The Great St. Bernard Hospice in Switzerland has existed for nearly 1,000 years as a safe haven for needy travelers and pilgrims. Photo is from 1913.
The St Bernard dog breed was created at the hospice from cross-breeding dogs, probably those offered by families in Valais in the 1660s and 1670s.
The first definite mention of the breed is in 1709. The breed was originally raised to provide guard dogs for the hospice, before they became mountain rescue dogs.
The St Bernards were specially bred and trained for the role of mountain rescue because they were sufficiently strong to cross deep snow drifts and had the capacity to track lost travellers by scent.
The first evidence that the dogs were in use at the monastery is in two paintings dating to 1690 by Salvator Rosa.
Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller by Edwin Landseer, a painting thought to have started the legend that St Bernard dogs carried brandy kegs.
The dogs are often depicted as carrying a small flask of brandy around their necks to revive travellers. While this appears to have generally been a 19th-century myth, there was apparently at least one dog that really did.
In The Percy Anecdotes, by Thomas Byerley, published in 1823, the following anecdote appears, and was often quoted in other books in the 19th century:
The breed of dogs kept by the monks to assist them … has been long celebrated for its sagacity and fidelity. All the oldest and most tried of them were lately buried, along with some unfortunate travellers, under a valanche [sic]; but three or four hopeful puppies were left at home in the convent, and still survive. The most celebrated of those who are no more, was a dog called Barry. This animal served the hospital for the space of twelve years, during which time he saved the lives of forty individuals. His zeal was indefatigable. Whenever the mountain was enveloped in fogs and snow, he set out in search of lost travellers. He was accustomed to run barking until he lost breath, and would frequently venture on the most perilous places. When he found his strength was insufficient to draw from the snow a traveller benumbed with cold, he would run back to the hospital in search of the monks….
When old age deprived him of strength, the Prior of the Convent pensioned him at Berney, by way of reward. After his death, his hide was stuffed and deposited in the museum of that town. The little phial, in which he carried a reviving liquor for the distressed travellers whom he found among the mountains, is still suspended from his neck