There are 135 official mountain rescue dogs in the Swiss canton of Valais. The St Bernard story began in the year 962 when Bernard of Menthon founded a monastery and hospice in the Swiss Alps. The monastery, situated at 8000 ft was on a route over the Alps from France to Italy and in a particularly treacherous spot, where the monks were able to provide shelter for lost or injured travellers.
By the time Bernard was canonised in 1681, the monastery he founded had started to keep dogs, which the monks found helpful in carrying out their rescue missions. They bred a type of dog that was particularly suited to the harsh weather conditions. It was a huge, energetic, friendly and faultlessly loyal type of Mastiff, with thick fur and a keen sense of smell and hearing. From the 17th century, when the oldest records were identified, through to now, the animals have rescued more than 2500 people.
The monks provided each dog with a barrel around its neck containing brandy, as it was critical to provide a warming drink as soon as possible. The dogs were first referred to informally as St Bernards in 1833 and the name became official in 1880. It has been reported recently that due to the harsh economic climate, the traditional brandy barrel around the dogs neck has been replaced with a Nespresso coffee machine which offers a choice of espresso or black coffee. The makers also wanted to include a cappuccino option but they had problems with the wind - plus it looked as though the dogs were rabid.
Whilst avalanche victims may have limited options, you might think twice before attracting a 100 kg animal foaming at the mouth! So if you are going on a winter skiing vacation this Christmas, do make sure you take your own bottle of Hermitage Cognac - strictly for emergencies of course!