While the ancestors of the St. Bernard dog breed were typical working dogs, meaning that they worked on farms as herders, hunters, and watchdogs, the St. Bernard that we know today was bred to be a rescue dog. In fact, his existence is shrouded in lore because of this, and he has become both a legend and an enigma.
The ancestors to the St. Bernard were brought to Switzerland by invading Roman armies around the first two centuries CE. These dogs were interbred with the native dogs in the area forming a breed used as farm dogs. These dogs were large and very loyal, plus they were incredibly strong and had a very high sense of self-preservation. These aspects of the dog's temperament made them attractive to the monks in the monastery in the St. Bernard Pass located in the Swiss Alps. These monks needed both companions and dogs that would be able to assist them in their rescue missions of snowbound travelers.
It is not certain when the dogs were actually brought to the monastery, but it is assumed that is was before the beginning of the eighteenth century, probably sometime in the mid-seventeenth century. The first references to the dogs are in written records from 1707, and paintings from around 1660. These records allow for the assumption that the dogs and their abilities as rescuers were already well-established by these dates.
The dogs would accompany the monks through the dangerous footpaths of the St. Bernard Pass. The monks initially took the dogs with them because the dogs had an uncanny ability to sense an avalanche. It was then discovered that the dogs also had keen noses and a particular ability to find people buried in the snow. This also helped the monks in their rescue missions.
Eventually, the dogs would go out in groups of two or three without human company. The dogs were trained to find stranded travelers and to dig them out of the snow. Then one dog would awaken the person and lie on top of him to keep him warm. Meanwhile, the other St. Bernard would head back to the monastery to bring monks back to help the traveler. If the traveler was capable of walking, the dog would lead him back to the monastery.
Many rescue St. Bernards were killed in severe weather in the early nineteenth century in the St. Bernard Pass. The breed was continued, but with the help of the dogs from the surrounding areas. The breed was eventually restored to what it was before the loss of the monastery dogs.
Because of the dogs' abilities as rescuers, they have become legendary. There are films, books, and television shows that depict this regal and brave dog as the hero that he was and still is. While he doesn't work as a rescuer very often any more, the breed still maintains its ability to find people and its incredible sense of smell.