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Around 1660, a number of massive, sad-eyed farm dogs were drafted from the Swiss valleys to serve as watchdogs, pack dogs and companions for a community of monks isolated in the Alps. The dogs' destination was the centuries-old Hospice of St. Bernard, which would end by giving them their great and good-indeed their heroic-name. The hospice had been founded by archdeacon Bernard de Menthon as a haven for those crossing the passes that linked Switzerland with Italy, where wayfarers kept coming to grief in the endlessly drifting snow. At some point guides began to train the dogs to go out on missions-the breed seemed to have a positive instinct for rescuing, and in any case possessed a short coat that did not easily cake with snow, and a keen sense of smell that could lead them to the needy. The dogs customarily worked in teams of four-two would lie on either side of the victim to keep him warm, another would lick his face to resuscitate him, and another would hurry back to the hospice to guide rescuers to the scene. Thus many of these dogs became saints in their own lifetimes. (The erroneous notion that they carried small barrels of brandy to revive spent travelers can be laid to Landseer, who famously painted a Saint Bernard with a cask around his neck.)
The breed probably evolved from a mingling of native Alpine dogs with the fierce Mastiff-like Molossers used in the arenas of Rome and brought by Roman legions to Switzerland during the first two centuries A.D. By 1350 the likeness of the Saint Bernard was graven in place on Swiss coat-of-arms. The dogs eventually crossed into Germany and the rest of Europe, reaching England in the early 19th century. They were then still known only as Hospice Dogs, but the English began referring to them as Sacred Dogs. The name Saint Bernard did not appear until 1865, and did not take hold until 1880. The Saint Bernard Club of America was not established until 1888.
Excerpted from Fandex Family Field Guides: Dogs. Copyright. Reprinted with permission by Workman Publishing.