Barry The St. Bernard

Most kids love animals, and since animals often have interesting histories, that affection can be used as an introduction to history.

One example is the breed of dog famous for its rescue work in a treacherous pass located in the Western Alps. This pass is more than eight thousand feet above sea level and connects the Swiss Canton of Valais with the Aosta region in Italy. Its documented use goes back to 57 BC, and it has always been difficult to traverse. To help travellers through it, an Augustine monk named Bernard de Menthon built a monastery there in 1050. Six hundred years later, the monks were joined by what are now known as St. Bernard dogs, which originally served as watchdogs.  (Bernard was canonized by Pope Innocent XI in 1681, and his feast day is June 15th.)

By 1750, servants were taking the dogs with them when they accompanied travellers over the pass. The dogs’ broad chests helped clear paths, and they were also very good at sniffing out people buried deep in the snow, rescue work they were even able to do on their own. They usually went out in twos however, with one dog remaining with the stricken traveller while the other returned to the monastery for human help. The most famous of these rescue dogs was Barry, who was at the monastery from 1800-1812. He was credited with saving more than forty people. His stuffed body is still on display at the Natural History Museum in Berne, Switzerland.

St. Bernard dogs were used for rescue work up until the 1950s but the last recorded rescue by a  dog from the monastery was in 1897, when one found a twelve-year-old boy in a crevice and woke him before he froze to death.

Though Alpine rescues are now carried out by helicopters and other modern Search and Rescue techniques, descendants of the famous canines still live at a charity- run kennel in nearby Martigny.

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