Another One About Dogs

Even though there is a lot going on in America right now, I thought you deserved a short break from TV news. Yes, I realize important things are happening in this world. But I’m going to tell you about dogs.

You can stop reading here if you would rather read something more enthralling. Believe me, I will understand.

But the reason I bring up these dogs is because after a recent column in which I mentioned Saint Bernards, the next morning I awoke to a mounding pile of emails about them. I had no idea people were so crazy about Saint Bernards.

Carrie, from Houston, emailed me several articles about the breed, and I found myself reading about these dogs all danged afternoon instead of, say, starting on my 36-month-old honey-do list.

So let’s journey across the Atlantic for a moment and go back in time. Our story opens with an ancient monastery located at 8,000 feet within the bitter Western Alps. Far, far, FAR away from cable TV.

This region of the Alps has always been an über dangerous place. On average, 1,000 avalanches occur here each year, and they are often fatal.

If you are an alpine hiker, once you hear the crackling land-shaking boom in the distance, you are, to quote the Swiss monks, “totally screwed.” Each year about 100 people are killed in avalanches in the Alps.

Which leads us to L’Hospice du Gd-St-Bernard, a nondescript, plain-looking hostel situated off the 49-mile route that runs between Italy and Switzerland.

The monastery saw a lot of mountain travelers in its time. The monks became famous for their kindness, hospitality, piety, wisdom, and for having the most butt-kickingest homebrew beer ever.

Actually, I’m kidding about the beer. I don’t know how good it was. But what I do know is that during the seventeenth century one of these monks had the bright idea to breed dogs. And that’s where this whole thing begins.

The monks bred mountain dogs. The animals were powerful, big-boned, and had more stamina than other canines. They were almond-colored, with arctic-white splotches, ink-black muzzles, and they were tough.

In the mornings the monks would turn the dogs loose. They would be gone for days, tracking scents, patrolling for lost hikers, avalanche victims, or anyone in serious need of beer.

News of the dogs’ heroics began spreading to nearby villages. Soon, mountain travelers were telling fantastic tales of how they’d been submerged beneath acres of snow, nearly dead, only to be greeted by an animal tunneling through the crust like a single furrow plow.

Some claimed the dogs found them when they were lost. Others claimed the dogs protected them from bandits. Grizzled men with ice-matted beards, and snow-blindness were seen staggering off the trail, being led by a dog.

And then, of course, there was Barry.

Barry was a dog born in 1800. He was mahogany and ivory, with a humble gait. They say he was calm, and almost human in his mannerisms. He wasn’t big, only about 90 pounds—much lighter than his descendants.

Nearby villagers called him “Menschenretter,” (literally, “people rescuer”). Others just called him a “sacred dog.” And he was.

Almost as soon as Barry grew out of his teething phase, he started saving lives. You could say it was his gift, because you can’t teach a dog something like this.

Barry would use his powerful chest and shoulders to burst through hardened snow shells, cutting long path toward stranded hikers. Or he could be seen burrowing half a mile beneath icy whiteness to find trapped victims.

He worked in blizzards, rock slides, and dismal mountain storms. If there were no rescue parties around, Barry did the rescues himself.

Such was the case with the little boy Barry found trapped after an avalanche. The kid had been traveling with his mother when the disaster hit. The impact killed his mother but left the child buried alive, freezing to death.

When Barry found him beneath the snow, he licked the boy’s face until he awakened, then laid on top of the boy to keep him warm.

Once the child was conscious, the kid climbed onto the dog’s back and Barry marched through miles of wind-whipped wilderness back to the monastery. When the monks found Barry, he was loping out of the woods, hungry and dehydrated, with a child clinging to his shoulders.

After 12 years of service in the mountains, they say Barry saved 40 to 100 people. Maybe more.

Today, Barry’s remains are preserved and on display at the Musee Et Chiens Du St-Bernard museum in the Alps, which is beside the old monastery. The monastery, as it happens, is still a thriving place for day-trippers, hikers, and travelers. And I understand from a credible source that they still have kick-butt beer.

Also, next door to the museum is the Barry Foundation, which still breeds the famous dogs, producing about 20 pedigree pups per year. Hordes of tourists visit each season to touch these sacred pups because even in an era of helicopters and high-tech gear, dogs still play an important role in mountain rescues.

Over the years these big dogs have been called several different names. Some called them Alpine Mastiffs, others referred to them as Alpine Spaniels. The Swiss call them the Swiss National Dog. Many people still call them Barry dogs, which makes my heart very warm.

But none of these names did the breed much justice. After all, what do you call a selfless creature who roams a sad and fallen Earth, looking for lost souls during a frightening age, when the mountains themselves seem to be tumbling?

Ah yes. You call them Saints.

