I received a message from a friend recently, saying that her in-laws wanted a Saint. She asked for some feedback on the breed, and my first question was, “Are they SURE they want a Saint?”
Let me preface this entry by saying that I have always dreamed of living with a giant breed dog. When I made the decision to rescue a Saint Bernard, my friends and family thought I was insane.
Years later, their assumptions have proven correct. I am insanely in love with the breed, and have an understanding of the fact that living with one can be a real threat to an individual’s sanity.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH BEETHOVEN SYNDROME
Like many, I fell in love with the Saints in the Beethoven movies. Comical, enormous, intelligent, slobbery, hairy, and incredibly devoted to family were some of the impressions that this movie made upon me in relation to the Saint Bernard breed.
So I adopted “Beethoven.” Literally. Monte’s name was then, “Beethoven.”
Many of you are familiar with Monte’s story. I adopted him at 18 months old from a rescue. The rescue did not mention that he had any behavior “problems” other than counter-surfing. As an added “bonus,” he was listed as a dry-mouthed Saint!
I arrived at the rescue, excited to bring home my new dog. I made a 3.5 hour trip each way with a friend to get the dog I had always dreamed of.
I walked into the rescue, and the director said she would go get him. She brings in this dog, and he comes running over to me, immediately leaning his entire body into me, looking upward as if to say, “can we go home now?”
I almost did not know how to answer him. I had dreamed of bringing home a majestic, beautiful, powerful dog, and this is not the dog that greeted me.
The dog that greeted me weighed approximately 75 pounds. Literally, skin hanging off bones. His head looked distorted, and many who are familiar with emaciated dogs will confirm that this is one of the last places on the body to retain fat. There was none.
Starting a few inches behind his shoulder and continuing to the base of his tail was a raw, smelly, oozing sore. A hot spot gone awry. His fur was black and oily – he had never been groomed before. A stench exuded from every pore on his body, nearly bowling me over.
He looked like a nightmare. This was not the dog I had dreamed of at all. However, I knew that I could not leave him there. For better or worse, “Beethoven” came home with me.
First stop on our ride home, McDonald’s. A six piece chicken McNugget was required to teach him his new name. I was not going to be the lady with “Beethoven the Saint Bernard.” The name Montecristo was selected, as he came from a town called Cuba. Ironically, we chose to name him after a fine Cuban export, Montecristo cigars. This dog did not resemble what anyone would have referred to as a “fine Cuban export,” even in their wildest dreams.
I brought Monte home with me, and he greeted my Chow mix with what seemed like astonishing ferocity. I was shocked and concerned about this behavior, as I knew that he had been off leash with many other dogs at the rescue, seemingly with “no problems.”
Luckily, my Chow has been well-socialized, and proved to be a better “behaviorist” for Monte than any human could hope to be. After approximately fifteen minutes, she began teaching Monte to play.
He was unsure about being in the house at all, having lived on a ten foot rope outside of someone’s house for the first year and a half of his life. He also was not “potty trained,” (more on this later), knew no behaviors, and had never been walked on a leash.
The next morning, Monte received his first bath. We coaxed him into the tub. We began running the water, I expected him to be startled. Instead, I saw relief in his eyes, the cool water must have been soothing on his inflamed skin. I watched black, oily water run down the drain for what seemed like days. Eighteen month’s worth of filth and flea dirt. It was astonishing.
I started crate training Monte from the start. I had picked him up from the rescue on Thursday, taken Friday off of work, and did not return to work until Monday.
At the time, I worked at an academic publishing company which was luckily, within five minutes of my home. Each day at lunch, I and a couple of ladies from work would go to my house for lunch and to chat.
That Monday, I came home for lunch with a few friends, I couldn’t wait for them to meet my new dog.
I opened the door to my house, and nearly fell over from the smell. My just-bathed Saint Bernard was covered in diarrhea. So was his crate, the walls near it, the floor outside of it…Saint Bernard mess everywhere. I was embarrassed, and felt horrible for him. I cleaned the crate, walls, floor, my dog, the best I could and apologized profusely to my friends.
