Description & History

The Saint Bernard - once known as the Alpine Mastiff - is a Swiss breed and is named after the hospice in which it was bred. This hospice, which was well known as a refuge to travellers, was situated high up on a mountain pass between Switzerland and Italy.

The monks of the hospice first bred Saint Bernards in the in the latter part of the seventeenth century. They were originally used as guard dogs and mountain guides, but their ability to sense storms and avalanches led naturally to another talent - rescue work.

After storms or avalanches the Saint Bernards would use their keen sense of smell to find lost or buried travellers.

The dogs accompanying the monks knew instintively which road or track to take when searching for the victims; they would have fastened round their necks casks of liquid refreshment (not always brandy - sometimes wine or sweet tea), or food and clothing, which would be given to the rescued travellers.

Since their talent for rescue work was first discovered over 2000 people have been rescued by the breed. The most famous of these dogs was Barry, born in 1800, who saved the lives of 40 people during a working life of 12 years.

Barry died in 1814. His achievements have been commemorated in the National History Museum in Berne.

In 1905, when the Simplon Tunnel connecting Switzerland and Italy was built, the work of the Saint Bernards at the hospice gradually came to an end.

The original dogs were smaller and smooth-coated as the monks found that the rough -coated variety were impractical in the snow. The dogs seen in the show ring today are a larger, rough-coated strain with a heavier coat.

A breed which requires short but regular walks.

Rosamund Walters.

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