A St. Bernard is hard to miss. Weighing in at an average of 140 pounds, they are probably asked “Who’s a big dog?” about as often as “Who’s a good dog?” Both are usually true. Revered for their protective nature and patient personality, these guardians take both work and rest very seriously. Several large breeds developed over thousands of years, mainly to protect homesteads and livestock, but the St. Bernard’s story is a bit different, starting on an ancient path high up in the Alps.
The Great St. Bernard Pass connects the Swiss town of Martigny to Aosta in Italy. The route is well above the tree line, with winter temperatures dropping as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit and snow packing up to 32 feet. A dangerous journey year-round, the route can be particularly hazardous in the spring, when avalanche season is in full swing. Regardless, pilgrims and travelers from as far back as ancient times used this pass to access Rome.
Around 1050, the archdeacon —later canonized as Saint Bernard of Menthon — established a hospice and monastery at the highest point of the pass, 8,100 feet, to aid weary travelers on their distressing journey. In the late 1600s, large guardian dogs were brought to the hospice to protect the property. However, it wasn’t long before the monks began breeding and using these dogs for a different task: mountain rescue. The monks cross-bred alpine mastiffs and spaniels, refining their features to this very specific use and climate. The dogs needed to be hardy and capable of enduring harsh weather, but friendly and gentle enough to welcome weary travelers. Though smaller in stature than the dog we know today, their size gave them the strength to traverse deep snow while locating people lost in the drifts through their keen sense of smell. Named after the saint who founded the hospice hundreds of years before, the St. Bernard dog has since become the national dog of Switzerland and a legend around the world.
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It’s estimated that these monastery dogs saved thousands of travelers on the pass over the centuries they lived and worked at the hospice. The most famous was Barry, who rescued more than 40 people on the pass. Most remarkably, Barry found a small boy in the snow, and carried him on his back to safety. In his honor, there was always one dog at the hospice named Barry. The last recorded St. Bernard rescue on the pass was in 1955. Several dogs remained at the hospice until 2004, where they have since retired from their historic, legendary duties. While the St. Bernard is many things, a bartender isn’t one of them. Legend has it that St. Bernard dogs carried brandy in a small barrel around their neck to warm the people they rescued. While there is one written account of this — and several depictions in paintings — it was not, in fact, the norm. But don’t let a myth keep you from raising your glass to this enormous and empathetic creature. We look to dogs for so many things: love, companionship, and security. It’s no question that the St. Bernard provides all that in a supersized version.
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