You may have seen cartoons of them traversing mountain passes with barrels of brandy around their necks. You might even know a little about their history in the Swiss Alps of yesteryear. But do you know the real—and amazing—story of the St. Bernard Dog?
It all starts in 1050 with the Augustinian monk St. Bernard of Menthon, an archdeacon whose jurisdiction included a pass near the Swiss/Italian border. The pass was usually full of snow and subject to avalanches. He noticed that many pilgrims going to Rome endured much danger and hardship going through the pass, so he founded a hospice there to take care of them. The pass became known as the Great St. Bernard Pass and the hospice as the Great St. Bernard Hospice.
At some point the monks of the hospice came into possession of some big brawny dogs (the first records of them date to the end of the 17th century). They began to use these dogs to assist the mountain guides who took travelers through the pass.
The dogs soon proved to be more than mere helpers, however.
They displayed an uncanny ability to sniff out lost travelers trapped in the snow. Soon enough, the dogs were assigned to special ops, becoming the famed search-and-rescue (SAR) experts of the St. Bernard Pass.
Sometimes humans would go with them on SAR missions. But often the dogs would go out by themselves in groups of two or three. When they found a traveler, they would dig him out with their big paws, and one would stay and keep him warm while another went to fetch the monks.
The most famous SAR dog was “Barry der Menschenretter”—Barry the Man-saver—who rescued over forty people lost in the Pass between 1800 – 1812. The soldiers of Napoleon’s army, which traveled through the Pass, brought home stories of the intrepid dogs who inhabited the dangerous area.
The dogs served travelers all the way into the 1900s, with their SAR operations tapering off in modern times with the advent of safer roads and helicopters. But the St. Bernards will still be there to greet you if you ever visit their Pass—the breeding program was taken over by a foundation near the hospice, and visitors are welcome! And whatever happens, those of us who love a good tale (tail?) of courage will always remember Barry and the other brave dogs who went into the frozen wilds time and again to rescue the lost.
Maybe you have a four-legged best friend. Not all our fluffy companions are search-and-rescue canines like those of the St. Bernard Pass, but they’re still there for us in times of need. Why not entrust your friend to the care of St. Francis with a colorful ID tag, complete with an image of the saint? Includes a personalized name and phone number so your pet can find his way home if he ever gets lost. Available today at The Catholic Company!