When you think of Saint Bernards, you probably think of the massive canines of the Swiss Alps, depicted in paintings delivering brandy to lost or stranded hikers. While they were amazing rescue dogs, those rescues involved very little bartending. Learn about how the myth got started, plus more facts about the fluffy mountain dog.
1. The Saint Bernard’s ancestors were likely molossers.
Like other dogs bred in the Alps—including Bernese mountain dogs and Entlebuch cattle dogs—the history of the breed is somewhat mysterious. Many believe that they originate from molossers: mastiff-like dogs brought to Switzerland by the Romans roughly 2000 years ago. The large war dogs bred with local mountain dogs, creating the beginnings of the Saint Bernard line. Valley farms and Alpine dairies used the hefty dogs for guarding, herding, and drafting. At the time, the dog was known as Talhund (“valley dog”) or Bauernhund (“farm dog”).
2. Monks put Saint Bernards to work in the Swiss Alps.
Long before airplanes, the only way to travel from the Entremont Valley to Italy was via a snowy path. The Mont-Joux pass was extremely treacherous: temperatures could drop as low as -22°F, and the pass was covered in dozens of feet of snow most of the year. (Robbers and looters waiting to prey on unsuspecting hikers only added to the danger.)
Around 1050 CE, a monk named Bernard De Menthon came to the pass and began to clean up the area. He evicted the criminals and set up a hospice to give adventurers a place to recover for a few days from their travels. In 1124, Bernard was canonized as a saint and the pass he helped restore was named after him. Still, Saint Bernards did not come to Saint Bernard Pass until hundreds of years later, although the exact date is a little fuzzy—thanks to a fire in the 16th century, the archives containing their exact origin story were destroyed.
However, based on other mentions in historic texts, experts believe the dogs were first brought to the pass’ hospice between 1660 and 1670. The canines were originally used there for guarding and companionship—after all, the grounds could be very lonely in the winter months.
3. Saint Bernards are here to help.
Eventually, the monks inhabiting the hospice discovered that the Saint Bernards had all the makings of an ideal rescue dog: They were great at clearing paths, could predict incoming avalanches, and, thanks to their excellent sense of smell, could detect a body buried under 20 feet of snow. (And once they located someone trapped under a snow heap, they could use their huge paws to dig them out.) In the three centuries that the hospice used the helpful dogs, it’s estimated that they saved upwards of 2000 people. Trains and airplanes have lessened the need for rescue dogs, but monks continue to raise them to this day out of tradition.
4. One dog was a particularly skilled helper.
As legend has it, Barry the Saint Bernard was an amazing rescue dog who saved somewhere between 45 and 100 people. Barry’s most impressive rescue involved finding a dying 12-year-old boy in the snow and carrying him to safety on his back. Sadly, the courageous dog was supposedly killed by one of Napoleon’s soldiers, who mistook him for a wolf. The local hero’s fur was used to create a statue—complete with the iconic barrel collar—that is currently on display at the Bern Natural History Museum.
As moving as that tale is, most of it is completely false. It’s possible that the dog saved 40 lives, but he definitely never rescued any frozen boys in the snow—apparently, that story was circulating years before Barry was even born. Even the story of his death is highly exaggerated; Barry died of natural causes after living to the ripe old age of 12 years. (It’s also worth noting that the dog never wore the clichéd barrel around his neck, either.)
5. Monks tried to improve Saint Bernards.
After one particularly hard winter, the monks attempted to cross the breed with the long-haired Newfoundland to give their rescue pooches a thicker winter coat. The plan backfired, as the longer fur captured matted snow and ice and weighed the poor dogs down. Today, you can still see the effects of the decision, as the breed has both long- and short-haired dogs.
6. Speaking of barrel collars, a teen created that myth.
In cartoons and works of art, Saint Bernards are often depicted wearing barrels of booze around their necks, supposedly with the intention of helping cold travelers warm up. The rescue dogs never actually wore these miniature barrels, but they did carry around packs filled with food and water.
The misconception that the dogs ever sported the barrels comes from a 17-year-old painter in 1820s England. Edwin Landseer painted a work called Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, which depicted two Saint Bernards coming to the rescue of an injured man. One is barking in alarm, while the other—sporting the barrel in question—attempts to revive the hiker. Landseer later explained that the barrel was filled with brandy, and thus a myth was born. Of course, we know today that while alcohol makes us feel warmer, it actually restricts blood flow and lowers body temperature. Carrying around tiny kegs would not have been the best strategy for reviving avalanche victims.
7. Don’t over-bathe Saint Bernards.
Saint Bernards have a lot of fur, but you don’t have to worry about frequent trips to the groomer. They have an oily, water-resistant coat, which originally warded off snow and ice when they resided in the mountains. It’s best not to over-wash them because soap will strip away necessary oils in their fur.
8. Saint Bernards are great with children.
Saint Bernards are gentle giants. They’re calm and patient, with an eagerness to please. This easy-going temperament makes the dog a great choice for a family pet. They’re very intelligent, so training is easy, but it’s important to start at a young age while they’re still small and controllable. Sometimes the large dogs are unaware of their size, making training essential in order to prevent them from bowling over guests and children.
9. Saint Bernards grow up fast.
Saint Bernard puppies are tiny creatures that weigh just 1 1/2 pounds at birth. Adult dogs can weigh as much as 180 pounds, so the pups have a lot of growing to do. It can take as long as three years for them to stop growing, although most of the growing happens in the first year. By 3 months old, Saint puppies can weigh as much as 40 pounds. From there, they will usually gain about 3 to 5 pounds a week. These growth spurts proved difficult for crew members on the set of Beethoven’s 2nd; the family movie featured just four puppies, but it took more than 100 canine actors to portray them because they grew so fast.
10. Expect a lot of drooling.
Thanks to the breed’s unusual head and jaw shape, their lips and loose skin hang down, meaning they drool more than other breeds. This behavior tends to get worse when the dogs are hungry, overheated, or excited. To minimize the puddles left in their wake, try to keep them cool and prepare food out of sight. Some devoted owners will even carry around a drool rag to clean their pooch’s muzzle every once in a while.
A version of this story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.