Posted on Friday, January 27th, 2012
Beethoven isn’t the only St. Bernard with a job! Long before the handsome pooch starred on the silver screen, the St. Bernard earned its keep by saving lives in snowy weather. The Saint Bernard’s namesake comes from a portion of the Swiss Alps known as the Great St. Bernard Pass, which is snowy and dangerous for most of the year.
In the 18th century, travelers frequently became lost, injured, or buried in avalanches and monks used the breed to help with rescue missions. St. Bernards were sent to help in pairs. Their job was to find buried travelers and dig through the snow. One dog would lie on top of the injured to provide warmth, while the other dog would return to the monastery to alert the monks of the stranded traveler. According to legend, casks of liquor were strapped around the dogs’ collars to warm up travelers. The dogs were so good at their jobs that when Napoleon and his 250,000 soldiers crossed through the pass between 1790 and 1810, not a single soldier lost his life!
• Compared to today’s St. Bernards, the dogs used in Alpine rescue were smaller in size, had shorter reddish brown and white fur and a longer tail. They were bred with English Mastiffs which resulted in their current appearance.
• Before being officially recognized as a breed, St. Bernards had many different nicknames, including Hospice Dogs, Alpine Mastiffs, Mountain Dogs, Swiss Alpine Dogs and St. Bernard Mastiffs. The Swiss Kennel Club recognized them as St. Bernard in 1880.
• A St Bernard is often credited for saving Manchester United, one of the world’s largest soccer teams from going bankrupt. The legend goes that in 1902 when the club owed sizable debts, captain Harry Stafford was showing off his prized St Bernard at a fundraiser when he was approached by a wealthy brewery owner, J.H.Davis, who wanted to buy the dog. Stafford refused the offer but managed to convince him to buy the club, saving Manchester United from financial ruin.
Today, St. Bernards are not used for alpine rescues as much as before, but do but do participate in a variety of dog sports including carting and weight pulling. They are, however, still trained at the Barry Foundation in Switzerland for alpine rescues.