Dog tale: A St. Bernard
The fascinating history of one of the world’s most famous dog breeds
By Michael Walsh
It’s a majestic dog – it’s a big dog, it’s a dog that should have size… it fills your eye. They make wonderful pets; however, the key thing is size. They are not going to curl up under your coffee table and disappear. They make great draught excluders.
Tan Nagrecha – St. Bernard breeder
Have you noticed this poster at the Westmount Public Library? It was made last summer during the City’s annual Family Day festivities – looking closely it features Westmount’s most recent St. Bernard, Giada.
Giada, aka Nerthus Swiss Miss The Second, hails from Nerthus Kennels – which comprises an outstanding dog loving family that has been breeding exceptional Saints since 1972. Giada arrived in Westmount at four months old, weighing 45 pounds – complete with blue ribbons over both ears. One year later she is well over 100 pounds and one of the Westmount’s most photographed dogs! A typical walk through the park is usually comprised of people we meet stating, “OMG is that at a St. Bernard? May I take a picture?”
The breed has a fascinating history. It originated from L’Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard, founded in 1050 by Saint Bernard of Montjoux, Archdeacon of Aosta, to welcome and protect travellers who trekked through the Saint Bernard Pass in the Alps, between Italy and Switzerland, to Rome and the Holy Land. The monk’s hospice located in Switzerland (at an altitude of 2473 m) still, to this day, welcomes guests throughout the year.
In the mid-1660s, the monks received a breed of mastiff style (warrior) dogs brought over from the Roman wars. One theory states that they were related to the Molossus groups – dogs bred by the Ancient Greeks. At the hospice they served as both companions and watchdogs.
The monks noticed that these dogs could withstand cold temperatures, had an excellent sense of direction and an acute sense of smell that enabled them to locate people buried deep in snow. In addition, they had the uncanny ability to correctly predict avalanches and blizzard conditions. As well, the dogs’ broad chests allowed them to plough walking paths through deep snow. To capitalize on these traits the monks utilized ‘marroniers’ with these dogs to accompany travellers through the mountain passes.
The dogs were also trained to go out in packs to locate lost travellers. They would dig through the deep snow to find a buried traveller – at that point, one dog would lie on top of the rescued person to provide warmth and the others would return to the hospice. Arriving at the hospice, the remaining dogs would lead the monks to the location of the lost traveller.
‘The monks noticed that these dogs could withstand cold temperatures, had an excellent sense of direction and an acute sense of smell that enabled them to locate people buried deep in snow.’
The monk’s system of using these rescue dogs was put to the test when Napoleon, accompanied by 250,000 soldiers, crossed the mountain pass between 1790 and 1810. Remarkably, use of these dogs resulted in not a single life being lost.
‘Barry’ (1800-1814) was the most storied St. Bernard having rescued over 40 travellers from certain death. His most famous rescue involved a young boy stranded on a frozen ledge. He was sent down the deep ledge to reach the boy, who by then was frozen and unresponsive. Barry started licking the boy’s face to awaken him – once awoken the boy wrapped his arms around the dog’s neck and was pulled to safety.
Between 1816 and 1818, the winter snowstorms at Saint Bernard Pass were particularly severe, and many dogs died in avalanches while doing rescue work. As a result, the St. Bernard breed living at the hospice came close to extinction. However, the breed was replenished two years later with similar animals from nearby valleys.
‘The monk’s system of using these rescue dogs was put to the test when Napoleon, accompanied by 250,000 soldiers, crossed the mountain pass between 1790 and 1810… not a single life being lost.’
Beginning in 1830, the monks started breeding the dogs with the Newfoundland, thinking that longer hair would offer better protection from the cold. In practice the idea was a failure – huge amounts of ice formed on the dogs’ hairs. Because the dogs were no longer as effective in their rescues, the monks gave them away to people (as pets) in the surrounding Swiss valleys. This resulted in today’s variety of St. Bernard coats: the long (rough) coat and the original short (smooth) coat.
In 1855, innkeeper Heinrich Schumacher began breeding the dogs. Schumacher started using a stud book (a closed breed registry) and began supplying the hospice with dogs and exporting others overseas. This resulted in cross breeding with English Mastiffs, which resulted in today’s typical St. Bernard appearance. The breed, however, was still without an official name. They were referred to as Hospice Dogs, Alpine Mastiffs, Mountain Dogs, Swiss Alpine Dogs and St. Bernard Mastiffs. It wasn’t until 1880 that the Swiss Kennel Club in their Livre suisse des origines officially recognized the breed’s name as St. Bernard.
In total, these dogs saved the lives of over 2,000 people up to their last recorded rescue in 1897.
Until September 2004, over a dozen St. Bernard dogs still belonged to the hospice. That year, the Barry Foundation was formed to establish kennels in Martingy, a village down the mountain from the pass. Today, several St. Bernard puppies are born every year at the foundation. As for rescue efforts, the monks now rely on Rega (Swiss Air-Rescue) and the SAC (Swiss Alpine Club).
As for the famous St. Bernard dogs, they are still kept in kennels, for sentimental reasons, behind the hospice at Chenil du Grand St-Bernard.
As for Barry, his stuffed remains can be viewed in Bern’s Naturhistorisches Museum next to souvenir stands selling cuddly St. Bernard toys.
Finally, the breed’s genes still persist to this day – they are beautiful, calm, loyal and very loving dogs that would be a welcome addition to any dog-loving family.
Feature image: © Dominique Amadouche/ Hospice du Grand-St-Bernard
Read also: Westmount dogs and their owners
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident. He enjoys walking with the family’s Saint Bernard while photographing the beauty and hidden history of Westmount through his blog at Westmount Overlooked.