The chronicles about the numerous human lives saved by these dogs from the “white death”, published in many languages, and the verbal reports of the soldiers who crossed the pass with Bonaparte’s army in the 1800, spread the fame of the St.Bernard, called Barry-dog at that time, throughout Europe during the 19th century. The legendary dog “Barry” became the epitome of the rescue dog. The direct ancestors of the St.Bernard were the large farm dogs common in the region. On the 15th March 1884, the Swiss St.Bernard-Club was founded in Basel. On the occasion of an international Canine Congress on June 2nd 1887, the St.Bernard dog has been regarded as the Swiss national dog. (Extract from the FCI Standard)DSCF5129

Brief historical survey:

At the height of the Great St Bernard Pass, 2469 meters above sea level, a hospice was founded by monks in the 11th century as a place of refuge for travelers and pilgrims. Over there, large mountain dogs have been kept since the middle of the 17th century, for guarding and protection. The existence of such dogs has been documented pictorially since 1695 and in a written document at the hospice in the year 1707. The Saint Bernard dogs were soon in use as companion dogs and especially as rescue dogs, for travelers lost in snow, and fog.
Please visit the Fondation Barry website at for more information and tourism details for visitors to the Hospice
Although the Saint Bernards are no longer used for rescue purposes, they are still kept at the Hospice (a monastery) where they are a popular attraction for travelers in Switzerland and Italy. You can see from the above photo, the Hospice is snow covered most of the year. The busy summer season for visitors is from mid June to mid September depending on the weather. During this time the dog keeper at the hospice is kept busy with a variety of tasks including looking after the Saints and conducting tours of the museum and kennels. A new activity introduced in 2007 is a mountain hike with some of the Saint Bernards. This proved to be very popular with visitors and will be expanded on during this summer.
This proved to be very popular with visitors and will be expanded on during this summer season. There are plans to include some demonstrations for tourists such as grooming and training as well.
THE EXCITING NEWS IS that I will be living with the monks at the Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard, and also working as a dog keeper for this summer season, for the months of July and August. If you have not yet visited the historic birthplace of these wonderful dogs, then this would be a great time for you to do so. Even if you have already visited the hospice before now, please include a visit in your personal travel plans if you are in the area. The Hospice is on the southern border of Switzerland, nearest to the border with France and Italy.
Even if you do not have Saint Bernard dogs, the history and architecture, as well as the beautiful scenery of the area make this a memorable tour. I also look forward giving you a personal tour of the museum and the dogs, as well as a mountain hike, weather permitting.
A brief review of my activities and experiences during my 2 month extended stay at Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard



For hundreds of years the monks at the Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard have bred Saint Bernard dogs which were used to assist them in their rescue work at the pass. Caring for the dogs is a specialized task which the monks are no longer able to do for logistical and financial reasons.

Ownership of the Saint Bernard dogs has been taken over by the Fondation-Barry. This is a non-profit organization established in 2005 with one of its primary goals the care of the Saint Bernard dogs of Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard. When I visited the kennels and the new museum in May 2008 I was impressed by the enormous amount of progress achieved by Fondation-Barry during the past 2 ½ years and decided to volunteer my services to assist them during the summer season months of July and August.

Being a Saint Bernard specialist breeder, my main functions while at the Hospice was caring for the Saint Bernard dogs and representing the Fondation-Barry to the hundreds of tourists visiting the kennel and dogs every day. I worked on the same basis as the full time employed staff, which was basically a 5 day week of 8 ½ hours per day. My working week included every weekend, since those were the busiest days. Cleaning kennels, exercising and training the dogs and interacting with tourists all day long formed the greater part of my daily routine. Conducting hiking tours with tourists and dogs in the mountains was also one of my daily tasks.

On my days off I went on mountain hikes, with and without dogs, climbing most mountains in the area and generally investigating all the trails and mountain routes, as well as inventing new ones.
Walking at least 5km every day in the mountains with the dogs was normal and often more on several occasions. I also had the opportunity and time to explore the almost 1000 year old site, including the monastery itself as well as the 330 year old chapel, the over 800 year old crypt, the dining rooms, kitchens, cellars and other nooks and crannies. A personal tour of the hospice library by the Prior, who is the head monk, was a great privilege. The ancient books included subjects such as philosophy, theology, natural sciences, biology, medicine, geography and many others.

I attended a special mass celebrating the 330 year anniversary of the chapel, sitting with the monks in the front of the chapel, by invitation, throughout the ceremony.

Many memorable evenings were spent with the monks, enjoying a beer or glass of wine, while discussing various subjects such as religion, politics, dogs, philosophy and others.

