Dogs are great fun to be around, and they can be very noble too. They often go to great extremes to keep people happy, and it’s never been unusual for dogs to go even further – and keep people safe. Some dogs even save lives, and today we’re going to look at a very famous example of a life-saving hound. I’m talking about Barry. And Barry is a very famous dog indeed.
Now, before I heard about this particular dog, I wasn’t aware that Barry was a name that was big in Switzerland. I thought they had more exotic names over there, but it turns out that the most revered dog in Switzerland ever – and one of the most well-known dogs in the world – went by exactly that name, and this is his story.
Barry lived his heroic life between the years of 1800 and 1814. The first twelve years of his life were spent as a working dog, rescuing unfortunate people who had been trapped in avalanches and bad weather on a mountain pass is the Swiss Alps. His home for the first dozen years of his life was at the Great St Bernard Hospice, 2500 Metres above sea level and run by monks. The hospice served to treat injured travelers who had come a cropper to the elements or the terrain when attempting to negotiate the dangerous and freezing Great St Bernard Pass between Italy and Switzerland.
Over the years there were no shortage of casualties on the pass, and it’s estimated that the monks and the dogs helped thousands of stricken travelers over the many years they operated. The hospice is said to have existed for nearly 1000 years, and first reports of dogs being kept by the monks were way back in the 1600s – it’s thought that the first hounds were kept as guard dogs. Guides also operated out of the monastery, helping travelers to find their way in the storms and the snow of the pass, and it’s believed that they started to take dogs out with them in the mid-17th Century. These dogs were mongrels, one and all – but they wouldn’t always be. They were employed in rescue efforts and it’s believed that the dogs were useful to the guides in many ways, tramping down and compacting the snow ahead of them to make their progress easier and quicker, and smelling out the injured and trapped with their keen sense of smell.
By the time Barry came along in 1800, rescue operations were regular, and the dogs were often sent out to look for people in the worst of weather. They moved in pairs, and after they’d located a person, they were trained to lick their faces to revive them, whilst their partner went back to the monastery to raise the alarm and bring help. These dogs were now being bred by the monks for this specific task, and they would eventually become the modern St Bernard dog that we all know and love. Barry was an early version of these St Bernards, and by far the most famous of the breed, with good reason. Barry is said to have saved more than forty lives over the course of his twelve years in service.
His most famous mission came when he found a small boy that had been buried in an avalanche. Barry brought the child back up to temperature and revived him by licking him. Then he moved the boy onto his back and carried him all the way back to the monastery. Without Barry’s heroic actions, his training, and his determination to perform his mission, the lad would certainly have died, and the mission is depicted in many illustrations. His effort is made even more impressive when you consider that back when Barry patrolled the icy passages of the Alps, his breed was much smaller and lighter than the modern St Bernard is. Barry probably weighed about half of what your dog weighs, if you’re lucky enough to have one of these noble and brave dogs at home.
In Switzerland, Barry is the most famous dog that ever lived, and he’s a national icon. His image is what’s used as the hallmark for all precious metals in the country and his story is widely known. When Barry had finished his rescuing and reached twelve years old, he was brought by one of the monks to Bern, and there he lived out his days in happy retirement. After his death in 1814, Barry was brought to the National History Museum in the capital and his body remains there until this day, preserved as a reminder of this hardy and intrepid dog.
Ever since he retired, the monastery has kept at least one dog called Barry, in his honour. The monks continued to breed the St Bernard until 2004, keeping nearly twenty dogs around the place at any one time, and refining and maintaining the breed, at which time the Foundation Barry du Grand Saint Bernard was established further down the slopes in the village of Martigny. The foundation still breeds twenty St Bernard puppies a year, at kennels which bear our hero’s name.
These days, St Bernards no longer risk their lives in the snow, and they live a little easier.
Helicopters now perform the dangerous task of rescues on the slopes of the treacherous pass, but the legacy of Barry is still alive, in the popularity of his breed and in the minds of every Swiss person. He’s a symbol of good and a beacon of bravery, never to be forgotten.
So, next time you see a St Bernard, think of Barry and the forty lives he saved, in the cold and wind-driven snow of the Alps. And next time you look at your dog – asleep on that rug in front of a nice, warm fire – make sure to tell him or her how lucky they are. And don’t forget to tell them the story of Barry.