For more than two centuries monks raise the ultimate live-saver at the snow line between France and Switzerland

According to the international FCI standards for dog breeds, he belongs to the family of pinschers, schnauzers, mollosoids and mountain dogs. Both the well-known short-haired and the lesser-known long-haired breed have indisputably become the friendly face of mountain rescue. His average shoulder height of 65 cm makes him one of the tallest of his kind. He is friendly by nature, his temperament ranges from gentle to boisterous and he is very alert and attentive. The little keg around his neck sports the Swiss flag, which doesn’t just happen to be an inverted red cross on a white field …

Everybody knows the legendary tales of the dog that finds hikers in the deep fog and leads them on a secure path through the shrouded darkness, always finding the right way and even managing to rescue those trapped in the icy grasp of an avalanche.

First he will lift your spirits with a sip of the rum he carries in his keg. Then he will pull you from the cold embrace of the snow and carry you down to the base camp, wrapping you in his cosy and warm fur. Absolutely Correct – We are talking about the Saint Bernard dog.

But hang on  – the story seems to be based on fact: The history of the Saint Bernard has its roots in the ninth century, when a travellers hospice and monastery was founded in what is today the Swiss Alps by Saint Bernard of menthon. The hospice was meant to be a safe haven and offer shelter to pilgrims on their long and tedious journey across the Alps. At some point in the 17th century, the monks brought a stout breed of mountain dog to the hospice situated near the great St. Bernard pass, some 2469 meters above sea level. This breed was apparently reared from herding dogs and hunting dogs. Little did they know that these dogs, brought up to the hospice as guard dogs and working dogs, would one day be famous for their outstanding capabilities of guiding and rescuing travellers lost in the snow and heavy mountain fog. The breeding of the Saint Bernard became institutionalized, aiming to create strong working dogs for the heavy snow ploughs and watchful companions and life savers for off-road travelling.

Historical reports say that when French commander Napoleon Bonaparte crossed the Pass in May 1800, bringing with him some 40,000 troops and 5,000 horses and cannons, they kept the clerics and their dogs rather busy. Some of the French troops that were crossing the Alps got lost – some were never to return. Sudden weather changes and heavy blizzards are certainly to blame for this, with orientation in the mountains difficult enough as it is and avalanches doing their share to make the soldiers’ lives miserable.

All this contributed to the heavy dogs being used as search dogs. Between 1800 and 1812, one of the Saint Bernard dogs at the hospice became rather famous. He is credited with saving more than 40 lives: Barry.

Today, Barry‘s outstanding skills and qualities are acknowledged in a very comprehensive permanent exhibition at the Naturhistorisches Museum, Berne. The French honour the extraordinary dog too, with a monument of his own near Paris. This dog is thought to be the model for all the tales and legends about the gentle, family-friendly and caring giant fur-ball.

The legendary Barry died in 1814 – not on duty for the hospice somewhere in the mountain peaks, but very peacefully down in the quiet valley. He had been retired from his dangerous services in 1812 and died in Berne, far away from his work on the Pass. To keep his memory alive, it was deemed reasonable to conserve him for future generations. The chronicles documenting the many lives that were saved from an inescapable icy fate were translated into many languages and helped make Saint Bernard dogs (called Barry dogs at the time) famous throughout Europe. This is all the more astonishing given the shortcomings of information technology at that time.

The famous keg around the neck can be traced back to Sir Edwin Landseer, an English painter of animals, who included this piece of fiction in a painting around 1820. He thus created the myth of the keg filled with some life-giving spirit that many people still hold to be true today, being kept alive not least for its marketing value.

Today, the price for a Saint Bernard puppy is roughly 1350 Euros. People from all around the world are interested in the dogs and happily pay the price for a dog that was bred at the hospice and may thus carry the title: of the great St. Bernhard“. This title makes the dogs attractive to persons of a certain social status. Even Queen Victoria of England had one. It isn’t easy getting your hands on a purebred Saint Bernard, though, and prospective buyers will need quite a bit of patience. The breeding of the dogs (who are seen as a delicacy in many parts of Asia) is supervised and strictly regulated by of the monks of col du grande saint bernard.

Only the university hospitals in Zurich and Berne have the power to issue a pedigree to a dog. The typical variety of the breed is the short-haired or smooth-coat with its characteristic white and reddish brown coat. More than a third of the 800 pure-bred dogs listed today belong to this variety.

The other variety has been around since 1855. It has a longer coat, owing to cross-breeding with Newfoundlands – a measure the monks had undertaken to save the dog breed from extinction.

In 2004 the hospice’s order announced that they felt unable to fulfil the tasks necessary to cater for the Saint Bernards because their own number was shrinking. Many feared that this would bring an end to the breeding of the dogs. After all, unlike dogs, you can’t breed monks. Today, only five clerics live in the old monastery. The Saint Bernard breed was saved yet again though, thanks to a trust that had been set up for the dog and a Saint Bernard museum in Martigny. These days, the dogs are kept in the valley during the winter months. Their rearing has been integrated into the museum’s tasks. During the summer months, the dogs stay in the hospice, keeping their old mythical image as rescuers and life savers alive, according to the wishes of the monks of Col Du Grande St. Bernard. Only the marketable image of the saint bernard as a rescue dog was able to save the breed, since they are no longer used as rescue dogs due to their bulky body and heavy weight, making more lightweight and agile dogs the dogs of choice for rescue teams. However, memories of times before helicopters were used are being kept alive, age old traditions held up high. The plush version of the saint bernard with a keg and Swiss flag still is Switzerland’s merchandising champion.

The Swiss have every right to be proud of breeding this beautiful dog up in the mountains that can truly be seen as an icon of the idea of »searching and finding«. And recently, the stout fellow has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in search parties and rescue teams, as researchers have found that only the saint bernard dog has the capability of sensing a human’s body heat through the massive, ruthless layers of snow.