St. Bernards: Famous Search and Rescue Dogs

St. Bernards became famous in history as search and rescue dogs in the Western Alps. They helped save more than 2,000 lives over a span of nearly 200 years.


St. Bernards are gentle giants. Their average weight today is 120-180 pounds. Larger individuals are said to reach over 200 pounds. The original St. Bernard, a descendant of the mastiff style Asiatic dog, was smaller in size, had shorter fur and a longer tail.

Around the year 1050, an Augustine monk named St. Bernard de Menthon founded a hospice and monastery to help provide food and shelter to travelers crossing the Great St. Bernard Pass (named after him), a 49 mile route between Italy and Switzerland high in the mountains. About 1660-1670, the monks got their first St. Bernards (brought over by the Romans) to serve as their companions and watchdogs. Around 1700, servants called marroniers would accompany travelers on the treacherous route when covered with snow. By 1750, the servants would take the dogs with them. The St. Bernards would walk in front of the travelers, clearing a path through the snow with their broad chests. The dogs were able to tolerate the cold conditions and had an uncanny sense of direction. They could find their way through heavy fog and blizzards. The marroniers soon discovered they also had the ability to find people buried deep in the snow with their tremendous sense of smell.

A team of St. Bernards, two monks and a workman rescue an injured traveler

The dogs were then used to go out on their own to rescue lost and injured travelers on the St. Bernard Pass. If a person was buried under snow, the dogs would dig them out. One dog would then lick the person's face and lie beside him, thus reviving and warming the person, while another dog would return to the hospice to alert the monks. One St. Bernard, Barry, became famous for saving more than 40 people between 1800 and 1812. Barry's body was preserved and is on display at the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland, and a monument to Barry is placed at an elaborate pet cemetery in France.

The winters of 1816-1818 were particularly severe, and many dogs died in avalanches while trying to rescue people. The dogs living at the hospice came close to extinction, but were later saved when similar dogs from nearby valleys were given to the monks to be used as breeding stock. In 1830, the monks started to breed their dogs with Newfoundlands so the dog's coat would be longer and more suited for the cold environment. The dog's coat did become longer, but ice formed on the hairs making rescues more difficult. These long-haired dogs were not kept for rescue work, and were given away to people in surrounding valleys.

In 1855, an innkeeper named Heinrich Schumacher began breeding the dogs using a studbook. He supplied the hospice with dogs and also exported them to other countries, including the US. People then began breeding the dogs indiscriminately, like with English Mastiffs, which resulted in the St. Bernards common appearance today. During this time, there was no official name for the dog breed. They were known by several names: Barry Dogs as a tribute, Hospice Dogs, Alpine Mastiffs, Mountain Dogs, Swiss Alpine Dogs and St. Bernard Mastiffs. In 1880, the Swiss Kennel Club officially named the breed St. Bernard, after St. Bernard de Menthon.

St. Bernard dogs are no longer used for rescues on the pass. Traveling is now easier by train via tunnels through the Alps, and helicopters are used for rescue if needed. In 2005, the Barry Foundation in Martigny, Switzerland took over the breeding kennels. They breed an average of 20 St. Bernard puppies every year, preserving the typical characteristics of the famous hospice rescue dogs.