We all know the beautiful St. Bernard Dog. He is the fluffy friend of stranded travelers. We have seen him on cartoons and in movies saving snowbound people from certain death by digging him out and warming him up. Of course, these movies and cartoons often depict the dog doing things like making a martini for the stranded traveler to "warm him up", and this, obviously, is untrue. But the dogs were trained to lie on top of the nearly-frozen person to raise his body temperature and prevent hypothermia.
But where did these magnificent dogs do these feats of rescuing bravery? The St. Bernard dog did these things in the Great St. Bernard Pass, the pass that went through the Alps and was the only one that went between Italy and Switzerland. This is not to be confused with the Little St. Bernard Pass, a pass that went through the Alps between Italy and France.
The Great St. Bernard Pass was incredibly treacherous. It was completely covered with snow all year long, with the exception of a few of the warm summer months. Because travelers came all year long and often got stranded, the St. Bernard dog was bred to help rescue them. The dogs were bred by the monks in the monastery and hospice located in the Great St. Bernard Pass. This monastery, founded around 1000 CE by the Archdeacon Bernard de Menthon, an Augustine monk, was erected in part as a help station for these weary and often stranded travelers.
Travelers would become stranded in the pass because of two weather-related problems. Since there was so much snow in this area of the Alps, and the altitude there was almost 8000 feet above sea level, it was the perfect place for severe storms. Snow storms would cause a traveler to lose his way on the footpaths, and he could quickly get lost. Another problem was the avalanches that were common in the pass. An avalanche would happen so quickly that the traveler could easily be covered before he knew what was happening.
The St. Bernard dog breed was bred to help the monks of the monastery find the travelers. The breed has a fantastic sense of smell, and is an excellent digger. But perhaps his most useful trait was his ability to sense an avalanche. He proved very helpful to the searching monks, and eventually was sent out on his own to rescue the lost travelers. The dogs would go out in groups of two or three, and once a person was found, one dog would stay to keep him warm while the other would go back to the monastery to bring back the monks. In the course of their centuries of working in the Great St. Bernard Pass, the St. Bernard dogs saved between 1000 and 2000 human lives.