Monday, 16 April 2012

A Gentle Giant



Being a true dog person, I never dealt closely with big dogs until 2 years ago when I first met Shay, a female Saint Bernard who was then 2 years old. She weighs 140 pounds or 63.5 Kg with beautiful shaggy and dense white coat and with the famous reddish brown patches. Since she wasn’t really used to leaving the house or garden, the first few times I was met with loud wary barking. Our relationship slowly developed with trips to nearby parks, along with my 8 year-old Cocker Spaniel and sometimes also with 2 King Charles puppies whom she’s been living with lately and treats very gently. There is a cute and ridiculous difference in size between them that I’m often stopped in the streets for pictures or questions.


The 1st problem I started to face by walking her is how to handle such immense force, especially when walking across other dogs or when being approached by people. She would pull me and start her barking, and what a bark that is. Other than the occasional frowns I would get, I didn’t really enjoy not being fully in control and decided to do something about it.

One day, I was talking to 2 older ladies in the street as Shay was distorting our conversation because she obviously didn’t feel at ease around strangers. They mentioned the Dog Whisperer, the famous show by Cesar Millan and how it could solve my problem. Later that same day, a man in the park also told me how by watching the Dog Whisperer, his relationship with his previously-abused adopted dog has fully healed.

Taking it as a sign, I went straight home and instead of downloading the show, thanks to the great invention of the internet, I found all episodes - from season 1 to 8 – streamed online and ready to be watched. Like a rookie off the bench, I started with episode 1 from the 1st season. Even though I love all dogs and found some of the information quite useful, but I never had trouble with average or smaller size dogs and I was always capable of connecting and commending them smoothly. That is probably the reason why I never watched the show - I thought it wasn’t for me. This time, I was seriously interested in solving my little dilemma with sweet Shay.

The 1st thing I realized is that a more powerful collar was definitely needed so we bought a metal one with pointy edges. A new leash was needed as well since the old soft one - or what was left from it - caused a great deal of damage to my hand every time I used it. They obviously weren’t doing the job in controlling that gentle giant puppy, which is the one and only way in dealing with such size and force. Like any other dog, she simply needed to know who the master was.

A second remarkably useful info I learned from Millan was how dogs sense our tension or fear. I honestly never gave it a lot of thought, but I always knew that dogs do sense human fear and was even told once that they smelled it. Apparently, through the short leash, the dog feels the slightest pull or hesitation which is automatically transferred to them and causes them to get agitated. Looking back at how I handled her during our walks, whenever there would be other dogs around, I would pull her a tad closer almost unconsciously and that’s when she sensed my tension and acted upon it.


Other than the show's useful tips and as I do with anything I’m interested in and want to know more about, I Googled Saint Bernard and man was I fascinated by the findings.

This large breed of working dogs originates from the Italian and Swiss Alps where they were primarily bred for rescue by monks in the late 1700’s. Their ancestors share a history with the Sennenhunds, also called Swiss Mountain Dogs or Swiss Cattle Dogs. These dogs are thought to be descendants of molosser type dogs first brought into the Alps by the ancient Romans.


 The monks used them to save travelers from snow storms and avalanches in the Alpine wilderness. Later, equipped with strong digging paws and a great sense of smell, they were trained to go out by themselves in packs of 2 or 3 and find victims on the Great Saint Bernard Pass between Italy and Switzerland. They would dig the survivors out, and if capable, they would lead them back to the hospice or monastery. If they couldn’t move, in a graceful display of intelligence, one of the St. Bernard would lay on their body for warmth while the other would go and get help. Some reports discuss the authenticity of the Brandy kegs worn around the some dogs’ necks which were supposedly used to keep the found-victims warm.

Between the tough winters of 1816 to 1818, St. Bernards were about the brink of extinction as many dogs lost their lives in the snowy climate while performing rescues. By 1850, the breed was crossed with Newfoundlands brought from the Colony of Newfoundlound in an attempt to save the remaining breed. Successfully, other efforts were made later by a group of enthusiasts in the U.K to increase their numbers by crossing it with the English Mastiff.

The modern St. Bernard which became the Swiss national dog, is very different from that of the type bred by the monks. Over the years, the breed has got larger and heavier but still keeping the original character of that old and proud history from which they originated.
The most famous and most remembered St. Bernard in history was Barry, who have reportedly saved between 40 and 100 lives during his life. Another famous dog was Beethoven who starred in the comedy movies by the same name.


After my little research, I never looked at Shay the same again. She’s a descendent of rescue dogs that dug in the snow in extreme weather conditions and saved human lives. Along with the gentle and mutual affection I came to discover, this magnificent breed has truly gained my utmost respect.

A dog that size and with such heritage most naturally needed a healthy outlet for its energy, and getting physical while making her feel useful was the right thing to do. Armed with my newly-acquired knowledge, a new leash and a new collar, I started taking Shay out for training walks and sometimes for short power runs.

After some time, and with more walks around the block and trips to the park, the tension disappeared, the barking diminished and my love for her increased. She would lay on the ground right by my feet, roll on her back charmingly while she looks me straight in the eyes and hands me her strong paw to hold in my hand. Now I can softly say that I’m deeply attached to this gentle giant.
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