What’s in the Barrel Around a Saint Bernard’s Neck?

What's in the barrel?

When I think of a Saint Bernard, I instantly see a large, fluffy dog drooling over a keg strapped to its collar. Several people have asked me what is in the keg. Did the dogs carry letters, items or something similarly important?

The Legend

Discovering the contents of the Saint Bernard keg collar takes us back several hundred years to the Swiss Alps. There are two theories that explain the elusive keg that adorned the large, loyal and affectionate dog.

A monastery was created around 980 A.D. in the only pass between Italy and Switzerland through the Alps, and it was a dangerous, snowy path for most of the year, and known as the Great Saint Bernard Pass. Legend has it that dogs were companion animals to the monks who lived there. The dogs were thought to have been the result of crossing a mastiff-style dog brought by the Roman Army with local dogs from the Swiss countryside.

The dogs accompanied the monks on patrols through the pass. The dogs were found to be able to detect avalanches in advance, had a great sense of smell and were very successful at finding people buried in the snow.

The Saint Bernard’s role turned to one of search and rescue, and the dogs were often sent in groups to search the pass when the weather was too inclement for the monks. Between 1816 and 1818 the weather was so severe that several dogs perished, and the breed came close to extinction. Records indicate that the monks replenished the line with similar dogs from the area and continued in their rescue efforts.

During rescue missions, once a trapped traveler was found, one dog would lay on the person to keep him warm while another went back to the monastery to get help. The theory enters here that the dogs wore small kegs on their collars that held brandy or wine for the travelers to drink to keep warm.

The Artistic Approach

This was not the only theory, however, and another points to one of fable and artistry. Sir Edwin Henry Landseer painted an image of two of the dogs saving a traveler in the Great St. Bernard Pass in 1820. Some say the keg collars were added for artistic effect in the painting, while others hold the original theory true. Fires reportedly ruined records at the monastery, which prevented verification of the theory, but the fable lives on today.

The monastery still stands, and offers visitors accommodations and dining. A museum, chapel and local activities attract tourists from all around the world. The keg collars are also replicated and available for purchase. You can learn more about the history of the dogs from the Saint Bernard Club of America, formed in 1888, and the American Kennel Club.

According to the AKC, the Saint Bernard dogs rescued more than 2,000 people during their three centuries of rescue work. Whether your pup is a rescue specialist or a loving companion, the breed is rich in history and ancestry that many still admire them for today.

Photos: miragelin/Flickr (top), Global Gallery

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