Hound of the snows

It can de­tect a per­son buried un­der six me­tres of snow. PERVEZ CAMA, who trav­elled to the Swiss Alps, traces the his­tory of St Bernard, a dog groomed to res­cue trav­ellers, and now part of pop­u­lar cul­ture

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The his­tory, ge­ne­ol­ogy and leg­ends sur­round­ing the fa­bled St Bernard dog breed of the Alps

IWAS on an un­usual mis­sion in the snowy land­scape of the Swiss Alps: to dis­cover the his­tory and an­tecedence of one of the world’s most pop­u­lar dogs, the St Bernard. When we be­gan our as­cent, we were en­chanted by the quin­tes­sen­tial Swiss alpine scenery with its pre­cip­i­tous and thickly wooded hills, mas­sive ver­ti­cal rock faces and pretty, flow­erdecked wooden cot­tages. How­ever, this was a dif­fi­cult jour­ney in in­hos­pitable en­vi­rons.

The fi­nal stretch of the road up the moun­tain was long, cir­cuitous and seem­ingly end­less. Ev­ery turn re­vealed a des­o­late land­scape dom­i­nated by rocky ter­rain and boul­ders. All around, the char­ac­ter­is­tic jagged peaks of the lofty Swiss Alps kissed the sky. It looked daunt­ing even from the com­fort­able am­bi­ence of our ve­hi­cle. Cen­turies ago, dur­ing win­ter, it would have been for­bid­ding for a trav­eller to ne­go­ti­ate this treach­er­ous moun­tain road from Mar­tigny in Switzer­land to Aosta in Italy.

The road fi­nally opened out and a sim­ple sign­board an­nounced that we had reached our des­ti­na­tion—the Col du Grand St Bernard, a pass a height of about 2,470 me­tres. This is the old­est pass in the west­ern Alps, and im­por­tantly, this is also the lo­ca­tion of an an­cient monastery on the bor­der of the two coun­tries—Switzer­land and Italy—where monks live their pi­ous lives. Ahead lies a lake, bor­dered by sheer stony walls that cul­mi­nate in a line of in­tim­i­dat­ing tooth-like peaks, and be­yond which, the road tra­verses the equally in­tim­i­dat­ing slopes that de­scend into Italy.

In 57 BC, Julius Cae­sar was look­ing for a shorter route from Gaul to Italy, and Cae­sar’s son, Au­gus­tus, ul­ti­mately proved tri­umphant over the bel­liger­ent Gal­lic tribes oc­cu­py­ing the pass, crown­ing his vic­tory by build­ing a colony on the Ital­ian side, called Aosta in his hon­our. A plaque an­nounces that Napoleon and his army had marched through this road in 1800, en-route to Italy. A large statue of St Bernard of Men­thon, the pa­tron saint of the Alps, watches over this bleak land­scape. He founded this monastery in 1049.

Such in­hos­pitable sur­round­ings nat­u­rally pro­moted aus­tere liv­ing and spir­i­tual lean­ings amongst his monas­tic or­der, and there were God’s sub­jects to be cared for as the harsh win­ter con­di­tions caused many trav­el­ers to floun­der and lose their lives with nine me­tres of deep snow and tem­per­a­tures of —30°C. To as­sist in res­cu­ing and guid­ing peo­ple through dan­ger­ous snow­storms, the monks de­vel­oped a spe­cial breed of dog, known to­day to the world as the St Bernard.

In­tel­li­gent guardians

The ear­li­est record of this breed be­ing used at the monastery dates back to paint­ings drawn in1690. The heroic dogs proved their met­tle for about 200 years by help­ing the monks to save nearly 2,000 peo­ple ex­hausted and stranded in the moun­tain snows, right up to the 19th cen­tury. It is said that they could de­tect a per­son buried un­der six me­tres of snow.

