The Great Saint Bernard dogs are known the world over for their work in rescuing stranded travellers in the mountain passes of Switzerland.
The Great Saint Bernard dogs are known the world over for their work in rescuing stranded travellers in the mountain passes of Switzerland. Although their role in rescue operations in recent years has diminished, they are still ready to be called out whatever the time, whatever the weather.
The Gt St. Bernard pass, one of the highest frontier passes, leads from Martigny in the Rhone valley (Switzerland) to Aosta (Italy). The orientation of the pass and the wind-directions make weather conditions uncomfortable in the winter and snow is in the pass for eight or nine months of the year.
The St. Bernard dogs belong to the Augustinian monks who carry on the work started by St. Bernard himself. He took upon himself the task of protecting the travellers and pilgrims using the passes in the eleventh century. The area was rife with brigands who robbed and killed the travellers.
To achieve his purpose, St. bernard founded two monasteries or hospices in the pass where travellers could rest. His parents gave him the greater part of their wealth to provide free shelter and food to the people crossing the Alps.
The dogs themselves were in the area long before St. Bernard himself. They are thought to have originated in Tibet and been introduced into the West through Greece and later Rome. It was in the company of the Roman Legions that they finally reached Switzerland.
There purity of breed is explained by the fact that the area has remained isolated throughout the centuries. They are robust animals of imposing stature when fully grown with a short-haired reddish-brown coat flecked occasionally with white spots.
In the past their purpose was principally rescuing travellers in the snow. They have the great ability of finding their way through blinding snow or winter fog, of tracing paths covered with fresh snow, and more than 2000 people have them to thank for their lives.
They are known throughout the world for their work and even individual dogs have legends told about them: "Barry" -- a dog who lived in Napoleon's era -- is the most famous and his remains have been preserved in the hospice.
The piercing of the Simplon tunnel and the invention of telephones, radio and helicopters has diminished their usefulness. As a consequence breeding has also been limited, with many of pups being exported to other countries.