Later that day, I came home after the end of the work day. Again, I was greeted with a foul stench like no other. Again, Saint Bernard, crate, floor, walls, covered in mess. Again, clean everything the best I can.
This continued for months. Multiple times a day. I tried to remind myself not to be mad at him…this was not his fault. His body was not, at this point, able to process quality nutrition. I tried to transition slowly, very slowly, to a quality food. I felt like the situation would never improve.
I also noticed another, musty smell. This was the smell of chronic ear infections, which also reoccured for what seemed like ages. Diarrhea, ear infections, hot spots…all at the same time, seemingly all the time.
These physical problems had me strapped, emotionally and financially; but they were only the beginning.
When I began taking Monte for walks, I noticed some other disturbing trends. First, withering stares from individuals in the neighborhood. They saw me walking an obviously very unhealthy dog, and thought that I created the mess they saw before them. I felt so ashamed, as I feel all of my efforts to restore him to health were failing and that it was painfully obvious to members of my community, those same members who I had won over with a beautiful, fluffy brown Chow mix puppy just months before.
Even worse was Monte’s heightened reactions to other dogs. A loaded stillness followed by terrifying vocalizations, lunges, hard stares, teeth bared, lips pulled back, hackles raised from neck to tail. People called him Cujo, and I felt ashamed of myself and my dog because by all appearances, they were right.
One day, while on a walk, he dragged me into the middle of a busy city street after another dog. I was badly hurt, and my husband had to take the dogs home, get the van, and come back for me because I could hardly walk. I still have the scar from that event, it travels my left leg from ankle to calf.
I was terrified of my dog. “Beethoven” was now anything but.
I watched the Dog Whisperer. He made so much sense, I bought a prong collar, read his book, watched episodes of his show, even went to his seminar, introduced myself and sat down to talk with him about my experiences with Monte.
The aggression intensified. I would no longer walk him, I was too afraid. I resented my dog. I cried, thinking I’d gotten myself in way over my head.
I saw my friend’s skull in his mouth. I panicked. I began to consider my “options.” I knew returning him to the rescue was a death sentence. My “choice” at that point seemed to be taking him to the vet myself for euthanization, or laying that responsibility on the rescue. If I wasn’t willing to work with him, what would make me think anyone else would be? Aren’t there millions of dogs waiting, dying in rescues each year without the severity of issues he presented?
After some soul searching, I decided that it would not be fair to consider the option of euthanization unless I had actually tried working with a professional trainer. I searched and searched, finding Steve Benjamin at Clicking with Canines.
I was very skeptical a clicker and some treats would work for my dog. I felt it was my last hope, so what did I have to lose besides the expense of the lessons? Steve impressed upon me the huge responsibility and undertaking that Monte would be. His aggressive response easily placed him in the record book for Steve’s “Click to Calm” program. Steve “made no bones” about impressing upon me that the road to rehabilitation would require hard work, patience, and dedication on my part. Years later, I can thank Steve for his candor, and have a Saint Bernard who has hosted and participated in doggy slumber parties. Amazing!
HOW BEETHOVEN BECOMES CUJO
So how did “Beethoven” turn into Cujo? What the hell happened to my “dream dog”?
Here’s what I believe happened, from my understanding of the first eighteen months of his life.
1) Bad breeding. I am not the only one sucked in by the Beethoven movies. Where there is a desire, there is an unscrupulous individual waiting to capitalize on this demand. In the world of dogs, this is embodied by the puppy mill and back yard breeder. Individuals in each of these groups have profited from those of us who are sucked in by the handsome face, the affectionate, devoted nature of the breed, and the awesome history represented by our noble Saint, the Alpine Mastiff.
What makes me think Monte came from a bad breeder? Because the same wonderful rescue I got him from (and they were wonderful, did their best for all the dogs, and provided a great level of care to the dogs and cats whose lives are in their hands) received a number of unaltered, male Saint Bernards in a very limited period of time. A couple of these dogs were adopted by individuals I am familiar with, and they all had the same types of behavioral issues and health issues I saw in my own dog.
