A Brief History of the St. Bernard Rescue Dog

Why Did People Start Using Saint Bernards as Rescue Dogs?

Saint Bernards have been used as rescue dogs for life-saving work since around 1750. It is estimated they have saved roughly 2,000 lives along the Saint Bernard pass in the last 200 years.

The last documented rescue with the Saint Bernards was a young boy who was almost frozen and found by the dogs in a crevice and his life was saved.

The Saint Bernard pass is a regularly traveled route for pilgrimages through the Alps in between Italy and Switzerland. The pass is only clear of snow for a couple of months in the summer, however, it is traveled throughout the year.

A hospice and monastery were founded along the pass by a monk named St. Bernard De Menthon around the year 1050 to assist pilgrims in their journey.

As time passed the monks residing at the hospice eventually acquired their first Saint Bernards sometime between 1660 and 1670. These dogs were offspring of Mastiff style dogs that the Romans brought to the area.

Traditionally the Romans used these dogs as their guard dogs and companions. They were smaller than the Saint Bernards we know today, had longer tails, and had shorter, white and reddish-brown fur.

Through many years of cross-breeding with breeds such as Newfoundlands and English Mastiffs, they have grown into the Saint Bernards we know and love today.

Heinrich Schumacher, and innkeeper in 1855, started breeding the dogs and sending them to places such as England, Russia, and the United States. Once known by many different names throughout the years and different countries, Hospice dogs, Swiss Alpine dogs, Alpine Mastiffs, Mountain Dogs, and Saint Bernard Mastiffs, by 1880 the Swiss Kennel Club recognized the breed and gave them their name of the Saint Bernard.

Around the 1700s the hospice started sending “Marroniers” or servants, with travelers to guide them through the Saint Bernard Pass. By 1750 the Marroniers began to bring the dogs with them on the journey.

The dogs wide chests proved to be very efficient for clearing a path for trekkers. It wasn’t long before the Marroniers discovered the Saint Bernards incredible sense of direction and smell, and their amazing ability to find those buried under deep snow.

Soon the Marroniers would start sending the dogs out on their own, in packs of two or more, to rescue lost people.

The Saint Bernards would use their impressive nose to find the lost, buried, or injured pilgrim. One dog would then lay on the traveler to keep them from freezing, with their thick coat of fur, while the other ran back to the hospice using their keen sense of direction and make the monks aware of the lost pilgrim.

This process became so efficient Napoleon trusted the dogs with his soldiers lives from 1790 to 1810, and achieved no losses in what the soldiers called “the White Death”Although Saint Bernards are no longer being used along the Saint Bernard Pass, it is still traveled regularly and helicopters are now used for rescue missions.

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