There are very few absolute facts about the history of the St. Bernard dog breed. Because of their legendary status as rescue dogs in a foreboding area of the Swiss Alps, and the lost records of the monastery that began breeding them, the dog is surrounded by a large amount of myth and wonderment. However, there are some commonly held theories about the dog that are taken for fact or as close as historians can get to it.
The St. Bernard dog breed was begun from dogs brought by the Roman invaders to the area of the world now known as Switzerland. This breed of dog was bred with the native dogs of Switzerland and thus was formed a breed of working dog commonly called "farm dogs" or "Baurenhund", or "valley dogs" or "Talhund". These dogs were strong and smart, and they were used as herders and watchdogs.
Around 1000 CE (the dates here are uncertain; some people attribute the event to as early as 980 CE, while others give the date as late as 1050 CE), the Archdeacon Bernard de Menthon, who was an Augustine monk, established a monastery and a hospice in what is now known as the Great St. Bernard Pass. This pass was the pass between Italy and Switzerland, and was the only one that went through the Alps mountain range between these two countries. There were many footpaths through the pass for travelers, but as the pass was only free of snow for a few months in the summer, it was often used during dangerous, cold weather. Bernard de Menthon decided to set up his monastery and hospice here to help travelers who were stranded in the pass.
The monastery was established, and the local valley and farm dogs of Switzerland were brought in as companion animals for the monks. It was quickly discovered that the dogs had more than just companionship going for them. These dogs were bred to produce a dog that could traverse the footpaths of the pass and help the monks find lost travelers.
The dog was unnamed for a very long time, often referred to as Hospice Dogs, Alpine Mastiffs, Mountain Dogs, Monastery Dogs or Holy Dogs. This went on until around 1880, when the monks decided to call the dogs St. Bernards as a tribute to their founding saint.
While the breed standard for the St. Bernard is different in Europe, England, and the United States, the breed has kept a lot of its characteristics that originally made it famous. He still has excellent tracking skills and a keen nose. He also maintains his instinct to raise people who are in the snow and to dig people out of the snow. He is also very friendly towards strangers, another aspect left over from his days as a rescue worker.