Alpine Heroes – History of the Saint Bernard

The origins of this mammoth mammal lie in a treacherous mountain pass that links Switzerland to Italy. Dating back to Roman times, and soaring 8,000 feet above sea level, the thoroughfare was named the Great Saint Bernard Pass after the eponymous saint who founded a hospice for travellers in 1049. It is believed that breeds native to the Alps were crossed with Roman mastiffs to produce the first specimens of the dog we know today.

Saving Lives

The first documentation of Saint Bernards working at the monastery, was recorded at the beginning of the 1700s, with the dogs initially recruited to guard the grounds and its inhabitants. The monks would take their companions along on search and rescue missions, primarily for protection, although the breed soon began to prove its worth as an exceptional rescue worker. With its dense coat that can withstand the harshest of temperatures, its excellent digging and navigational skills, and courageous yet kind nature, the Saint Bernard became a national hero. The dogs were credited with saving over 2,000 lives during the three centuries from which the hospice kept records. Whilst they no longer take part in search and rescue missions, Saint Bernards are still bringing joy to visitors at the hostel, to this day.

World Wide Fame

The breed was introduced to the rest of Europe during the 19th century, and became recognised by the Swiss Kennel Club in 1880. The iconic image of a Saint Bernard wearing a flask of brandy to administer to rescued travellers has long since been disregarded as myth, which was brought to life by Edwin Landseer, a Victorian artist, who painted the first two breed specimens, sporting their barrels, to arrive in London. The Saint received global fame with the release of the family comedy film, “Beethoven” in 1992, which propelled the breed’s popularity both in the United States and across the world.