Saint Bernards are perhaps one of the most recognizable dog breeds in the world. They are are often portrayed with a barrel around their necks containing a rejuvenating alcohol — a fable, by the way. These dogs became infamous for the role they played in Alpine Rescue, most notably during the 19th Century, on the “Col du Grand Saint Bernard” between Switzerland and Italy. The most famous of the Saint Bernards, Barry I, propagated the esteem these canines have enjoyed for more than 300 years. The history of the Saint Bernard is an entertaining mix of fact and fiction resulting in a moving and inspiring tale of canine evolution and the insatiable bond that exists between humans and dogs.
The Grand Saint Bernard Pass lies in the Western Alps near the Italian border. The Romans developed the route between Italy and Switzerland to connect Aosta and Martigny, respectively. However, the pass had been in use since the Bronze Age making it the oldest alpine route. Given it’s location between the Mont Blanc and the Grand Combin, it is the lowest pass in the region and among the first to be released from winter’s hand.
Over the years, more than one hospice was erected on or near the summit to aid the numerous travelers. In 784, Pope Adrien 1st wrote to Charlemagne asking for help to renovate the hospices in the Alpine passes. In response, a convent was built on the route to the summit — in today’s Bourg-St-Pierre, but was later destroyed by the Lombards and the Sarrasins (Source: “Barry: les chien de l’Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard” – Iris Kürschner )
In 1050, Bernard of Menthon built a new Hospice directly on the summit. It is from Bernard that the pass and the dogs would eventually acquire their names. Bernard practiced such open hospitality to travelers, he would be canonized 800 years after his death (circa 1083) by Pope Pius XI as Saint of the Alpinists!
The arrival of dogs at the Hospice of the Grand Saint Bernard is a bit of a mystery. Historians speculate that the dogs were gifts from families in the valleys. The dogs first appear in the annals of history in a painting from 1695 followed by a letter written by Prior Ballalu in 1708 who recounts a dog being employed to turn the spindle of a large wheel. Given the heartiness of the dogs, they were also used to help transport milk, cheese and butter. It was not until 1750 that the guides, responsible for accompanying travelers, began to focus on training the dogs for rescue work.
Records reflect deaths on the summit during the wintery months were almost a daily occurrence until the dogs were put into service. The most infamous testimony to the evolution of these alpine canines is the crossing of Napoleon’s Army of 46,000 soldiers in May 1800. During the 10 day crossing of this massive military force, not a single life was lost! On the day Napoleon himself reached the summit, one of the dogs is credited for having recovered the hat he’d lost earlier in the journey. As a consequence of this “rescue”, the dogs endeared themselves to the future emperor. However, the troops were already aware of the value of their 4 legged companions. It is believed they carried nourishment in panniers enabling the monks to offer immediate succor to the the most fatigued. It is speculated that the barrel filled with an “eau-de-vie” is likely to have originated at this time. (Section Source: “Barry: les chien de l’Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard” – Iris Kürschner)
At the time of Napoleon’s crossing, the most infamous Hospice Dog, Barry, was still a young pup. Nevertheless, his potential had already attracted the attention of his handler, Julius Genoud, and apparently that of General Berthier, who wished to take the dog with him. To this, Julius replied with a firm: No! Instead, the General would depart with Barry’s brother. Julius’ foresight would be the first step in the making of a legend.
The young Barry was already displaying a remarkable disposition, a keen sense of smell and a tireless devotion. These traits would play directly to his ability, during his relatively long life (1800-1814), to rescue no less than 40 people! It is said that he could almost sense an avalanche and guide rescuers to the injured or trapped by instinct even during a white-out!
In spite of his amazing talent, there was one person who he could not save — Julius Genoud. Julius was caught in an avalanche which took his life before Barry could arrive on scene. The loss plummeted Barry into a “depression” for weeks to follow, a sign that human and canines develop enduring bonds. The loss of one inevitably affects the other.
