Tender-hearted giants

St Bernard dogs, Valais, Switzerland

They are pawing the ground with impatience in front of their outside enclosure at the Great Saint Bernard Hospice.

The sun is high in the sky, but even in summer there is still a slight chill in the air at 2,500 metres above sea level. Ideal weather for Zoltan, Hesta and Cheyenne, three Saint Bernards with a thick coat of hair. They are getting ready for one of their daily walks accompanied by visitors to the Saint Bernard Pass, who are keen to get up close to these legendary creatures whose name is synonymous with their place of origin. The dogs’ excitement mounts at the sight of Manuel Gaillard, head of the breeding kennels run by the Barry Foundation. “They’re very sociable and highly affectionate. We take them for a walk twice a day along the footpaths around the hospice. We don’t do it out of necessity, but because the Foundation wishes to raise sporty, athletic dogs that feel at home in the mountains.”

Only a handful of the ten or so dogs stationed at the pass venture out this afternoon. Justin, one of the older dogs, stays in his enclosure, greeting his master by beating his paws against the glass. A day of rest for the venerable old fellow. The others are already weaving their way along the narrow paths cut into the rock of the massif that straddles Switzerland and Italy. “Showing the dogs off at the pass each summer is naturally an established tradition. They are part of the heritage and history of the Great Saint Bernard Hospice, and the Barry Foundation is dedicated to their preservation”, explains Manuel Gaillard.

Centuries of tradition

Several stories that have become legend tell how the Saint Bernard dogs first arrived at the pass. According to one tale from the 17th century, the animals were originally given to the monks by families from Vaud and Valais. A dozen or so dogs were then bred, destined to guard and protect the hospice, a strategically important point close to the Italian border. Chronicles and prints dating back to Napoléon Bonaparte’s crossing of the Alps in 1800 depict the exploits of the Saint Bernards as they went about saving many lives from the “White Death”. The legend of Barry, who is said to have saved more than 40 people, was born. At the kennels, his name is traditionally passed down to a young pup in each new generation.

Barry Foundation puppies. The foundation has been committed to the breeding of the Saint Bernards for 10 years.

Although today’s visitors to the hospice are primarily drawn by the dogs’ loveable faces and cuddly demeanour, they nevertheless remain powerful symbols of devotion in this place of hospitality and respite, which has been run by the Holy Order for 1,000 years. “The Saint Bernards are described as having the ability to find lost souls and clear a path through the snow. They are associated with strong values that can just as easily be applied to humans as well as to these dogs”, says José Mittaz, Canon of the Hospice of Great Saint Bernard.

Hospice visitors can go for a walk with the friendly Saint Bernard dogs.

Sociable and robust

The Barry Foundation was set up ten years ago and took over the breeding kennels from the hospice. As well as putting the dogs on show at the pass during four months of the year and at various events, its primary aim is to ensure the survival of the famous breed. At the kennels in Martigny, which are home to thirty or so Saint Bernards, Manuel Gaillard oversees the proper management of operations on a daily basis. “Our selection criteria for preserving the breed are based on health, sturdiness, strong character and affability.” During the summer, it’s very quiet at the kennels. Some of the dogs are at the hospice, others at the Saint Bernard Museum in Martigny. That only leaves Zaskia, who is suckling her four pups in the shade. “From the moment they are born, our keepers make sure they get used to being around people and in different situations. And from six weeks old, we start showing them to visitors at the museum in Martigny.”

Canon and dog at Great St. Bernard, Ca. 1950–1960, ©Max Kettel, UVT, Médiathèque Valais – Martigny

On the Great Saint Bernard Pass, the dogs return to their enclosure after a 90-minute walk. Zoltan, Hesta and Cheyenne enjoy a well-earned rest. With their imposing heads between their paws, the Saint Bernards listen to their master with a slightly weary air, but a benevolent, approving gaze. Once they have taken their leave of the dogs, the walkers continue their visit to the Hospice Museum, where two whole floors are devoted to the famous breed, or head off to discover the treasures of the Saint Bernard congregation, featuring sumptuous pieces of gold and silverware dating back to the Middle Ages.

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