Thursday, October 11, 2012

Barry, St. Bernard Hospice mountain rescue dog

Barry, the famous mountain rescue dog of the Hospice of St. Bernard
Barry looked a lot like this dog, but smaller.
 Cassell's Illustrated Book of the Dog (1881)
During the second half of the 19th century, Barry was a favorite subject of sentimental and melodramatic mass-produced objects that featured elements of his most lauded rescue, saving the life of a child, near death, in an avalanche.

Below is a needlework pattern from around the turn of the last century.  If you like dogs AND embroidery, you can get this Barry pattern for free on my sister's blog, Barbara Brackman's Material Culture.  She's also posted pictures of other dog-themed patterns from the same period.

Outline embroidery with Turkey red thread, c 1890 

Barry's story was used to promote everything from liver elixirs... cigars decorative clocks.
To see more Barry inspired decorative arts go here. 

Who was Barry?
Barry worked as a mountain rescue dog at the Hospice of Saint Bernard, a wayfaring station in the Alps,  from 1800 to 1814. He's credited with saving 40 lives in snow storms and avalanches.

But one heroic event stands above all others.  Finding a a little boy, nearly frozen in an ice crevasse, he brought the child back to life by licking his face.  Persuading the boy to climb on his back, Barry then safely returned to the hospice, where the child was reunited with his parents.  Who validated the details of the toddler's rescue story is unknown. But it was a good story. Good enough to start a ninety year fad and get Barry a permanent place on public display at the Hospice.

This is Barry as he was preserved immediately after his death in 1814.  
Barry was more of a proto Saint Bernard than anything else.  About the size of a large Labrador Retriever with a houndy type of head, he was barely half the size of a contemporary Saint Bernard.
The breed today
His relatives were likely the foundation stock for contemporary Saint Bernards, along with Swiss mountain dogs, large farm dogs, livestock guarding dogs and draft dogs.

Due to calamitous weather conditions and kennel disease, the Barry Dogs almost died out. The monks reinvigorated the breed with Mastiffs and later Newfoundlands, making the lumbering lovable dog we're familiar with today, a good companion but not one suited to treacherous mountain rescues.
A more contemporary Hospice dog.
The name Saint Bernard wasn't officially used until the middle of the 19th century.  The dogs were called Saints, Alpenmastiffs and Barry Dogs. The Saint Bernard club was officially organized in 1884.

After being on display for 122 years at the Hospice, in 1923 Barry got a face lift.  During the restoration, his body position was changed. Unfortunately for dog historians like me, they also modified his skull shape to reflect the contemporary Saint Bernard, destroying the only evidence showing  the genesis of the breed.  The obligatory keg was added to his collar, although there is no evidence that kegs were ever used in hospice rescues.

The modified Barry is on permanent
display at the Natural History Museum of Bern.

Barry's story was celebrated in a fabulous monument, constructed in 1899, that still stands at the entrance to the Cimiteire des Chiens in Paris.   

To see more vintage photos of Saints go to one of my earlier posts.


  1. I always loved that story when I was young, although I am sure the ones I watched and read, were embellished a bit, lol.


  2. Great story. Have a fabulous Friday.
    Best wishes Molly

  3. Barry's monument is made in his original likeness. I'm thankful for that!