Switzerland's Renowned St Bernard Dogs
Weighing up to 120 kgs and measuring up to 90cm at the withers, the shaggy-haired St Bernard dog is readily associated with tales of rescue missions in the Swiss Alps – and for good reason. Way back in the early 18th century, the rugged and treacherous St Bernard Pass, linking Italy and Switzerland through the Alps, claimed many a victim during sudden snowstorms. Monks living in the area would use large dogs that were well adapted to the icy conditions and had a keen sense of direction, to help them rescue lost travelers. The St Bernard that we see today is descended from these hardy, good-natured canines.
The Great St Bernard Pass is a 49-mile route through the Western Alps which is covered in snow for most of the year. Around the year 1050, an Augustine monk by the name of St Bernard de Menthon founded a monastery in the pass, with the intention of helping travelers in distress. It was only in 1670 that the monks at the monastery acquired some dogs as companions and watchdogs. Paintings done by Italian artist Salvatore Rosa in 1695 indicate that these dogs were smaller in size than the St Bernards of today, with a longer tail and shorter white and reddish brown fur. They are believed to have been descendants of Asiatic mastiff-type dogs brought to the area by the Romans.
By the beginning of the 18th century it had been discovered that these dogs had an outstanding sense of smell, and were able to detect people buried deep in the snow. Soon these dogs were being sent out in packs of two or three to look for lost travelers, many of which had become buried in the snow. The dogs would dig through the snow to reach the injured person and one dog would lie on top of him to keep him warm, while the other dog would return to the monastery to alert the monks.
When Napoleon and his 250,000 soldiers crossed St Bernard's pass between 1790 and 1810, many were saved by the dogs from the "White Death", as the snow is referred to in the chronicles of soldiers. Not a single soldier lost his life on their journey, thanks to the amazing St Bernards of Switzerland. The St Bernard rescue dogs are said to have saved the lives of more than 2,000 people during the time they worked in the area. The last documented rescue took place in 1897, when a dog found a 12-year-old boy who had fallen down a crevice, keeping him warm until rescuers could reach him.
The Swiss St Bernard Club was founded in 1884 in Basel, and when the breed was approved in 1888, the majestic St Bernard became the national dog of Switzerland.