And we could certainly use more of them.

24 comments

  1. Allison - November 4, 2020 6:25 am

    LOVE THIS STORY

    Reply
  2. Ann - November 4, 2020 9:29 am

    Amen! And bless all the Saints❤️

    Reply
  3. Becky Smith - November 4, 2020 10:08 am

    That was an amazing final paragraph. One of your best ever.

    Reply
  4. Jo Ann - November 4, 2020 1:02 pm

    Thank you for a much-needed non-political story. Please write about dogs whenever you want, they’re always interesting stories. One of our dogs is snoring right by my feet, so I had to give him a head-scratch in tribute to the brave dogs you wrote about.

    Reply
  5. Joey - November 4, 2020 1:28 pm

    No such thing as too many stories about dogs.
    Great column.

    Reply
  6. Margaret - November 4, 2020 1:50 pm

    This is why you never disappoint us, Sean! Perfect for this morning, in particular! Thanks, Sean!!

    Reply
  7. chip plyler - November 4, 2020 1:53 pm

    “…But none of these names did the breed much justice. After all, what do you call a selfless creature who roams a sad and fallen Earth, looking for lost souls during a frightening age, when the mountains themselves seem to be tumbling?” I call him my savior – Jesus

    Reply
  8. Debi Kilpatrick - November 4, 2020 2:01 pm

    Having loved and been loved by a Saint Bernard, I want to thank you for this story. My Barkley passed away on May 10, 2010 and I literally think of him every day. Thankfully, now I usually laugh when I think of him, because he was quite a personality. I love you, Bark! ♥️🐾♥️

    Reply
  9. Opal Durham - November 4, 2020 2:32 pm

    Beautiful. And Saints they are.

    Reply
  10. Suzanne Moore - November 4, 2020 2:59 pm

    This was very interesting. I think that most people have a soft spot for these gentle giants. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  11. Jerri Matthews - November 4, 2020 3:05 pm

    St. Bernards drool. Look at Bernese Mountain Dogs – they don’t and are wonderful dogs but as big as a St. Bernard.

    Reply
  12. Sue Rhodus - November 4, 2020 4:27 pm

    Always my reason to smile or cry or laugh..thank you for your never-ending stories !

    Reply
  13. Mary Ann Gilbert - November 4, 2020 4:28 pm

    Our grandparents had a very genial St. Bernard, he literally gave “pony” rides to many of us. He was truly magnificent to our large family. We were eventually to become a family of 44 cousins, with many aunts, uncles, etc. Grandma & Grandpa’s house was our heaven on Earth!

    Reply
  14. Donn - November 4, 2020 4:54 pm

    Thumbs UP! Learned a lot from this.

    Reply
  15. Linda Moon - November 4, 2020 5:01 pm

    This tale was a great break from lots of things. Next time, St. Sean, write about cats, especially the Turkish Van Piano Cat who is similar to my two Van Cats. Would that we all had Barrys and cats to save us now. “When All Else Fails Swoon On The Couch With A Cat On Your Head.” It helps!

    Reply
  16. Deborah L Blount - November 4, 2020 6:05 pm

    Much needed feel good commentary in today’s on going divisiveness. Thank you.

    Reply
  17. MAM - November 4, 2020 8:06 pm

    Agree with everyone who said your story was much needed today of all days! Thank you as always, Sean. And keep the dog stories coming. I’m not a big cat fan!

    Reply
  18. Dottie Doherty - November 4, 2020 8:10 pm

    I grew up next door to a beautiful Saint Bernard and remember riding him around the porch. Great to hear the story about them again.

    Reply
  19. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - November 5, 2020 3:42 am

    I needed this tonight! Thank you.

    Reply
  20. Nancy M - November 5, 2020 5:54 am

    This gave me tears and goose bumps at the same time! Thank you for more about St. Bernards, gentle giants, canine saints.

    Reply
  21. christina - November 5, 2020 7:54 am

    Yes we do!

    Reply
  22. Dawn A Bratcher - November 6, 2020 6:19 am

    Oh, I would much rather read your story about dogs! I had known they were rescue dogs, but never have I heard the real tales of their lives. Beautiful animals that God put on this earth to do His will when no one else could! Saints! Saint Bernards, we had one when I was a young girl. He was huge and loved to slobber all over us! When he stood on his hind legs at the fence, he was as tall as my older brother, who was 5’11”.

    Reply
  23. Sandra Anthony - November 6, 2020 2:52 pm

    Simply beautiful Sean.

    Reply
  24. Bonnie Stewart - November 26, 2020 4:13 pm

    Oh, Sean, this is one of your best. Brought tears to me. My dogs are everything to me. Even though I don’t have another human living with me, I am definitely NOT alone! Happy Thanksgiving.

    Reply

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