The end of Barry’s career came in 1812 during a rescue attempt. He was mistaken by the injured for a wolf and was dealt a hard blow. He was severely injured as a consequence and eventually sent to Bern and milder climates to recover. In 1814, he died.
Adored as he was and legend that he is, Barry was preserved and placed on display at the Natural History Museum in Bern where he continues to attract a curious crowd. Author Adolf Fux summed up the feeling for this legend when he wrote: “We are not ready to forget Barry”. True to these words, one male among the Hospice Dogs is always named “Barry” in honor of his legacy.
(Section Source: Barry: les chien de l’Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard )
One of the most curious aspects of the history of the Saint Bernards is the fact there were no breeding “standards” for the race until late into the 1800s. The dogs did not necessarily resemble each other or the current day Saint Bernard. The dogs were selected, bred and trained based on the their abilities and not on their appearance.
The Hospice Dogs were known as “Barry Dogs” but some referred to them as “Alpine Mastiffs” or “ Saint Bernard Mastiffs”. In fact, some believe them to be descendants of the Asian Massif, but this is hard to know for certain.
The Saint Bernards are believed to be descendent of the Asian Masstif brought over by the Romans in the mid to late 1700’s” Source: Smithsonian
An expert on canine history at the Natural History Museum of Bern refutes the theory:
I cannot agree with the ancient tales about transplanting of large Mastiffs from Asia towards Europe. There are no osteological and no pictorial representations to allow unambiguous proof”.
Others suggest that the Saint Bernard descended from the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog (Grosser Schweizer Sennenhund) :
… Of the four Sennenhund breeds developed in Switzerland, the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog is both the largest and the oldest. … The Greater Swiss was instrumental in the early development of both the Saint Bernard and the Rottweiler “ Source: American Kennel Club
According to Marketing and Communications Manager at the Barry Foundation, Anja Ebener, to whom I posed the question regarding the relationship between the Sennenhund and the Saint Bernard, she explained:
… the Saint Bernards are not descended directly from the the Sennenhund or vica versa. They are distinct breeds developed in parallel for their unique physical traits and skills. (Note: Paraphrased from French to English. Any errors in translation are my own and not the fault of the Barry Fondation)
Although we can not draw a definitive link between the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog and the Saint Bernard, we do know for certain that the Hospice Dogs were being bred with large farm dogs ( ie. the Küherhunde ) from the valleys during the 19th century and with other races, most notably the New Foundland. There are two reasons sited:
- Minimize problems resulting from in-breeding
- Replenish the pack after several bad winters killed many of the animals:
During the winters of 1816, 1817, 1818, the snowstorms of the Great Saint Bernard Pass were especially severe, and many dogs perished while doing rescue work. As a result, the Saint Bernard strain living at the hospice came close to extinction. The records say that the monks completely replenished the strain two years later with similar animals from nearby valleys. Rumors persisted that the remaining dogs were crossed with Great Danes or English Mastiffs … but no records exit to confirm that these breedings occurred at the hospice” Source: Saint Bernard Club of America
The Hospice dogs were not only valued for their work on the summit but also elsewhere in Switzerland. A Bernese gentleman, Heinrich Schumacher, began his own breeding efforts with a focus on developing Barry-like traits. He debuted the results at an exposition in Birmingham in 1862. He was the first to establish a pedigree for his dogs which materialized as a book of standards in February 1884. At the Zürich Congress of Cynology in 1887, the dogs would be officially recognized as a Swiss Dog Race under the name: Saint Bernard. From then on, the Saint Bernard has been the Swiss National Dog.
It goes without saying, that tracing the exact origins of the Saint Bernard is a daunting and perhaps impossible task. However, we can appreciate knowing the Saint Bernards today are managed and bred in accordance to clear standards which promote the well being of the animals, above all else, and the traits that make the breed attractive to so many. The organization in Switzerland tasked with this charter is the Barry Foundation of the Grand Saint Bernard in Martigny.
