The St. Bernard Dog

BY the pass of the Great St. Bernard travellers cross the Pennine Alps (Penn, a Celtic word, meaning height) along the mountain road which leads from Martigny, in Switzerland, to Aosta, in Piedmont. On the crest of the pass, eight thousand two hundred feet above the sea level, stands the Hospice, tenanted by about a dozen monks.

This is supposed to be the highest spot in Europe inhabited by human beings. The climate is necessarily rigorous, the thermometer in winter being often twenty-nine degrees below zero, whilst sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit is about the highest range ever attained in summer. From the extreme difficulty of respiration, few of the monks ever survive the period of their vow, which is fifteen years, commencing at the age of eighteen.

This hospice is said to have been first founded in the year 962, by Bernard, a Piedmontese nobleman. It will be remembered that it was over this pass Napoleon, in May, 1800, led an army of thirty thousand men into Italy, having with them heavy artillery and cavalry.

For poor travellers and traders the hospice is really a place of refuge. During winter, crossing this pass is a very dangerous affair. The snow falls in small particles, and remains as dry as dust. Whirlwinds, called “tourmentes,” catch up this light snow, and carrying it with blinding violence against the traveller, burying every landmark, at once put an end to knowledge of position. Avalanches, too, are of frequent occurrence.

After violent storms, or the fall of avalanches, or any other unusual severity of winter weather, the monks set out in search of travellers who may have been overwhelmed by the snow in their ascent of the pass. They are generally accompanied in their search by dogs of a peculiar breed, commonly known as the St. Bernard’s Dog, on account of the celebrated monastery where these magnificent animals are taught to exercise their wondrous powers, which have gained for them and their teachers a world-wide fame. On their neck is a bell, to attract the attention of any belated wayfarer; and their deep and powerful bay quickly gives notice to the benevolent monks to hurry to the relief of any unfortunate traveller they may find.

Some of the dogs carry, attached to their collars, a flask of spirits or other restorative. Their wonderfully acute sense of smell enables them to detect the bodies of persons buried deeply beneath the surface of the snow, and thus direct the searchers where to dig for them. The animal’s instinct seems to teach it, too, where hidden chasms or clefts, filled with loose snow, are; for it carefully avoids them, and thus is an all-important guide to the monks themselves.

We have stories without number as to what these dogs accomplish on their own account; how they dig out travellers, and bring them, sometimes unaided by man, to the hospice.

A St. Bernard digs out a man buried in snow


A few years ago one of these faithful animals might be seen wearing a medal, and regarded with much affection by all. This noble dog had well deserved the distinction; for one stormy day he had saved twenty-two individuals buried in their snowy envelope. Unfortunately, he met, at a subsequent period, the very fate from which he had rescued so many persons. At the worst season an Italian courier was crossing the pass, attended by two monks, each escorted by a dog  (one being the wearer of the medal), when suddenly a vast avalanche shot down upon them with lightning speed, and they were all lost.

Another of these dogs, named “Barry,” had served the St. Bernard Convent during twelve years, and had saved the lives of fifteen persons during that time. Whenever the pass was obscured by fogs and wintry snow-storms, he would go forth in search of lost travellers. It was his practice to run barking till he lost his breath, and he would venture into the most dangerous places. If, as sometimes happened, he did not succeed in drawing out from the snow some traveller stiffened with cold or overcome with exhaustion, he would run back to the convent and fetch some of the monks.

One day this brave dog found a little child in a half-frozen state. He began directly to lick him, and having succeeded first in restoring animation, and next in the complete resuscitation of the boy, he induced the child, by his caresses, to tie himself on his back. When this was effected, he transported the poor child, as if in triumph, to the hospice. When overtaken by old age, the glorious dog was pensioned off by way of reward, and after his death his body was stuffed and placed in the museum at Berne.

It is said that dogs of this variety inherit the faculty of tracking footsteps in snow. A gentleman once obtained a pup which had been produced in London by a female of the St. Bernard breed. The young animal was brought to Scotland, where it was never observed to give any particular tokens of a power of tracking footsteps until winter. Then, when the ground was covered with snow, it showed the utmost inclination to follow footsteps; and such was its power of doing so, that though its master might attempt to confuse it by walking in the most irregular fashion, and by inducing other persons to cross his path in all directions, yet it always followed his course with great precision.

Sir Thomas Dick Lander, who for many years resided at Grange House, Edinburgh, had a fine dog of the St. Bernard breed presented to him. Its bark was so loud that it could be distinguished at the distance of a mile. Its bark once led to its recovery, when stolen by some carters. “Bass,” as the dog was named, had been missing for some time, when it was brought back to Grange House by a letter-carrier, who said that in going along a certain street, he heard a barking inside a yard, and at once recognized the voice of Bass. “He knocked at the gate,” writes Sir Thomas, “and immediately said to the owner of the premises,—

“‘You have got Sir Thomas Lander’s big dog.’

“The man denied it.

“‘But I know you have,’ continued the letter-carrier. ‘I am certain that I heard the bark of Sir Thomas’s big dog; for there is no other dog in or about all Edinburgh that has such a bark.’

“The man then admitted that he had a large dog, which he had bought for a trifle from a couple of coal carters; and at last, with great reluctance, he gave up the dog to the letter-carrier, who brought him home here.”

Sir Thomas, after describing many of Bass’s characteristics, then proceeds:—

“He took a particular fancy for one of the postmen who delivers letters here, though he was not the man whom I have already had occasion to mention. It was the duty of this postman I now allude to, besides delivering letters, to carry a letter-bag from one receiving house to another, and this big bag he used to give Bass to carry. Bass always followed that man through all the villas in the neighborhood where he had deliveries to make, and he invariably parted with  him opposite to the gate of the Convent of St. Margaret’s, and returned home.

“When our gate was shut, to prevent his following the postman, the dog always leaped a high wall to get after him. One day, when the postman was ill, or detained by some accidental circumstance, he sent a man in his place. Bass went up to the man, curiously scanning his face, whilst the man retired from the dog, by no means liking his appearance, and very anxious to decline all acquaintance with him. But as the man left the place, Bass followed him, showing strong symptoms that he was determined to have the post-bag. The man did all he could to keep the possession of it. But at length Bass, seeing that he had no chance of getting possession of the bag by civil entreaty, raised himself on his hind legs, and putting a great fore paw on each of the man’s shoulders, he laid him flat on his back in the road, and quietly picking up the bag, he proceeded peaceably on his wonted way. The man, much dismayed, arose and followed the dog, making, every now and then, an ineffectual attempt to coax him to give it up.

“At the first house he came to he told his fears and the dilemma he was in; but the people comforted him by telling him that the dog always carried the bag. Bass walked with the man to all the houses at which he delivered letters, and along the road till he came to the gate of St. Margaret’s, where he dropped the bag; and making his bow to the man, he returned home.”