The monks manage the monastery with volunteer workers, usually about 10 at any one time. These volunteers give up 2 weeks of their time to work at the monastery in various functions such as cooking, cleaning rooms or managing the museum. They come from all over the world and are the most fascinating and diverse group of people imaginable! I enthusiastically got to know each group and learnt some amazing things from many different people.

I visited 2 other monasteries belonging to the same religious order. The first, Simplon Hospice at another mountain pass in Switzerland. There I had a personal tour before joining the Prior and other monks for lunch. The second, Hospice Regina Pacis in Italy, where I attended mass and had total freedom to explore the old monastery buildings.

I attended an All Breeds Championship show in Evian, France, where I exhibited a 6 year old male that I had been training at the Hospice. He had previously had minimal training and had never been exhibited at any shows before. He was perfectly behaved and was awarded second place in the “Open” class and a grading of “Excellent”.

Dr. Marc Nussbaumer, author of the book “BARRY vom Grossen St. Bernard” and curator of the Saint Bernard collection at the Natural History museum in Bern invited me on a personal tour of the facility. The stuffed and mounted body of the original Barry 1 is kept on display in the museum and I was privileged to hold the actual 200 year old skull of Barry 1 in my hands. Other items in the collection include over 150 Saint Bernard skulls, all thoroughly documented, as well as skeletons, furs and interesting artifacts and information.
Kevin, Barry 1 and Dr. Marc Nussbaumer at the Natural History museum in Bern, Switzerland
To my knowledge I am the first person, other than the monks, to stay at the hospice for 63 days caring for the Saint Bernard dogs. During this time I kept a daily journal of my activities. It was a unique experience getting to know each dog and working at the birthplace of this great breed.DSCF4865

All the dog-keepers employed by Fondation-Barry are qualified or apprentice Animal Guardians, an official qualification in Switzerland. They have varied levels of experience with Saint Bernard dogs but no specialized experience. Through my own specialized knowledge and experience I was able to provide new ideas and information specific to Saint Bernard dogs. This joint venture between Fondation-Barry and myself assisted in providing improved care for the dogs, as well as improving the presentation of the dogs to the thousands of tourists traveling through the Great Saint Bernard Pass. It also assisted in strengthening the excellent relationship between Swiss and South African Saint Bernard enthusiasts

I have always maintained that the Saint Bernard dog is a MOUNTAIN DOG, requiring a certain physical structure and corresponding movement to enable it to climb both UP and DOWN the steep rocky, usually snow covered mountain terrain.

In a joint exercise conducted together with Dr. JR Carroz, chief breeder and veterinarian to Fondation-Barry, I carried out several tests on all the dogs kept at the Great Saint Bernard kennels. These tests measured changes in temperature and heart beat rate during mountain exercises which required the dogs to climb up and back down a steep 200m high rocky mountainside. The results of these tests, together with basic structural measurements regarding the proportions of each dog, have provided some insight into the physical structure required. Evaluation of the efficiency of each dog was compared to their structure with a view to determining the most efficient proportions. In addition all test results have been submitted to a cardiologist who agreed to evaluate the results where they concern heart beat rates, and compare them with the results of the cardiology examination conducted in January 2008 on all the dogs.
An important point established conclusively throughout these tests was this: The Saint Bernard dog is a MOUNTAIN dog and requires a certain structure and proportion in order to function correctly in the mountains of its origin! The correct movement associated with this required structure is also quite specific, exhibiting tremendous drive on both the FRONT and REAR assembly, assisted by a bone structure of the correct proportions and angulation, enabling the dog to move almost effortlessly over rough terrain with great strength and endurance for sustained periods in cold or hot weather!DSCF6500

Running a few times around a show ring should be a walk in the park for such a dog!


Although they are no longer used for search and rescue work at the Great Saint Bernard Pass, Saint Bernard dogs remain true to their original function, being wonderful family companions and watch dogs. Their above average intelligence and willingness to please make them ideal pets, especially for families with small children.

Breeders throughout the world should continuously evaluate their breeding stock, returning always to the dry, functional type originally required for the work in the mountains around the Great Saint Bernard Pass. Of course, all Saint Fanciers should also remember that the original Saint Bernards were all SHORT HAIR dogs, and that breeding of short hair Saint Bernards is essential in maintaining the correct type!








I had a wonderful experience living and working for 2 months at the Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard. I learnt a great deal about the dogs, their history and background, as well as the history of the Hospice and the Great Saint Bernard Pass. I encourage everyone interested in Saint Bernards, whether as a pet, show or breeding dog, to learn as much as possible about the breed, ultimately using the information to positively promote this wonderful dog to family, friends and fellow breeders throughout the world.

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