a dog that is forever looking for a fight? Let the people involved with other breeds agree to let their dogs fight; unprovoked dog fights are not an activity proper for Saint Bernards.

There are two other temperament related factors that should be of concern to the fancy; insanity and intelligence. The concept of intelligence being important, desirable and inherited is self evident and in little need of discussion; but insanity in the Saint Bernard does need our attention.

By insanity I am talking about those dogs with a screw loose somewhere; the so called junk-yard-dogs who attack anything and everything that moves. These dogs are beyond vicious!

You may find this difficult to believe, but there are some within the Saint Bernard fancy who admire a "tough, hard" dog. Rottweilers and Pit Bulls are the breeds that usually attract this type of human personality. Unfortunately, there are too many of this ilk who think that what will most enhance their image and importance is a "really big" dog that they can breed to get the kind of temperament they like.

It is our bad luck that it is relatively easy to achieve this goal. Two or three generations are enough to produce a line of these "hounds-from-Hell"; even if one starts with reasonably sound temperaments in their stock. The bad aspect of this easy acquisition of insane temperament is that, besides those who seek these aberrations on purpose, there are those who are either ignorant or just not careful and thus accomplish the same result by accident.

There are many in the general dog fancy who remember those days, not so long ago, when St. Bernards were rapidly rising in popularity and attracting breeders of questionable motives or knowledge. In those "good old days" people were afraid, and with good reason, to walk down the aisle where the Saint Bernards were waiting to enter the ring.

It behooves those who care about the breed to remember that we are not far from having insane Saint Bernards again being an important feature of our breed.

We don't have to wait for Saint Bernards to return to those record levels of popularity. Just let some nasty Saint become a big winner and see how long it takes to have a whole bunch of little nasties growing up to produce the next and succeeding generations.

That should be sufficient talk about negative temperament characteristics found in the Saint Bernard. Now that we have discussed viciousness, shyness, over boisterousness, aggressiveness, and insanity; we have to answer the question, "What's to be done?"

The course of action is clear. If you love Saint Bernards you must never make or accept any excuse for unacceptable behavior. We have all heard the many reasons offered to explain some dog's bad behavior:

"The kids used to tease him through the fence."

"His first owner mistreated him."

"The breeder didn't spend enough time socializing the litter."

"A black dog (fill in any breed here) attacked him when he was young."

"When he was a puppy he frightened by the sound of the garbage cans dropping from the garbage truck."

One of the greatest dangers associated with deviant temperament lies with the owners. So often people rationalize growling, or snapping, or even minor biting incidents with these stories, and eventually somebody gets seriously attacked. Making excuses for your dog is the moral equivalent to justifying having a live hand grenade around the house. It may not go off, but who can live with the consequences if it does?

I suggest that no matter what physical or mental trauma has been, or has been purported to have been, experienced in the dog's past that you assume that any negative behavior is hereditary. There are no allowable excuses!

It is my personal philosophy that any Saint Bernard who bites anybody should never see another sunrise. I also think that any Saint Bernard displaying any other negative behavior should be considered to have a genetic fault that requires just as much attention as do faults dealing with poor head type, lack of substance, and so forth.

Of course, it is not enough to define what is undesirable behavior, for we should agree on what one should expect in a dog who behaves as a Saint Bernard. I want to offer four examples that, in my opinion, constitute St. Bernard like behavior.

1- One should expect a Saint Bernard to suffer through any imaginable abuse from small toddlers without any display of resentment. Any Saint that will not allow a small child to poke it in the eye or sit astraddle its back is not worthy of the name

2- When any St. Bernard has business to which he is supposed to attend, such as being in a show ring or walking with its master, one should expect the dog not to challenge other dogs to a fight.

3- A Saint Bernard is expected to love and protect its family, not be a source of bumps and bruises. I remember our first Saint Bernard and my surprise when I discovered his self imposed duty. He felt that it was his job to stand between my small children and any perceived danger; be it traffic in the street, a passing stranger or dog, or just some loud noise. That is proper Saint Bernard behavior, as opposed to knocking down small children, intentional or not.

4- When a dog is in a non-threatening situation (and I expect the dog to have and to use good judgment about if and when a situation is threatening) you have every right to think that the dog will wag his tail at every stranger he encounters. One wants a Saint Bernard eagerly to meet new friends; to just plain like people in general!

There are literally thousands of examples of Saint Bernards behaving appropriately, but these should be enough to give you the picture. Saint Bernards should have a saint-like disposition and this is what you should expect; nay demand!

This brings us back to the course of action that should be followed by the responsible members of the fancy. Breeders must select for good temperament. Exhibitors and owners must demand good temperament; they must recognize poor behavior and decry it as being highly objectionable. Judges must never condone any display of deviant behavior; such behavior must be penalized as much as any other very serious fault.

I want to leave you with these words, "Those who care about Saint Bernards must always applaud a Saintly disposition and soundly condemn any behavior that doesn't fit the Saint Bernard ideal -- and never make excuses!"

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