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.