You might think that the Saint Bernard dog was named for a Catholic saint named Bernard. You'd be wrong -- well, sort of. The very large working dogs were originally bred by the hospice of the Great Saint Bernard Pass to assist in alpine rescue of travelers crossing the border between Italy and Switzerland. It was a journey filled with peril before more modern modes of travel.

Saint Bernards
Saint Bernards

Image via Wikipedia

The Great Saint Bernard Hospice is a hostel for travelers located in Switzerland. The Italian border is just a few hundred yards to the south. The hospice was built by the Italian Augustine monk Bernard of Menthon nearly 1,000 years ago. He was canonized in 1681. It was not long before that that, between 1660 and 1670, that the hospice acquired its first dogs. Originally the dogs were used to guard the hospice and were believed to have come as gifts from local farmers. The breed became famous through tales of its rescue heroics.

Saint Bernards and the Great Saint Bernard Hospice
Saint Bernards and the Great Saint Bernard Hospice

Image via House of Switzerland

The earliest written records of Saint Bernards were made by the monks who lived and worked at the hospice in 1707. Paintings and drawings have been found from even earlier. They are believed to be descended from molosser type dogs which were first brought into the region of the Alps by the ancient Romans. Today the Saint Bernard is recognized as one of the Molossoid breeds.

Saint Bernard Puppy
Saint Bernard Puppy

Image via Wikipedia

At one point guides were employed to lead travelers through the 49-mile long pass.  These guides were eventually accompanied by the dogs. They noted the dogs' ability to break a path in the snow, their incredible sense of smell, and resistance to the cold. The dogs also showed a natural talent for finding people buried in deep snow. That is when the idea came to start using the animals for search and rescue. The monks did not specifically train the dogs in search and rescue. Instead the puppies learned these special skills from observing older dogs and following suit.

Iconic Saint Bernard
Iconic Saint Bernard

Image via House of Switzerland

The most famous Saint Bernard working the pass lived from 1800 to 1814. Known as Barry, the dog rescued between 40 and 100 people. His body was preserved at the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland. Over the span of 200 years the dogs rescued around 2,000 people from small children to Napoleon's soldiers.

Saint Bernards Involved in Alpine Rescue, Great Saint Bernard Pass
Saint Bernards Involved in Alpine Rescue, Great Saint Bernard Pass

Image via House of Switzerland

The current recognized Saint Bernard breed is quite different from the original. The winters from 1816 to 1818 were so harsh and snowy that there were many more avalanches than usual. A large number of the dogs were killed. There was concern for the loss of the breed and they were cross-bred with Newfoundlands in the 1850s to keep the Saint Bernard dog in existence. This caused them to lose much of their ability to perform as rescue dogs as they once had.

A Saint Bernard in the Hospice
A Saint Bernard in the Hospice

Image via House of Switzerland

The original Saint Bernards were smaller than today's dogs. They were about the size of a German Shepherd, had short reddish-brown and white coats, and longer tails. They began to grow in size as kennel clubs and dog shows emphasized appearance over ability. This was further facilitated by a closed stud book which prevented breeding with other working dog groups.

Saint Bernard Standing Watch
Saint Bernard Standing Watch

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Kennel clubs around the world recognize the breed, though different countries may place them in different dog groups. In the U.S., U.K., and Canada the Saint Bernard is in the working dog group. Australia and New Zealand place them in the utility group.

Museum at Saint Bernard
Museum at Saint Bernard

Image via House of Switzerland

Saint Bernards are no longer used for alpine rescues. The last recorded instance of one being used for search and rescue along the Great Saint Bernard Pass was in 1955. A number of the dogs have been kept at the hospice because of tradition as late as 2004. Then the remaining dogs were purchased for a breeding kennel nearby. During the summer months some of the dogs are returned to the hospice to rub elbows with the tourists. The monks now employ the use of helicopters in search and rescue.

Modern Saint Bernard
Modern Saint Bernard

Image via Wikipedia

By the way, there is a great deal of debate over the small casks that are a part of the dog's iconic image. Some say there is no historical evidence that the dogs ever even had them. Others say that they existed to help restore blood flow to injured and freezing travelers. Just what was in those casks remains a mystery and the guesses range from rum to schnapps to some special local concoction.

Saint Bernard with Cask
Saint Bernard with Cask

Image via Wikipedia

To some the Saint Bernard may not be the best looking dog out there, but it certainly has an amazing history. Woof!

Sources: Wikipedia, Smithsonian, House of Switzerland

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