Saint Bernard Dog
Over the centuries, this great big “teddy bear” dog’s main claim to fame has been the miraculous rescuing of victims lost in the European Alps. Ever since Barry, the world’s most famous Saint Bernard, set a record for having saved over forty lives, this dog has been revered by all who appreciate the remarkable ability of these faithful working dogs. The stories of their heroism brings hundreds upon hundreds of tourists annually to the Hospice in Switzerland, the land of their origin.
Their heritage dates back to the days before Hannibal crossed the Alps with his herds of elephants and warriors. The dogs at that time were more like Mastiffs than the Saint Bernard as we know it today. These Molossian dogs, which were used in the ancient wars, were often left behind in the mountains by the Carthagians and the Romans when they moved on after their battles. When they bred with the local mountain dogs a new breed appeared which eventually evolved and became a Saint Bernard.
Their rescue work is depicted in oil paintings dating back to the beginning of the 17th century, and one, dated 1695, is hanging at the Hospice. The Hospice and the dogs are just as famous today as they were when the Hospice first opened its doors to the weary mountain travelers. This breath-taking spot, on top of the world, is separated from the Italian Alps by a small lake and the monastery originally built by Saint Bernard is maintained under the guidance of the Saint Bernard monks.
Destroyed by fire in 1967, the Hospice has been rebuilt and today visitors driving up the perilous narrow mountain roads arrive at a new Hospice consisting of two guest hotels, shops, and most important of all, the famous kennel facilities of the legendary Saint Bernard rescue dogs.
At one time, these Chapel Kennels were the largest in Europe, and while rescue work today is not so much a major part of the dogs’ lives, the monks in residence there are more than happy to tell the stories of the impressive work they have done during snow storms, blizzards and avalanches over the past hundreds of years. They are especially eager to tell the story of Barry, the Saint Bernard who provided the most colorful and dramatic story of all.
After dying a natural death in Berne, Switzerland, where he had been sent to live out his old age, Barry was mounted and now stands in a glass case in the Berne Museum of Natural History so that all may view this great legendary animal. He is not as impressive as some of our Saints today, but he is unmistakably a Saint Bernard and one that fits within the standard for the breed.
Many other Saints have served well as rescue dogs but it is the famous Barry who captured the hearts and imaginations of all who have ever heard of the Hospice of Saint Bernard and the remarkable life-saving dogs.
During one period of their development, Saints were called Barryhundes in honor of their heroic predecessor. It wasn’t until 1823 that the name Saint Bernard was heard and has applied to the breed ever since. Since then, they have also been known as, or referred to as, Holy Dogs, Alpine Mastiffs, Cloister Dogs, Mountain Dogs, Hospice Dogs, Saint Bernard-Mastiffs, and Butcher Dogs. This last name was a result of the enormous amounts of meat they ate and it was said that only butchers could afford to feed them. Since the breed served the Monastery of Saint Bernard so well, and because of Barry, the name Saint Bernard became the most appropriate.
A most selective breeding program was upheld to ensure that only the most hardy, rugged dogs are kept to follow in Barry’s footsteps and to maintain the quality of the rescue teams. These are the dogs which can best withstand the strenuous climbing, the extreme weather conditions, and the high altitude. At 8,000 feet, even the monks are able to serve only about eight years. But while they are in residence, monks on skis, and monks training and working with the dogs are a familiar sight to those who visit the Hospice. Tradition is being maintained.
Today, many German Shepherd dogs are also being trained as a main choice to rescue and patrol work along with the Saint Bernards, even though there is actually little need for rescue dogs in the Alps today. Rescue teams are now composed of helicopters, ski patrols, and snow mobiles which course over or along the alpine highways and tunnels. Rescue dogs are used now only to locate missing skiers or residents who wander off too far into the mountains. Sadly, the instinct for rescue work is lost in our American Saint Bernards. Since there is little need for mountain rescue work, the instinct fades with each passing generation.
Dogs from the Saint Bernard Hospice were frequently bred to those owned by people in the valleys from about 1670 until late in the 1800′s. To some extent this is still practiced today. It was 1884, however, when a Henry Schumacher printed a first edition of a Swiss Kennel Club manual which outlined correct breeding practices. It advocated the shorthaired Saint for rescue work; as the snow often would stick to the coats of the rough or long-coated Saint Bernards and freeze, weighing them down and hampering their speed. Today both long and short-coated Saints are well received and both are used in breeding programs. Length of coat is strictly a matter of preference.
The first Saint Bernard was exported to England in 1810. His name was Lion, and Lion was further immortalized by being painted by the famous artist, Sir Edwin Landseer. England imported more extensively in the early 1900′s where, until that time, the Mastiffs had reigned supreme. These two gigantic breeds were crossbred with the idea of developing a bigger and better Mastiff.
The breed prospered and gained in popularity to the point where a Saint Bernard named Sir Bedivere was exported to the United States for an amazing sum of money – $7,000. It was almost inevitable that the breed would soon deteriorate when almost exclusive emphasis was put on size rather than conformation. The breed suffered enormously and even today, Saints are not one of the most popular breeds in the British Isles.
Saints were bred and registered in the United States beginning in the late 1800′s and by 1890 entries at one major show listed over 150 dogs. One of the first great Saints in this country was named Hector, and he was imported by the Hospice Kennels in New Jersey. There were many other pioneer kennels which spared no expense in importing good stock to establish the breed, though most of them are no longer in operation today.
The first and original Saint Bernard Club in the United States was organized February 22, 1888. The club adopted the European, or International Standard for the breed. This original club was dissolved in 1897 and the presently active Saint Bernard Club of America was organized at Grand Rapids, Michigan, in December of that same year, making this parent club one of the oldest member clubs in the American Kennel Club. Colonel Jacob Ruppert, Jr. was its first president, a position he held intermittently for over 30 years. Today the club has many regional clubs all across the country.
The first German Saint Bernard Club was founded in 1891 in Munich, but the quality of the German dogs was poor. The first stud book published in 1894 contained over 300 entries, which indicated considerable interest, but during the two World Wars the breed suffered tremendous setbacks when many of the dogs starved to death or were destroyed by their owners. A few astute breeders managed to hold on to some of their choice stock so that a little of the best bloodlines did manage to survive and were not lost forever.
Even though the majority of the photographs we see of Saint Bernards feature the dogs with the brandy casks around their necks, there is no actual record of any Saint Bernard ever having to carry a whiskey keg to a lost traveler. It’s a marvelous story – but purely conjecture. The first evidence of the brandy keg appeared in an Edwin Landseer painting and merely “caught on” as a part of the legend of the breed.
Saint owners know the stories are not true but go along with it since it seems so logical. Even at the Hospice some of the Saints wear them, but it is simply to delight the tourists who wish to take photographs. Actually it presents the opportunity for the monks to tell the truth about the whiskey kegs and set the record straight. They are quick to explain that the monks themselves have been known to carry stimulants for the frozen victims in the snow, but never do the dogs take it around their necks. In spite of this fact, the making of casks for Saint Bernards has become quite a profitable business.
While we have revealed the untrue of the Saint Bernard cask and have explained that they are not seldom used for rescue work in the mountains, we must also recognize their ever-increasing number in the dog show rings, in the obedience trials, and their service in the fields as working dogs pulling carts and hauling children around in wagons. They continue to gain in popularity to the point that they are now in the top 50 favorite dogs in the United States.
Saint Bernard Pictures
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