Burly Bernards from snowy peaks

Saint Bernards have a storied history as rescue dogs in the Swiss Alps, specifically linked to the Great Saint Bernard Pass, a treacherous alpine route that connects Switzerland with Italy. The breed was named after the Hospice du Grand St. Bernard, a traveler’s refuge founded in the 11th century by St. Bernard of Menthon. Monks residing at this hospice began to use these large, strong dogs for rescue operations in the 17th century.

Their rescue duties were centered around locating and providing aid to travelers who became lost or were injured in the snow and fog, which are common along the high-altitude pass. The Saint Bernard’s excellent sense of direction and resistance to cold made them perfect for this job. Here are the key aspects of their role in rescue operations:

Sensing Capabilities:

Saint Bernards are believed to have an exceptional sense of smell and an ability to sense impending avalanches or storms, which was invaluable in a time before modern weather forecasting. They could locate travelers buried under the snow, even when the scent was weak or covered by the snow.

Physical Attributes:

Their large, powerful bodies allowed them to move through deep snow and their broad chests could be used to help clear paths. Their thick fur protected them against harsh conditions, while their large paws acted like natural snowshoes.

Rescue Techniques:

Once a person was found, a Saint Bernard would reportedly lie on top of the person to provide warmth, barking to signal the monks for help. It’s a popular myth that they carried brandy barrels around their necks to warm victims; however, there’s no historical evidence to support this charming legend.

Training and Work:

The dogs were rigorously trained by the monks to navigate the dangerous terrain and to recognize signs of distress. They worked in pairs or groups, with younger dogs often learning from experienced ones.

Navigation and Communication:

Saint Bernards’ ability to find their way back to the hospice in poor visibility was crucial. After finding a lost traveler, one dog would typically stay to keep the person warm while the other returned to alert the rescue team.

Modern Use:

With the advent of modern rescue technology, the role of Saint Bernards has largely become ceremonial. However, they still symbolize alpine rescue and are celebrated in the region for their historic contributions.


The most famous Saint Bernard is Barry, who reportedly saved between 40 and 100 lives in the early 1800s. He has become a legend, symbolizing the breed’s bravery and the spirit of the rescue dogs of the Great Saint Bernard Pass.

Although they’re no longer widely used in alpine rescue, Saint Bernards have left an indelible mark on the history of mountain rescue work and remain a symbol of selfless aid to travelers in need. The breed, with its gentle disposition and impressive size, continues to be loved and revered around the world.

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