The Hospice of the Grand Saint Bernard sold to the Barry Foundation in 2005 the breeding and managing rights for the Saint Bernard kennel with a caveat: the dogs must be present on the Grand Saint Bernard Pass during the summer months from June to September. The Foundation maintains compliance with the breeding standards and focuses on improving the race and not mass proliferation. In other words, the well being of the dogs is paramount! The foundation is a Non-Profit organization focused on educating people about the breed. The dogs are trained in services which highlight their strengths and enrich the human/canine connection.
The Foundation sells pups to qualified would-be owners; but if you can’t own a Saint Bernard yourself, you can become a dog sponsor. You will receive updates about “your” dog and have the opportunity to visit the Foundation and walk with your dog several times a year accompanied by a trainer. This is a benefit to the donor, the dog and the foundation.
If you want to meet the Saint Bernards, you have that opportunity year round:
Role of the Saint Bernard Today
With the arrival of skiing and the employment of modern technology in Alpine Rescue, the role of the Saint Bernard was obsoleted. Whereas dogs are still employed in avalanche rescue efforts, it is the smaller, lighter breeds that have this responsibility . This presented a challenge for the future of the Saint Bernards. Fortunately, the Saint Bernards are gainfully employed in many other important roles today which accentuant their skills and traits: strength, agility and temperament.
- Hiking Companions: Accompany hikers and carry panniers with first responder gear.
- Rescue Dogs: Certain animals are still trained in Avalanche Rescue to demonstrate their capabilities.
- Carting: Enjoy pulling carts filled with giggly young children … instead of cheese
- Therapy Dogs: Retirement home residents interact with the dogs, caress and brush them
- Social Dogs: Interact with people at many events around the country throughout the year
The dogs have the opportunity to further show-off their beauty and skills during various competitions and demonstrations. These Swiss Hospice legends have won many awards.
I would be remiss to gloss over the infamous barrel of rejuvenating liquor the dogs are often depicted wearing. The truth: they never wore a barrel except to please tourists especially from the 1950’s-1970’s. Wearing a barrel would have actually impeded their efforts during deep snow rescue by making them heavier. An 1820 painting dipicts the dogs with the barrel for the first time. Given few people would recognize a Saint Bernard today without the barrel, the dogs are occasionally displayed wearing one to continue the “tradition”.
I had the pleasure, finally, to visit the Barry Foundation during their Fall Open House. If you have not met a Saint Bernard in person or only viewed them from a distance, it’s a treat to come face to face, with these amazing animals. I was struck most by their incredibly calm and almost aloof demeanors. These are very disciplined dogs. They handled well the throng of visitors reaching in to pet them, snapping photos and squealing at them like stuck pigs.
In addition to falling completely in love with every dog I met, the litter of 3 week old puppies took my breath away. Each of the 10 pups in the litter was “taken home” verbally by every person who saw them. It was hard not to fall over yourself in an effort to get as close to the glass as possible where a bunch of them were piled one on top of the other in a sleepy mass of pure joy!
The icing on the cake for me, however, was when I took a photo with Azur. She stole me heart! I wrapped my arms around this gentle giant and marveled at her robustness and the silkiness of her coat. I snuggled into her neck and let he floppy ear carress my face. I was certain that I would burst into tears with the pleasure of being so close to such an amazing animal. Through it all, she sat calmly and surveyed the room without a care in the world. Happy to be there and content to be loved.
Throughout the day, the staff and the dogs braved foul weather to share some of their skills with us. I was pumped up enough on adrenaline that I survived the cold for a few demonstrations, at least, then returned to visit with the dogs in the kennel, speak with the staff in my choppy French and visit the gift shop.
Although the weather was hardly cooperative, I enjoyed my visit to the Barry Foundation of the Grand Saint Bernard in Martigny! It is my plan to participate in one of the walks and enjoy once again the company of these stunning canines!
Barry Foundation of the Grand Saint Bernard
Route des Chantons 52
Tel: +41(0)27 722 65 42
Fax: +41(0)27 723 56 68
A tiny glimpse of the beauty, intelligence and spirit of the Saint Bernard and the trainers who adore them!