Their mas­sive and strong bod­ies could bull­doze a path through the snow, their huge paws helped in dig­ging deep and their keen senses led peo­ple to safety. The last doc­u­mented res­cue oc­curred in 1955. A leg­endary dog, Barry, is es­ti­mated to have saved more than 40 lives, and his em­balmed body is still pre­served in the Na­tional His­tory Mu­seum of Bern, Switzer­land.

But many dogs lost their lives due to avalanches. In­cred­i­bly, as the story goes, the younger dogs re­ceived lit­tle train­ing from the monks and mostly learnt their search and res­cue du­ties by ac­com­pa­ny­ing the older dogs. Pop­u­lar leg­end por­trays the St Bernard go­ing to the res­cue mis­sions with a bar­rel of brandy around its neck. But that is a fal­lacy as the monks used to ac­tu­ally strap packs of food and wa­ter around its back to re­vive

trav­ellers smoth­ered be­neath the snow.

Reign­ing as the na­tional dog of Switzer­land, the St Bernard dog is be­lieved to have a com­mon an­ces­tor in the Alpine Mas­tiff, along with the English Mas­tiff and the Swiss Moun­tain Dog, a big breed raised by farm­ers and the pas­toral com­mu­nity in Switzer­land. The dogs them­selves have evolved over the years into their present form af­ter be­ing crossed with sev­eral other large molosser type breeds and are re­lated to the mas­tiff group of dogs. Ter­ri­ble win­ter avalanches in the early 1800s oblit­er­ated many fine dogs in the line of res­cue duty, and the rem­nants were mated with the New­found­land dogs, which led to the de­vel­op­ment of heavy fur.

Ma­jes­tic be­ings

Old por­traits re­veal that the old work­ing res­cue dogs of the hos­pice looked dif­fer­ent and had a smaller size than the cur­rent gi­ant dogs, which are the re­sult of breed­ing de­signed to en­hance the breed’s ma­jes­tic ap­pear­ance and at­trac­tive­ness. Their cur­rent di­men­sions are big and may range up­wards of 70 cm in height and be­tween 65 and 140 kg in weight. Mod­ern day St Bernards can be both long and short haired and are pop­u­lar world­wide be­cause they are fam­ily dogs. Aptly nick named “babysit­ters”, they are ea­ger to look af­ter peo­ple, es­pe­cially chil­dren, in their homes. They are gen­tle and friendly, and have been cap­tured in var­i­ous movies such as Beethoven and its se­quels. The dogs re­quire con­stant groom­ing and large spa­ces, and are known to har­bour eye, bone and heart ail­ments that can run up steep med­i­cal bills.

Some monks still re­side at the monastery, while oth­ers visit it as a spir­i­tual re­treat. How­ever, mod­ern trans­port and a tun­nel con­structed be­low the moun­tain in 1964 made the dogs re­dun­dant. So the Barry Foun­da­tion in Switzer­land pur­chased the dogs from the monks and es­tab­lished breed­ing ken­nels in 2004. The dogs are taken out by their han­dlers to in­ter­act with peo­ple and their so­cia­ble na­ture en­sures much cud­dling and thrills tourists.

But the dogs no longer pa­trol the frigid paths in the icy tem­per­a­tures of win­ter for they are shifted to the an­cient Ro­man town of Mar­tigny dur­ing these months. Dur­ing sum­mer, the lonely crags res­onate with the deep throated calls of the gi­ant St Bernards. It was the pass that cre­ated the dogs, and to­day, they have saved the pass from fad­ing into the shad­ows of his­tory. Their leg­end still en­dures.

Aptly called babysit­ters, St Bernards are gen­tle and friendly

The statue of St Bernard, the pa­tron saint of the Alps, watches over this bleak land­scape

The dogs have evolved into their present form af­ter be­ing crossed with sev­eral breeds; (Be­low) Es­ti­mated to have saved more than 40 lives, Barry's body is em­balmed and pre­served at the Na­tional His­tory Mu­seum of Bern, Switzer­land

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