Saint Bernards: The Alpine Saviors of Legend?

What’s up with the barrel around their necks?

You have probably heard the stories of Saint Bernards, kegs hanging from their collars, saving people trapped in the mountains. Is there any truth to these stories, or are they just legends?

These stores are largely true, and for 200 years between the late 1600’s and the late 1800’s, Saint Bernards are credited with saving the lives of about 2,000 people.

The Original Saint Bernard

There is a 49 mile route in the Alps between Italy and Switzerland known as the Great Saint Bernard Pass. It is 8,000 miles above sea level, and for most of the year it is covered in snow. In the 11th century an Augustine monk name St. Bernard de Menthon (also called St. Bernard de Montjoux) founded a hospice and monastery and made it his mission to help people making the dangerous trek on the mountain pass.

In the mid 1660’s, the monks at Great St. Bernard Hospice got some dogs for watchdogs and companions. Those dogs were a little smaller than today’s Saint Bernards, with shorter fur and longer tails. They were still massive: they were descendants of a mastiff-type dog.

Started Off as Helpers

Travelers would stop at the hospice to rest before continuing their trek across the dangerous path. It became customary for servants called “marronniers” to help travelers navigate the pass to the first town on the Swiss side.

The marronniers began taking dogs with them, initially as watch dogs to protect them from marauders who would attack and rob people along the way. The dogs’ broad chests also made wonderful snowplows and they would clear paths for the hikers.

Saint Bernards have wonderful senses of smell and can locate people buried in feet of snow. They can also navigate through dense fog and snowstorms. The monks soon realized this, and would send out dogs out in teams of two or three following snowstorms or avalanches to search for travelers. If a person was found alive, one or two of the dogs would lie next to the person to keep him warm, while the other dog went for help. These life-saving techniques were not taught to the dogs by the monks; the older dogs taught them to the younger dogs.

The most well-known rescue dog was named Barry, and lived at the monastery from 1800—1812. He was credited with saving 40 lives.

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Cross Breeding Attempts and Official Recognition

In 1830, the monks started breeding the dogs with Newfoundlands. The thought was that since the Newfoundland has longer fur it would better protect the dogs from the cold. It was a good thought, but it backfired: too much snow got stuck to the fur, which then turned to ice.

The dog breed didn’t get an official name until 1880, when the Swiss Kennel Club officially recognized the name Saint Bernard. Before that time, they were known as Alpine Mastiffs, Mountain Dogs, Swiss Alpine Dogs, St. Bernard Mastiffs, Hospice Dogs, and even Barry Dogs (as a tribute to the well-known rescue dog.)

The last recorded recovery made by Saint Bernards alone was in 1897 when a nearly frozen 12-year old boy was found in a crevice and awakened by the dog.

And What About That Keg?

There is no record that dogs actually carried a keg on their collars, although there is some evidence they may have had packs of supplies they carried for travelers.

There is still a monastery and hospice at Saint Bernard Pass and Saint Bernards still live there. The monks still look for stranded travelers—but you’re much more likely to be found by a helicopter than a dog these days.

Meet the Author: Pam Hair

Pam Hair is a pet industry copywriter with Fuzzy Friends Writer, where she combines her three passions: a love of animals, a strong desire to help other people, and the joy of writing. She has been a pet parent over the years to dogs, cats, and a variety of rodents. Currently she and her husband share their home with two guinea pigs.

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