The St. Bernard is one of the most easily identified dog breeds in the world. With their shaggy coats, long faces, and woofing barks, these gentle giants have been part of our popular culture for decades. However, while you might know a St. Bernard when you see one, chances are good you didn't know these interesting facts about the breed.
While it might sound like something out of a fantasy novel instead of real-world history, the dog breed we know as the St. Bernard got its name from a snowy pass it used to watch over. The St. Bernard pass is located in the Alps between Italy and Switzerland, and it can be particularly dangerous when people try to cross the frozen expanse. It's also the location of the St. Bernard Hospice, which is the monastery where these dogs were bred. St. Bernard dogs were the ones who patrolled the area, and they were the dogs used to help find those lost in the snow, or trapped beneath the weight of avalanches.
One of the most popular images of the St. Bernard is a shaggy mountain of fur loping through the snow, with a tiny keg of whiskey around its neck. That image has become so entwined with our pop culture that few of us even question it. After all, we know that in decades past people who were freezing would try to warm up with alcohol, even though drinking it only worsened the danger their bodies were in. However, while it hurts to let go of our myths, the St. Bernard was never armed with a neck-mounted keg. They just saved your life, and expected payment in cuddles.
While the St. Bernard might make you think of famous films, like the Beethoven series of kids' comedies, the most famous member of the breed is known for a lot more than camera-friendly jowls. Perhaps the most famous dog (in terms of world fame, instead of just American fame) was a St. Bernard named Barry. He was one of those life-saving mountain dogs, and in his career saved somewhere between 45 and 100 people (records are sketchy, given that it was back in the 1800s). Barry has a monument all his own, and his body is in a museum in Berne, Switzerland.
If you've ever seen a full-grown St. Bernard, you can appreciate how big they are. Any dog capable of doing farm work, or dragging humans out of snow banks, is no slouch in the weight lifting department. However, because of how big they are, these dogs can take a while to reach their full size. 2-3 years are usually necessary for them to finish maturing, and it may take even longer for them to fully fill out their frames.
While we think of the breed as the St. Bernard, that isn't the only name these lovable lunks have carried over the many years since the breed began. They've been called Barry dogs, as well as noble steeds by a few (a few whom we are assuming were pulled out of a Swiss snowbank, and wanted to show their gratitude). The Alpine mastiff is another name these dogs have been known by.
Dog breeding has been a hobby for humans going back further than our written history. That said, some breeds have a definite date when they first came about. The St. Bernard is not such a breed, though. According to tradition, the first St. Bernard dogs were bred in the 11th century in and around a monastery in the Alps. And while that's a great story with a heavy weight of oral tradition behind it, most breed historians are of the opinion that the dogs we know as St. Bernards didn't show up until about 600 years later. Although it has been conceded that the early reports are likely the dogs that were the original stock that led to the current breed.
When you think of purebred dogs, you probably think of dog shows where the breeders and trainers show off their hounds' inheritances. The attention is drawn to the color of their coats, the shape of their faces, and all the other physical traits that makes a breed instantly identifiable. However, when it came to the St. Bernard, that sort of breeding wasn't really common until the 19th century. Before then, these dogs were bred more for strength, stamina, and other traits that made them useful as work dogs.
Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the greatest conquerors of his generation, and for a time he seemed like an unstoppable force. His army crossed the Alps many times between 1790 and 1810, and despite how dangerous those trails were, Napoleon never lost a man. Part of the reason for that was that he always had St. Bernard dogs with him, ensuring that there was a canine safety net in case something untoward were to happen.
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