5. Saint Bernards Traced Their Roots Back to Giant Roman Mastiffs
Monks of the Alpine monastery founded by Saint Bernard of Menthon began training large farm dogs for rescue work in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. The big canines were descended from mastiff-type Molossian hounds, that had been introduced to the region by the Romans. Those dogs were strong, had weather-resistant coats, and possessed an exceptionally good sense of smell. That made them well-suited to guide and rescue travelers. The dogs were accompanied by monks, who sometimes carried flasks of brandy and shared them with travelers.
That might have started the association between Saint Bernard Pass rescues and brandy. It eventually grew into the false notion that it was the dogs themselves, not the monks, that carried kegs of brandy. Over a period of hundreds of years, from the sixteenth or seventeenth century to the early nineteenth, the monks of the Great Saint Bernard Hospice bred an excellent search and rescue dog. However, severe winters from 1816 to 1818 saw an unusually high number of avalanches that killed many of the breeding dogs during rescue operations.
4. The False But Widely Accepted Belief That Saint Bernard Rescue Dogs Looked Like Today’s Saint Bernards
To save the Saint Bernard breed, the dogs that had survived the disastrous stretch from 1816 to 1818 were mated with Newfoundland dogs, imported in the 1850s. The long fur resulting from crossbreeding with the Newfoundlands – a prominent feature of modern Saint Bernards – made the dogs less suitable for rescue work. The extra fur ended up gathering snow, freezing, and weighing the dogs down. Another false aspect of the Saint Bernard myth is the assumption that the rescue dogs looked like the current ones. As seen in the above painting of Barry der Menschenretter, the most famous Saint Bernard, the original dogs looked significantly different from today’s Saint Bernards.
Original Saint Bernards – the ones that did most of the work in the breed’s heyday as rescue dogs – were about half as big modern ones. They were roughly the size of German Shepherds, had longer snouts than today’s Saint Bernards, and shorter fur. Saint Bernards got so huge because kennel clubs and dog shows concentrated on appearance instead of the dogs’ working ability. As Saint Bernards became bigger and their fur grew longer, they became less suitable for Alpine rescue work. The extra weight caused them to plunge deeper into the snow, while the increasingly longer fur froze and weighed the dogs down even more.
The most famous Saint Bernard of all was Barry der Menschenretter (1800 – 1814). Weighing about 95 pounds, he was significantly smaller than modern Saint Bernards, who weigh between 180 to 300 pounds. He gained the name Menschenretter, which means “People Rescuer”, because he is credited with saving between 40 to 100 people. His most famous rescue was of a little boy, whom he found in an ice cavern. Barry warmed the kid by licking him, then maneuvered him on his back, and carried him back to the hospice.
Barry conducted rescue operations for twelve years. As it does with all, age eventually caught up with Barry. When he ceased to be fit for rescue operations, he was parted from the monks and taken to Bern, Switzerland, for a well-deserved retirement. After his death, Barry’s body was donated to the Natural History Museum of Bern, and was preserved by taxidermy as an exhibit. As it stands today, however, it is a false depiction of how Barry actually looked in life. A 1923 restoration had altered his pose, and modified the shape of Barry’s skull to resemble the Saint Bernards of that time.
The days of heroic Saint Bernard Alpine rescues – even without kegs of brandy strapped to their necks – are long gone. They have been replaced with dog breeds better suited to avalanche search-and-rescue work, such as German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers. Among other things, those dogs have an advantage over the giant Saint Bernards in that their smaller size allows them to fit more easily in rescue helicopters. The last recorded instance of a Saint Bernard doing search-and-rescue work occurred in 1955.
However, the dogs stayed with the monks for years afterward. Out of a sense of tradition, the big dogs were kept at the Great Saint Bernard Pass Hospice until 2004. That year, the monks sold their entire kennel of 34 Saint Bernards to local animal associations. They still return to the hospice every summer during tourist season. Nowadays, because the myth of the Saint-Bernard-and-brandy-barrel has become so widespread, the monks actually do outfit the dogs with cute little brandy kegs around their necks.
1. The False Belief That Brandy – or any Alcohol – Warms Up the Body
There is a widespread belief nowadays – which was even more widespread in centuries past – that brandy or other strong spirits can warm a person. Because of that, the notion that a freezing traveler caught up in an Alpine blizzard could be revived and warmed up with brandy makes intuitive common sense. However, a lot of stuff that makes intuitive common sense does not actually work anywhere near as well as common sense says it should. That includes the assertion that alcohol warms us, which is actually false.
Drinking strong spirits like whiskey or brandy does lead to a warming sensation, but that sensation is illusory. What alcohol does is bring our blood closer to the skin, which makes us think that we are warming up. What it does not do, however, is warm up our vital organs, whose failure from excessive cold could seriously harm or kill us. Bringing somebody’s blood closer to the skin in the cold actually speeds up the lowering of our core body temperature, and places our vital organs at greater risk. So it is a good thing that Saint Bernards toting brandy barrels is a myth: otherwise many rescue attempts would have backfired.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading