Working Wednesday: The St. Bernard

The St Bernard is a large breed of dog that can weigh between 65 and 120kg! These dogs are in the Working Group in the UK Kennel Club as for centuries they were originally bred for rescue by the Hospice of Great St Bernard Pass. They have become famous through tales of their amazing Alpine rescues and enormous size.

St Bernard Fun Facts:

  • The name of the dog, the pass and the lodge in the Western Alps are all named for Bernard of Menthon - the 11th century Italian monk who established the station.

  • Their 'whiskey barrel collar' is actually a myth that a 17-year-old painter created in 1820, but they did carry packs filled with food and water.

  • When they were rescuing they were known to search in pairs, one would wait with the stranded while the other would return to the monks for help.

  • St Bernards were almost wiped out after an avalanches wiped out most of the breeding stock.

  • They are also known as other names - The Alpine Mastiff, Bernhardiner, and St Bernardshund.


The St Bernard shares a history with the Sennenhund which are Swiss Mountain/Cattle dogs. A heavy build of dog that originated in the Alps and tend to be farm dogs, search and rescue dogs and watch dogs. They are descendants of the molosser type dogs that were brought into the Alps by ancient Romans.

The earliest records of the St Bernard are from monks at the Great St Bernard Hospice in 1707, with paintings and drawings dating back even earlier. However, he St Bernard looked different many years ago due to more recent cross breeding as severe winters almost wiped out the breed, such as dangerous avalanches during rescues. To try and preserve the breed the remaining dogs were crossed with Newfoundlands and lost their use as search and rescue dogs as their coat became long and thick which would freeze and collect snow, weighing them down. St Bernards never usually received training from monks, they just learnt the search and rescue off older dogs as they watched them working, so search & rescue comes very natural for them.

Long-haired (left) and short coated (right) St Bernards

Working St. Bernards

When most people hear the words 'rescue dog', it sets off a mental image of a St Bernard with the infamous barrel of whiskey hanging from their collar. However, this is a myth as there are no records of the barrels, it is thought to have come from a 17 year-old artist (Edwin Landseer) who, at the time produced 'Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler', which includes the Saint Bernard with a barrel around their neck rescuing a traveller trapped in the snow.

St Bernards accomplishments are still impressive, even without the whiskey barrel. Named after the ancient Hospice Du Grande St-Bernard over 8000 feet above sea level, monks began to use the Saint Bernards to help locate and recover travellers lost in a treacherous route named the "white death", where one dog named Barry sniffed out more than 40 people between 1800 and 1812.

Edwin Landseer's - 'Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler'

St. Bernard dogs are no longer used for Alpine rescues, the last recorded instance of which was in 1955. As late as 2004, the Great St Bernard Hospice still retained 18 of the dogs for reasons of tradition and sentiment. In that year the Barry Foundation created breeding kennels for the breed at the town of Martigny down the Great Saint Bernard Pass, and purchased the remaining dogs from the Hospice. During the summer months each year a number of the animals are temporarily relocated from Martigny to the Hospice for viewing by tourists.

An annual celebration of the breed takes place on the Little Saint Bernard Pass and at the town of Rosieres-Montvalzan on the French side. Saint Bernard dog enthusiasts and breeders gather for a dog show and parades. The animals bred by the Foundation are trained to participate in a variety of dog sports including carting and weight pulling.

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