2) Hasty decision making. OK, I’ll admit it…I had no idea what I was getting myself into. There were many days when I cried, thinking, “what the hell have you gotten yourself into, Casey?” I thought my husband would never forgive me.
Because I endeavor to find the good in people, I am going to assume that Monte’s first family loved him very much. I do know that they were financially in a spot which led them to lose their house, which was the eventual reason for his return to rescue. Not knowing for sure, I assume that they wanted to provide for him the best they could. Perhaps they, like me, were unaware of the extraordinary costs associated with owning this breed: financially, emotionally, and otherwise (more on this later also).
SAINT BERNARDS…THE GOOD, THE SLOBBERY, AND THE SHEDDY
OK, so let’s get to the “nitty gritty” of Saint ownership.
First, there are two coat types in the breed: rough coat and smooth coat.
The AKC standard for a smooth coat reads as follows:
Very dense, short-haired (stockhaarig), lying smooth, tough, without however feeling rough to the touch. The thighs are slightly bushy. The tail at the root has longer and denser hair which gradually becomes shorter toward the tip. The tail appears bushy, not forming a flag.
The AKC standard for a rough coat reads:
The longhaired type completely resembles the shorthaired type except for the coat which is not shorthaired (stockhaarig) but of medium length plain to slightly wavy, never rolled or curly and not shaggy either. Usually, on the back, especially from the region of the haunches to the rump, the hair is more wavy, a condition, by the way, that is slightly indicated in the shorthaired dogs. The tail is bushy with dense hair of moderate length. Rolled or curly hair, or a flag tail, is faulty. Face and ears are covered with short and soft hair; longer hair at the base of the ear is permissible. Forelegs only slightly feathered; thighs very bushy.
Monte is a rough coat Saint. Both coat types require substantial grooming, both are prone to blowing coat twice per year.
“Dry Mouth Saints,” Unicorns, and other myths.
The rescue I got Monte from called him a “dry mouthed Saint.” Let me assure you, there is no such thing. There are slobber rags around my house, and I have a wide array of aprons that can be handed out to guests who wish to leave my home as dry as they were when they arrived. Saints SLOBBER…there will be slobber from your floor to your ceiling, guaranteed. All of your clothes will look as though four inch wide snails have crawled all over them, leaving an interesting but admittedly unfashionable shiny trail where Saint Bernard tongues have swept by. THIS WILL HAPPEN, AND IS UNAVOIDABLE. If you can’t handle slobber, don’t get a Saint. Period. Don’t. Really, I mean it.
Monte makes great impressions wherever he goes. From setting the reactivity record at Clicking with Canines to a veterinary story I will never live down. The first time I brought Monte to a new vet (and future business partner), it was a warm summer day. My “dry-mouthed Saint,” immediately upon entering the office, began to slobber.
The staff placed a fan on the floor to cool him down. Still slobbering. My vet opens her mouth to tell me that my dog has an oral tumor which will need to be removed surgically, at the same instant Monte shakes his face. A “wad” (for lack of better term) of slobber flew directly from his jowels into her mouth. A look of horror registered on every face in the room. We were all flabbergasted, speechless, and trying not to vomit. Needless to say, she now tells stories about Monte to all of her clients. This is a noticeable trend resulting from nearly every trip we make in public together.
Or, if you want a “dry-mouthed Saint”, you will find them along with the magic wands, unicorns, and hyppogryphs at locations like Diagon Alley.
Kiss that retirement fund goodbye.
Everything about owning a Saint is expensive. REALLY expensive. I could probably buy a new dog training facility with what I spend on my Saint. Toys are more expensive. Crates are more expensive. Food is more expensive. Leashes and collars are more expensive. Veterinary bills and medications are more expensive. Everything is REALLY expensive. (Did I mention the expense yet? Just want to make sure I cover that. Saints are a substantial investment!)
