When you think of Saint Bernards, you probably think of the massive canines of the Swiss Alps, depicted in paintings delivering brandy to lost or stranded hikers. While they were amazing rescue dogs, those rescues involved very little bartending. Learn about how the myth got started, plus more facts about the fluffy mountain dog.
1. THEIR ANCESTORS WERE LIKELY MOLOSSERS.
Like other dogs bred in the Alps—including Bernese mountain dogs and Entlebuch cattle dogs—the history of the breed is a somewhat mysterious. Many believe that they originate from molossers: mastiff-like dogs brought to Switzerland by the Romans roughly 2000 years ago. The large war dogs bred with local mountain dogs, creating the beginnings of the Saint Bernard line. Valley farms and Alpine dairies used the hefty dogs for guarding, herding, and drafting. At the time, the dog was known asTalhund (“valley dog”) or Bauernhund (“farm dog”).
2. MONKS PUT THEM TO WORK IN THE SWISS ALPS.
Long before airplanes, the only way to travel from the Entremont Valley to Italy was via a snowy path. The Mont-Joux pass was extremely treacherous: temperatures could drop as low as -22°F, and the pass was covered in dozens of feet of snow most of the year. (Robbers and looters waiting to prey on unsuspecting hikers only added to the danger.)
Around 1050 CE, a monk named Bernard De Menthon came to the pass and began to clean up the area. He evicted the criminals and set up a hospice to give adventurers a place to recover for a few days from their travels. In 1124, Bernard was canonized as a saint and the pass he helped restore was named after him. Still, Saint Bernards did not come to Saint Bernard Pass until hundreds of years later, although the exact date is a little fuzzy—thanks to a firein the 16th century, the archives containing their exact origin story were destroyed.
However, based on other mentions in historic texts, experts believe the dogs were first brought to the pass’s hospice between 1660 and 1670. The canines were originally used there for guarding and companionship—after all, the grounds could be very lonely in the winter months.