Dog Lovers: Reflections On Training a Gentle Giant

Written by on August 10, 2012 in Animals and Pets with 1 Comment

By Omar Cherif
A Gentle GiantBeing a true dog person, I had never dealt closely with big dogs until two years ago when I first met Shay, a female two-year-old Saint Bernard who belonged to my then girlfriend’s parents. She weighs 140 pounds (63.5 Kg) with beautiful shaggy, dense white coat and with the famous reddish brown patches. Since she wasn’t really used to leaving the house and garden, the first few times I was met with loud wary barking.

However, our relationship slowly developed with trips to nearby parks, along with my eight-year-old Cocker Spaniel and sometimes also with two 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 and questions.


The main problem I was facing by walking her is how to handle such immense force, especially when crossing path with 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 chatting with two older ladies in the street and Shay was distorting our conversation because she obviously didn’t feel at ease around any strangers. So they mentioned the Dog Whisperer, the famous show by Cesar Millan, and how it could solve my problem. Later that same day, a man at the park also told me how by watching this show, his relationship with his previously-abused adopted dog has fully healed.

Taking it as a sign, I went straight home and, thanks to the great invention of the Internet, 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 one from the first 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 smoothly connecting and commending them. That is probably the reason why I had never watched the show as I thought it wasn’t for me. This time, I was seriously interested in solving my little dilemma with sweet Shay.

The first 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 thoughts, 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. Dogs sense our energies and the vibration through the leash is one way for them to know how tensed or relaxed we are.


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 1700s. 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 two or three 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. This is actually smarter than some humans I know.

The famous Brandy kegs worn around the dogs’ necks often depicted in paintings and cartoons were supposedly used to keep the found-victims warm. Though after some digging, I found that this is just a myth originating from a 1920 painting from England titled Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler.

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 UK 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 gotten larger and heavier while 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.


IMG_00000215After my little research, I never looked at Shay the same again. She’s a descendant 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.

Most naturally, A dog that size and with such heritage 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 lie on the ground right by my feet, roll on her back charmingly while looking me straight in the eyes and handing me her strong paw to hold in my hand. Now I can softly say that I’m deeply attached to this gentle giant.


“When I look into the eyes of an animal I do not see an animal. I see a living being. I see a friend. I feel a soul.”
― A.D. Williams


UPDATE: *The new photo of Shay and I was taken on November  27, 2013


About the Author:

Omar Cherif Omar Cherif is a trilingual writer and researcher, photographer and blogger with degrees in journalism, psychology, and philosophy. After working in the corporate world for ten years, he took writing as a vocation and is currently finalizing his first book about dreams, the subconscious mind and spirituality among other topics.


You can follow Omar on here:
One Lucky Soul

And you can find more of his work on his blog and on Flickr:
One Lucky Soul

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  1.' Papa says:

    Excellent research

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