In Switzerland to hear someone say, « he is a real Saint Bernard, » is not an insulting reference to a dog face, but rather the highest compliment. It means that person is a generous do gooder who dedicates his life to saving other people.
The strong, muscular, fawn colored dog with red and black oval spots stands 70cm and weighs between 70 to 100 kilos. Though his chops are so imposing it appears he could tear off a limb in one bite, what makes him appear so non threatening is its soft hazel nut eyes that have an intelligent, affectionate expression.
The dogs always pictured wearing a small barrel around their necks are associated with the Swiss Alps and rescue teams. They live up to their legend. For centuries the Saint Bernards have carried provisions including alcohol in casks to help revive stranded and injured travelers crossing the Alps. The dogs ability to find tracks buried in snow, helped lead the marroniers (guides) through fog and snow storms to locate lost travelers.
The Hospice founded around 1045-50 by Saint Bernard sits up on a cragged, forlorn peek and the dogs arrived approximately in 1650. However, the Saint Bernard race can be traced as back thirty centuries to Asia and then through trade and war made their way to Greece, Rome and finally the Alps. They were first used in the Middle Ages as guard dogs in the regions of Valais, Vaud and Bernese Alps.
The most famous dog, Barry (1800-1814) saved the lives of forty travelers. Barry’s birth coincided with the passage through the Pass of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Army.
« Whenever Barry smelled someone in danger, he ran to the rescue ; if he couldn’t do anything, he went back to the convent and asked for help by his attitude and barking. Once he licked a little boy to wake him up, then Barry incited the child by clever gestures to climb on his back so he could take him to the Hospice. » Meissner recounts in the Alpenrosen 1816.
The legends of Barry are documented in writings, drawings and painting of the time period. In his honor, the strongest male dog is always named Barry. The exploits of Barry II and Barry III are also widely acclaimed.
Henri Schumaker, (1831-1903) a Bernese, founded the first kennel for breeding purebred Saint Bernards apart from the Hospice. He is also attributed with starting the first Swiss Saint Bernard Club in 1884.
The dogs symbolize gentleness, devotion and humanitarian aid. Though the dogs must be behind glass enclosures for their own safety, they are walked daily and well cared for.
Visitors to the museum including tough, athletic young men, like my son, can be seen bending low to make faces, regressing to childhood, and talking to the animals through the window panes.