In the 18th and 19th centuries, the lives of some 2,000 travelers buried by avalanches while crossing a treacherous alpine pass were saved by dogs dispatched by the monks of the Great Saint Bernard Hospice. The fame of these canine heroes created a commercial demand, but breeders trying to engineer the gold standard couldn't agree upon ideal characteristics. The two Saint Bernards who won first prize at the 1867 World's Fair in Paris were smaller, slimmer and more streamlined than the breed we know today, with a greater resemblance to beloved Barry than hulking Beethoven.
The Great Saint Bernard Pass is a treacherous 49-mile route through the western Alps between Switzerland and Italy. In 1050, the Augustine monk Saint Bernard de Menthon founded a monastery and hospice, or guest house for travelers, there. At an altitude of more than 8,000 feet, winters were ferocious and every year, people trying to traverse the pass fell victim to avalanches. In the 17th century, the monks started to use dogs to help rescue people buried in the snow and during the next two centuries, these ancestors of the Saint Bernard we know today are said to have saved the lives of about 2,000 people by digging them out of the snow and warming them with their bodies.
Barry the Wonderdog
Barry, who lived from 1800 to 1814, is said to have been responsible for rescuing more than 40 people. After his death, this canine superhero was stuffed, mounted and put on display at Bern's Natural History Museum. Today, short-haired Barry performs another valuable function -- showing us how Saint Bernards looked before they were bred with such long-haired giant breeds as the Newfoundland and the Great Pyrenees. Although large and strong, Barry was much smaller and lighter than today's Saint Bernards, with a head shaped more like that of a hound than that of a mastiff.
Credit for the widespread belief that St. Bernard rescue dogs carried kegs around their necks belongs to the British painter Edwin Landseer. While visiting Switzerland in 1819, Landseer got the idea for the painting ‘Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler,’ which depicts two Saint Bernards trying to rouse a man they'd just dug out of the snow; one of the dogs appears to have a keg attached to his collar. As welcome as liquor might have been to a half-frozen man, no evidence that these dogs carried kegs exists -- but the legend lives on.
The 19th century witnessed much acrimonious squabbling among the would-be genetic engineers of a standardized Saint Bernard breed about what the prototype should look like. Heinrich Schumacher, whose breeding program began in the late 1850s, considered Barry to be the ideal; other breeders preferred heavier heads and shorter muzzles. In 1878, Germany set its own standard; the Swiss standard adopted in 1887 was controversial. As for the gentle, sweet-natured giant with the massive head and droopy jowls we know today, the Saint Bernard is prone to a host of health problems and as Vetsheet points out, has a "heartbreakingly short" life expectancy of only seven to 10 years.
At 40 percent, Saint Bernards have the highest incidence of hip dysplasia in the canine kingdom and are subject to other joint problems and incapacitating bone diseases, including cancer. The folds of skin on their heads can affect their eyes, resulting in inward or outward rolling eyelids that, without surgical correction, can lead to blindness. This breed also is susceptible to diabetes, epilepsy and heart conditions. Bloat, an emergency health problem common among large dogs, can kill within hours of the onset of symptoms. Since Saint Bernards are vulnerable to heat stroke, they should never be left outside in hot weather.
By Rebecca Bragg
Smithsonian.com: A Brief History of the St. Bernard Rescue Dog
The Saint Bernard Club: History of the Saint Bernard
Vetstreet: St. Bernard
Bern Natural History Museum: The Legendary Barry at the Natural History Museum
New England Saint Bernard Rescue: Common Health Concerns
Booking.com: Hôtel de l'Hospice
Bern Natural History Museum: The Beginning of Purebred Saints
About the Author
Rebecca Bragg has been a writer since 1979. From 1988 to 2000, she was a reporter for Canada's largest newspaper, the "Toronto Star," specializing in travel. She holds a Master of Arts in English literature and creative writing and has lived in India and Nepal, volunteering in animal rescue organizations in both countries.