There are all manner of large dogs and mastiffs in the world, but none of them have quite the same prominence as the St. Bernard. Descendants of the Molossoid breed of canines that the Romans brought along with them in the expansion of their Empire, they were first referred to as St. Bernards by monks in texts dating back to 1707. Additionally, the St. Bernard was the first dog listed in the Swiss Stud Book in 1884, with breed standards finalized a few years later.
Evolution in the Alps
The St. Bernard of today would not be of much service as an avalanche rescue dog due to its long, furry coat, which would get weighed down with ice. The classic mountain rescue dog was bred into its current lineage after Newfoundlands were used to regenerate the breed in the 1800s, after much of the original lineage in Switzerland was lost to do a series of terrible winters.
The Noble Steed
The most famous St. Bernard, in terms of being a rescue dog, was named Barry. He is said to have rescued between 40 and 100 mountaineers during his career (1800-1814), including the celebrated rescue of a small boy who climbed onto his back and rode the dog back to safety. Barry’s body is preserved at the National History Museum in Berne. Most people, though, know modern St. Bernard’s such as Beethoven and the more twisted creation of Stephen King’s mind, Cujo.
Many of the existing stereotypes of the St. Bernard are accurate. They are indeed a large dog (the record weight is 315 lbs.), they absolutely do have a tendency to drool, and they are still sometimes used in avalanche rescue. One thing that is not accurate about these real-life heroes, and never has been, is the notion that the dogs carried a flask of brandy around their necks. The factually-baseless depiction comes from an 1820 painting by Edward Landseer; the monks of St. Bernard’s Pass, though, are still happy to sell casks to the tourists!