Poorly bred giant breed dogs
Saints, more than any other giant breed, have fallen prey to puppy millers and back yard breeders, largely in thanks to the popularity of the Beethoven series of movies.
A well-bred Saint is a joy to behold, solid of temperament, an ideal family dog, a worthy companion and defender of his family. A poorly bred Saint Bernard is a powerful giant often with faulty neurologic wiring, myriad inherited health problems (from entropian to bloating to hip displasia) and inadequate socialization…this can be a recipe for disaster.
If you decide on a Saint, you must either choose a well-bred Saint or a carefully selected rescue dog. Not all rescue Saints present the “problems” Monte has shown, many of them are amazing dogs and adjust readily to life in a good adopted home. I have met both rescued and well-bred Saints who function as very well-trained service and therapy dogs, brightening the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, with their huge leans, happy faces with lolling, smiling, tongues, regardless of drool or the accumulation of shed hair.
Saints are not incredibly active dogs, but do require a fair amount of physical and mental stimulation. If you’re an agility person, should you get a Saint? If you want to have fun, yes! If you want to win, probably not. If you want to start your dog jumping at a young age, definitely not!
Impact on joints should be limited until the growth plates have closed, and I did not allow Monte to do any jumping whatsoever until he was at least three years old. Saints do not require a huge house or yard. Properly exercised, Monte spends approximately 90% of his life hogging our bed.
Saint Bernards are incredibly sensitive to heat. Monte would love to live in an area where it never got above forty degrees farenheight. Make sure that you have a place for your dog to cool off in warm seasons or climates.
Saints are not without health problems, and like many giants can be a short-lived breed. Health considerations include: bloat, entropian, hip displasia, ear infections, hot spots, and in some cases, cancer and wobbler’s syndrome. They are rightly called a “heartbreak” breed.
HOW CUJO CHANGED MY LIFE
OK, so why in the world do I love Saints so much after going through what I affectionately refer to as “The Monte Experience?”
There is one thing that Cesar says that I whole-heartedly agree with. Paraphrased, he says something to the effect of, “we do not get the dogs we want, we get the dogs we need.”
If I didn’t have Monte, I would not be a professional trainer today. I would not be among the first 100 individuals in the world to be certfied as a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner. I would certainly not cry the first time my dog is ever allowed to meet other dogs off leash, and offers them a play bow immediately. I would never send emails to each of my friends when a dog comes to spend the night at Monte’s house, or he at another dog’s house, for the first time.
It seems like from all my experiences, my conclusion would be something along the lines of….”get another Saint? Not on your life!”
Instead, I am constantly looking at them on petfinder and elsewhere, wishing for one, three, or seven more. I’m hooked. Smitten, in deepest smit. Head over heels.
He’s made me a better person. Through introducing me to positive training, Monte has changed how I interact with each creature on this earth…looking first to reward behaviors I like, encourage, instruct, empathize. I’ve seen the results of this paradigm shift in the response both people and animals have to me, and have been amazingly reinforced for the journey Monte has taken me on and the lessons he has taught me.
I’ve also learned how to be the best advocate for my dog’s health. Monte’s introduced me to homeopathy, limited vaccination schedules, raw feeding, and now is a vision of health. Handsome and regal, he now is an awesome example of what a healthy Saint Bernard should be.
Every dog I ever own will be thankful to Monte for the changes in me he has been responsible for. What a gift.
One of my best friends and an individual who has rehabilitated reactive dogs of her own (toy breed puppy mill rescues, generally), says “dogs are our teachers and our students.” No phrase in the world could be more emblematic of my relationship and experience with Monte.
I couldn’t be prouder of my Cujo, or more thankful for all he has taught me about humility, dedication, commitment, humor, patience, and kindness to those I encounter of all species.
For that I can only thank my Cujo, my inspiration, my motivation, my friend, my Saint Bernard.
Copyright: Casey Lomonaco, 2009. Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training (www.rewardingbehaviors.com)