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The Saint Bernard dog breed boasts the name of a saint, but have you ever wondered what's the actual origin of the Saint Bernard dog name?

 When people think of the Saint Bernard, they often picture in their heads a massive drooling dog as seen in the movie Beethoven, or perhaps they have a Disneyland image of dogs wearing brandy or whiskey kegs around their necks. 

Discovering the origin of the Saint Bernard's name requires a bit of historical digging, and some facts still remain shrouded in mystery. 

What's the Origin of the Saint Bernard's Dog Name?


The Saint Bernard pass

Before becoming companions and guardians of our homes, Saint Bernard dogs were utilized for a very noble cause: saving human lives.

Indeed, these large dogs were used along what's known as "the Saint Bernard Pass," the third highest road pass in Switzerland, towering at an impressive 8,100 feet.

The Saint Bernard pass is a 49-mile route connecting Martigny, the French-speaking district found in the canton of Valais in Switzerland, with Aosta, a bilingual region in the Italian Alps.

This ancient pass has a long history dating back to the Celtic and then Roman period. In the 1800, Napoleon used this route to pass through with his numerous troops and heavy artillery.

Nowadays, the Great St. Bernard Tunnel allows a more practical route, but the pass today still remains a historical landmark.

Home of the Hospice


At the highest point of the alpine pass, is the Great Saint Bernard Hospice which was founded around 1049. The founder of this hospice was Saint Bernard of Menthon, the archdeacon of Aosta who created it in hopes of helping distressed travelers along the treacherous path.

The ancestors of today's Saint Bernard dog breed were originally bred between 1660 and 1670 using descendants of several mastiff-like Asiatic dogs that were brought over by the Romans.

These dogs were meant to be a guardian of the hospice, but then later turned out becoming handy mountain rescue dogs. Saint Bernard dogs indeed were strong enough to walk through deep snow drifts and had a good sense of smell to track travelers.

Once found, the stranded travelers were offered nourishment, clothing and shelter in the hospice by the monks.

Amazing Rescue Dogs


It is said that the Saint Bernard dogs, trained by the monks, were quite amazing in their work. They were sent in packs of two or three.

There are reports of them digging to find buried bodies, but if the stranded travelers were found to be alive, one dog would provide warmth while another one would head to the hospice for help.

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According to the Smithsonian Institute Magazine, the rescue efforts were so organized that Napoleon was impressed considering that none of his 46,000 soldiers had lost their lives crossing the pass.

One Saint Bernard worthy of mentioning was the legendary Barry, who is credited for saving the lives of over 40 people. Barry is now displayed at the Natural History Museum in Berne, Switzerland, where he still can be admired today - as seen in the picture on the left.


An Insight into Changes

The Saint Bernard dogs used at the hospice were quite different than the Saint Bernard specimens seen today. 

Barry, who lived from 1800 to 1814, was considerable smaller than the modern Saint Bernard, weighing between 88 and 99 pounds, while today's Saint Bernard dogs weigh between 180 and 290 pounds.

In the years between 1816 and 1818, the Saint Bernard pass was afflicted by severe thunderstorms and avalanches which caused the death of several rescue dogs. This caused Saint Bernard dogs to be on the brink of extinction.

Fortunately, two years later their numbers increased courtesy of crosses with similar dogs from the nearby valleys.

Around 1830, Newfoundland blood was added in hopes that the longer hair would help the rescue dogs better cope with the cold. The longer hair though came with a price: the formation of ice. Discouraged, the monks started giving their dogs away to people living in the surrounding valleys.

In 1855, innkeeper Heinrich Schumacher gained an interest in the dogs and started a breeding program using a studbook. It wasn't until 1880 that the Swiss Kennel Club decided to officially recognize the breed and call it St. Bernard. And the rest is history...

Did you know? According to The Saint Bernard Club of New South Wales, it is widely agreed that the actual use of small barrels of brandy attached to a Saint Bernard's neck is a myth. 

Those barrels were not used in ancient times, but are rather a more recent trend. The belief originated from a painting: ‘Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller’ by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer which portrayed a Saint Bernard carrying a wood barrel on the collar.

Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1820)

Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1820)


  • Smithsonian Magazine, A Brief History of the St. Bernard Rescue Dog with barrels around their neck. According to legend, the brandy was used to warm the bodies of trapped people in avalanches or snow before help came.retrieved from the web on November 1st, 2016
  • The Saint Bernard Club of New South Wales, History of the Saint Bernard, retrieved from the web on November 1st, 2016

Photo Credits:

  • Painting by John Emms portraying St. Bernards as rescue dogs, Public Domain
  • Barry's preserved body as currently on display at the Natural History Museum, Bern. by Zenit - Own work Stuffed body of Barry, famous rescue dog, CC BY-SA 3.0
  • View toward the Italian side from the monastery. Beyond the buildings at the end of the lake the road drops sharply. On the hillside above the modern road can be seen the Roman road. © Hans Hillewaert / Great St. Bernard Pass at the Italy - Switzerland border. CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1820) Public domain

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