Saint Bernards: Swiss national dog finds new role

13th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

After a three-century run, the emblematic rescue animal, often depicted with a barrel of rum under its neck, has lost out to helicopters and modern technology.

Great Saint Bernard Pass -- Friar Jose Mittaz was unsentimental when asked if he could foresee a day when there would be no more Saint Bernard dogs at his isolated monastery high in the Swiss Alps.

"A simple way to answer this is that we existed 700 years without the dogs," he said. "We have a history of 1,000 years, so it was only about 300 years ago that we started having the dogs."

Over time, Saint Bernards became synonymous with the monastery perched 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) above sea level, where they guided monks through the mountains or helped rescue lost or stranded travellers in the snowy heights.

The monastery returned thanks by ensuring the pedigree survived, breeding the iconic species that 125 years ago was christened "the Swiss national dog".

Today, however, the canines are no longer full-time residents.

After a three-century run, the emblematic rescue animal, often depicted with a barrel of rum under its neck, has lost out to helicopters and modern technology.

Five years ago, the monks decided to part ways altogether with their breeding programme. The effort was too much for the four remaining residents and the monks wanted to focus again on their core mission of ministering to people, said Mittaz.

"What makes us sad sometimes is that at the end of the day, the image of the dogs overshadows all this," he said.

Word that the kennels might be permanently shut caught the ear of some Swiss bankers and animal lovers, who set up a group called the Barry Foundation.

Thanks to them, the dogs remain at the monastery but only during a four-month period in the summer when the foundation, not the monks, care for them. In the winter the animals are housed in kennels at Martigny, a western Swiss town at the foot of the Alps.

But all the way up to the Great Saint Bernard Pass, it's clear this is still "Saint Bernard country".

The slogan, along with the dog's emblematic face, is plastered at petrol stations, restaurants or even on the sides of a dam barrier. Rest-stops serving tour buses crossing the Swiss-Italian border sell plush toys as well as mugs, ash-trays, posters, post-cards, and T-shirts, all with Saint Bernards.

Cross-bred at the monastery from large farm dogs indigenous to the Alpine region, the pedigree was officially recognised on June 2, 1887 by an international congress of dog specialists.

Defined traits include dark rings around the eyes and short or long fur covered with reddish-brown patches. Males can weigh up to 85 kilograms (nearly 190 pounds) and females up to 70 (155 pounds).

Initially, the dogs blazed trails in snowy mountains. "They traced out paths, and were also used as sled dogs," said Anya Ebener, spokeswoman of the Barry Foundation.

The breed shot to international fame thanks to one legendary pet named Barry, who lived in the hospice from 1800 to 1812 and is said to have saved more than 40 people.

Local lore holds that Barry carried a little barrel of alcohol around its collar, a welcome drink for weary travellers, and even once rescued a small boy he carried home on his back.

In his honour, the monastery always had one dog named Barry -- a tradition that continues at the Martigny kennels where 20 puppies are bred annually, said Ebener.

With modern technology changing its role, the Saint Bernard now takes on other jobs, including use in therapy. One dog visits retirement homes and the foundation said it is "intensifying the organisation of visits of therapy dogs".

Only one of the 28 dogs owned by the foundation is undergoing avalanche training, and even this is more "out of tradition" than practice, said Ebener.

Lighter, more nimble dogs such as Alsatians are easier to board onto helicopters used in search and rescue missions and can easily outrun Saint Bernards in emergency situations, she said.

The Foundation, however, is committed to keeping alive the line that originated on the Great Saint Bernard Pass. After all, "it is Switzerland's national dog," said Ebener.

Back on the mountain, the monks still head out on occasional rescue missions but modern gadgets replace the once ubiquitous dogs.

In a nod to nostalgia, Mittaz said his avalanche transmitter is called "Barryvox".

"What does that mean? Literally, it means the voice of Barry," he said.

Hui-Min Neo/AFP/Expatica

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