The History of the Saint Bernard

The history of the Saint Bernard dog begins with the history of the Saint himself, Saint Bernard of Menthon.

St. Bernard of Menthon:
Bernard was born in 923AD, probably in the castle Menthon in Savoy. Little of his early life’s story is documented although he came from a rich, noble family and received an advanced education. His passion in life was religion and upon learning of a proposed marriage that his father arranged, left to devote himself to the service of the Church.

Bernard was ordained as a priest and at the age of 43 was named Arch deacon of Aosta where he had charge of the diocese under the bishop. Learning of the lack of Christianity and misguidance of the people of the Alps he devoted himself to their conversion and evangalized to them for over 40 years.

Bernard’s name is famous for another reason. Since ancient times there has been a path across the Pennine Alps from the Valle d’Aosta to the Swiss canton of Valais. This path is now known as the Great St. Bernard Pass and is covered in snow at all times during the year. The depth of snow varies but averages eight feet with drifts as high as forty feet. Spring was probably the most dangerous time of the year because of avalanches. Even though it was considered dangerous, pilgrims from Germany and France used it to get to Rome. Even prior to this, the pass was used by Charlemagne, Emperor Henry IV, and Napoleon I. The pass. because of its remoteness, was a haven for thieves and many unwary travelers fell prey to these ruthless people. For the convenience and protection of travelers, Bernard founded the Augustinian order. The monks of the order formed a patrol to clear the robbers from the pass and established a monastary and hospice at the highest point of the pass in the year 962 AD. This monastary sits at 8110 feet above sea-level and remains there to this day. Bernard established another hospice on the Little Saint Bernard pass which is a mountain of the Graian Alps. This hospice resides at a height of 7076 feet above sea-level. During this time Bernard and the monks brought dogs back from the valley, most likely as companions and guardians. These large dogs were used in the valley as guardians and draft animals on dairy farms. Evidence suggests that early use of these dogs in the monastary was for hauling goods and turning the spits in the kitchen.

The dogs quickly became trained in search and rescue and became know as the Saint Bernard after their patron Saint Bernard on Menthon. Unfortunately Saint Bernard did not live to see these marvelous dogs reach their maturity in search and rescue or take his name as their breed. Saint Bernard died in 1008 AD in Novara, Italy. He was Canonized in 1681 by Pope Innocent XI. Saint Bernard is known as the Patron Saint of alpinists, mountain climbers, mountaineers, skiers, and travelers in the mountains.

The fame of the Saint Bernard dog grew quickly and by 1750 the dogs were well known for their rescues. Their keen sense of smell can lead them to victims buried in several feet of snow and can also sense an avalanche before it happens. Their thick coats protect them from snow and ice. While the Saint Bernard dogs of the pass are called short coated, a Newfoundland was bred to produce the long or rough coated Saint Bernard. They determined that the longer coat was not beneficial in the pass because the coat held the ice but the rough coat Saint Bernard has persisted to this day.

Probably the most famous Saint Bernard at the hospice was Barry. He is known to have rescued 40 people between 1800 and 1810. The Saint Bernard did not actually get its name until late in the 1800’s and were originally called Hospice Dogs or Barry Hound.

More that 2000 travelers owe a great debt to the Saint Bernard. Unfortunately technology has replaced the need for the Saint Bernard at the hospices. Helicopters and heat sensors are now used in their place. In October of 2004 the monks decided that they needed to spend more time with the people and less time with the dogs. There are only four monks now and the 18 dogs required more time than they could afford. The dogs have been purchased by a philanthropic organization and will spend the winters in the valley and rotate through the hospices during the summer to keep the heritage alive.

The Saint Bernard is a descendant of the Roman Molossus, a mastiff descended from the Tibetan Mastiff. History has it that Alexander the Great brought the Tibetan Mastiff to Greece. The first Saint Bernard was bred in the monastary around 1660.