Jim Dykstra's picture

The Myth of St Bernards and Barrels

St. Bernards: A Tail of Licker Barrels and Heroism
St. Bernards: A Tail of Licker Barrels and Heroism
Photos courtesy Wiki and Pixabay

St. Bernards have a way of getting our attention. Their gargantuan stature and calm demeanor has contributed to their larger than life persona, even grabbing one St. Bernard a starring role in the movie Beethoven. But the story behind these gentle giants is far more gripping than the 26th highest-grossing film of 1992, involving life and death, romance (well, breeding) and yes… alcohol.

Bred to Save Lives
Our story begins in the snowy peaks of the Alps between Italy and Switzerland. The Great Saint Bernard pass is a 49-mile path, and quite treacherous save for a few summer months. The route got its name from Saint Bernard de Menthon, who founded a hospice and monastery to aid travelers around the year 1050. There also exists a Little St. Bernard Pass, and a Little Saint Bernard Hospice nearby.

It would be a few centuries before the St. Bernard breed came into play. Between 1660 and 1670, monks at St. Bernard acquired the progenitors of the heroic lineage. The dogs were mastiffs, descended from stout Asiatic breeds meant for war, and slightly smaller than the behemoths we see today. Their fur was also shorter and their tails longer, but these alpine hounds laid the genetic groundwork for the future of the breed.


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"This is where I leave you..." -- St. Bernards were sent out in packs to search for stranded travelers. When they found one, part of the pack would report back to the monks, and the others would attempt to dig out and warm the wanderer.


St. Bernards weren’t specifically being bred as hero dogs yet. At the time, they were more “civilian” dogs, ready to bark, play and cuddle at a moment’s notice. It didn’t take long for marroniers, who were servant-guides of the area, to note how easily these dogs could traverse the terrain, or how they used their keen sense of smell and their ability to sense avalanches. Over time, they would be selected and bred specifically for these traits, resulting in the gentle giants we love today.

By 1750, St. Bernards would be constant companions of marroniers, using their abilities to help smell and dig out travelers who had become lost or buried under snow. Eventually, they’d just start sending St. Bernards out in small packs without human accompaniment. Able to dig upwards of ten feet after catching a scent, packs would split when a person was found – some staying with the wanderer, and others returning to alert hospice workers.

St. Bernards are credited with saving over 2,000 lives between 1750 and 1897, when the last documented recovery was made (other reports list 1955 as the most recent rescue, but no documentation was found). A 12-year old boy was licked awake and led to safety after becoming lost and nearly freezing to death.


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Edwin Landseer's famous painting, seen above, spawned the legend of the "licker" barrel.


Truth to the Legend?
What of the famed barrel around the neck? Legend has it that these dogs would carry beer or brandy in order to warm wayward wanderers. We believe this to be false.

Though alcohol can cause a warming sensation in the belly, it actually makes you colder by causing your blood vessels to dilate. Blood rushes to the skin's surface, which is why you may blush and feel hot, but overall body temperature declines rapidly.

More importantly, St. Bernard monks have a source for the legend. The barrels we see were a conjuration of Edwin Landseer, an English painter. In 1820, the 17-year old produced his most enduring work, poetically titled Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler. The image shows two Saint Bernards standing over a fallen traveler, one barking, and one licking the traveler’s hand. The licker has a barrel around its neck, which Landseer claimed contained brandy – a stroke of imagination he spared the title of his painting. Perhaps because it’s just a wonderful thought, the image became canon and to this day St. Bernards are associated with barrels. In true capitalistic fashion there’s even a custom dog-barrel collar company, but let the historical record show: barrels around the neck are a myth.


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Legend has it that Barry, the most famous of Bernards, revived a frozen child and carried him to safety on his back.


Barry: The Hero We Need
Lest you be disappointed at the lack of heroism hither told, meet Barry der Menschenretter, or Barry for short. Menschenretter is German for “people rescuer.” Born in 1800, Barry would become the foremost authority on extricating humans from alpine peril. In his 14-year tenure, he would save 40, including an especially unbelievable feat of valor in which he discovered a young boy asleep in a cavern of ice. After warming the boy with loving licks, Barry maneuvered him onto his back and carried him to the safety of St. Bernard hospice. So the story goes… 

Whether or not our intrepid People Rescuer was able to carry the boy bodily might not matter so much as the fact that he did save dozens, and left a legacy which endures to this day. Until 1860, the entire Breed was known as “Barryhunds” to some, predating the use of St. Bernard, which would come into fashion around 1865.

Today, you can find Barry’s body preserved in Switzerland’s Natural History Museum. Interestingly, his skull has been reshaped to represent the modern breed, and for better or worse, a barrel has been added to his collar.

Larger Than Life
As the breed’s fame grew, so did the desire to own a St. Bernard. They would be exported to England in the mid 19th century and bred with mastiffs to create an even larger variety. As is often the case, many were bred for no practical purpose other than to be large, resulting in environments where “the dogs became so [large] that they had difficulties in getting from one end of a show ring to another.”

A famous Bernard of the time, Plinlimmon, weighed-in at 210 pounds, and a New York Times article from 1895 speaks of Major F., purported to be 8 feet 6 inches in length – which would easily be the longest dog ever recorded. Despite how farfetched it sounds, it may have been possible. The world’s largest dog today is a Great Dane around seven and a half feet long, and at 200 pounds, it’s still growing.

All Things Pass
St. Bernards are no longer widely used for search and rescue. What was once a dog’s duty has now been passed on to a more modern servant – the helicopter. The mobility and bird’s-eye view helicopters provide enhance the rescue method, but the nose of the St. Bernard remains unmatched, and their legacy lives on. As of 2004, Great St. Bernard hospice maintained an 18-dog roster for “tradition and sentiment”.  Not long after, the nearby Barry Foundation would purchase them to breed and train for dog sports like carting and weight-pulling, both of which were once work-related activities – there are reports of Bernard’s being trained to pull a device that would turn a spit, among other tasks.

Though their glory days may have passed, an annual celebration takes place at the Little St. Bernard Pass, where Barryhunds and owners gather for a dog show and parade to commemorate the centuries of sacrifice made by the breed.

The legend of St. Bernards serving us booze may have been proved false, but it's a testament to how much of an impact the breed has made. People are willing to suspend disbelief, because St. Bernards have proved themselves to be both human in their emotional capacity and superhuman in their abilities. What’s a little beer or brandy in a cask-collar if they can carry a child bodily to safety through a blizzard? 


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The Saint Bernard breed's days of heroism have passed, but the legend lives on.