North Island St.Bernard Assn.Inc

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New Zealand
New Zealand
North Island St.Bernard
Association Inc.
Est: 1981

The origins of the St Bernard as a breed are steeped in romantic legend, a saviour of mankind, rescuing pilgrims buried by avalanche or caught out in snow storms, in the most rugged of alpine terrains where snow covers this harsh environment for all of the year, except for the two months of summer. 

In the year 962 A.D., an Augustine Monk named St. Bernard de Menthon, founded a hospice and monastery to shelter travellers on the treacherous St.Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps, who were en route to Italy.

The St Bernard breed is thought to have descended from ancient mastiff-type dogs such as the Roman Molossian or the Assyrian. Both breeds were large, heavy dogs with a massive head and were used as fighting dogs in war, and for guarding.
The original dogs at the St Bernard Monastery were described as red-brown
and white, a colour that was common among the farm dogs throughout Switzerland.  The Hospice dogs, however, were bigger and more solid in structure, probably the result of selective breeding for characteristics suited for the work these dogs were expected to carry out.

Between 1660 and 1670, the St.Bernard was recognised as a separate breed of dog from the Swiss Mountain or Cattle Dog. It was around this time the monks brought
the descendants of this noble and imposing breed, to be kept at the Hospice as companion and guard dogs. They were used to protect the Hospice from bands of brigands that roamed the area preying on travellers and pilgrims who traversed the Pass.
Early monastery records provide evidence of the
success these dogs had in warding off attacks from marauders, and in
1695 Italian painter Salvatore Rosa, depicted the first pictorial history of St Bernards in two of his paintings.

The first human rescue was documented in 1707 and in 1800 Napoleon's 250,000
troops  all made it safely over the Pass with the assistance of the dogs.

Until 1823, the St Bernard as a breed had not been given a name. They
were referred to by a variety names; Alpine Mastiff, St Bernard Mastiff, Hospice Dog, also Barryhunde after the famous dog, Barry.
The name St. Bernard was
actually coined at that time, by an author Daniel Wilson, after the Saint for whom the Monastery is named, and the title became widely accepted from then on.

the mid eighteenth century the breed was regularly accompanying Monastery guides through the St.Bernard Pass. The dog’s excellent sense of direction and ability to forewarn of avalanches was renown throughout the region, and they were able
to successfully negotiate the heavy snows and fogs that frequented this high mountainous area, leading their guides and mountain travellers to the safety of the Hospice.

As a 'saviour of souls', it is thought the Saint Bernard’s kept at the Hospice were responsible for locating no less than 2000 lost, stranded and avalanche trapped travellers, saving their lives from 'the white death' during the three centuries for which the Hospice has kept records.

During the harsh winters of 1816 -1818 in Switzerland, there were increased numbers of avalanches and as a consequence, many of the breeding dogs lost their lives.  To replenish the stocks, dogs were returned from lower farms where they had worked as draft animals, but this was not enough to preserve the breed and build up the population, so in 1830 Newfoundland dogs were bought in from the Colony of Newfoundland, and crossed with the short-haired St Bernard’s, and so the long-haired or ‘rough coat’ St Bernard was born.  (Reports also provide evidence of matings with long-haired dogs, a breed very similar to Pyrenean Mountain Dogs,  from the Canton of Valais.)
The resulting long coated offspring from these crosses, rather than gain additional protection from the snow, proved unsuitable for
working in the heavy snow and
mountainous environment. The snow would catch and form into ice in the long and curly coat, making it impossible for the dogs to perform their task, so long coated or rough coated puppies were either sold or given away to farmers in the lower villages or exported.

The most famous Saint was the dog named “Barry”, he lived at the Monastery from 1800 to 1812. He was accredited with rescuing over forty individuals during his illustrious career. Barry was retired from service and moved to Berne where he died of old age in 1814. His stuffed body is on display in the Natural History Museum, and since his death one of the dogs at the Hospice has always been called Barry, to honour this amazing Saint.

The last account of a rescue was of a 12 year old child in 1897.

The mounted Barry (remounted in 1923), an exhibit at the Natural History Museum Berne, shows a large and strong dog, but much smaller than the modern Saint. While modern Saints weigh 65 to 85 kg., Barry weighed under 50 kg (probably between 40 kg and 45 kg). Barry's mounted height is approximately 64 cm, but the living Barry was probably slightly smaller. His markings are very similar to those on a painting by Salvatore Rosa, a painting that remains in the Hospice.


The St Bernard is one of only two breeds of dog whose special mission and characteristics are the saving of life, in contrast to most other breeds which, more or less lie in the direction of destruction.

Victorian values shaped perceptions about many breeds that endure today and, sentimental attitudes towards pets taken for granted today, are traceable to the influence of romanticism in art and literature which emerged around 1780.

Equaling the Victorians love of animals was their fascination for foreign adventure. Breeds like St Bernards, named for their place of origin became symbols of adventure and travel. Newspapers printed detailed accounts of these travels with Victorian adventurers, capitalizing on this publicity through public lectures.  In 1851 travel writer Albert Smith took this concept further in his lecture on the ascent of Mount Blanc, by among other things, wowing the crowd by parading a pack of imported St Bernards through the audience during intermission. Smith provided many people with their first glimpse of a Hospice Dog and reports of St Bernard exploits faced very little skepticism due to the groundwork of the already popular Newfoundland dogs and their sea rescue stories.

Breed historians credit the Rev. Cumming Macdona (or MacDonald?) for orchestrating the St Bernard popularity in Britain. He published many stories of their life saving exploits and was a conspicuous figure at dog shows from 1865 to 1880. Macdona bred and exhibited numerous breeds including Newfoundlands and was a very successful dog broker, promoter of cat shows and latterly this transitioned into a lucrative judging career.

The 1880’s saw such a boom in the breed numbers as has not been surpassed before, or since.

As the demand for giant dogs increased and international travel became easier, various incarnations of giant breeds were recycled between Britain, Europe, North America and even Australia.  These dogs became status symbols for the rich and many famous people including royalty owned St. Bernards. One well known dog in Britain at the time, named 'Sir Belvedere', was sold to E.B. Sears in the USA for 1300 pounds.

St Bernard myths had completely overtaken reality which lead for the need for breed clubs and breed standards.

Britains St.Bernard Club was formed in 1882 and North Americas St Bernard Club was established in 1888 and an indication of the breeds popularity at this time is a recorded entry of 117 St.Bernards at the Westminster Dog Show in 1888, in the USA.


One of the earliest breeders of Saint Bernard’s was the Swiss butcher/publican
Heinrich Schumacher. He began to breed Saints around 1850 and was fastidious in recording his breeding programme. Schumacher also wrote an article on the origin and early history of the Saint. Throughout his career as a Saint Bernard breeder, Schumacher maintained a close association with the Hospice, regularly using their male dogs over his bitches. He sold a lot of his puppies to enthusiasts throughout England, American and even Russia.
As the
breed gained popularity numerous other breeders entered the scene, many were not so careful about their breeding programmes as selling Saint Bernard puppies was seen as a lucrative business. Few obtained their dogs from the Hospice, but rather bought similar looking large farm dogs that were being used for draft work.
With the opening of the Swiss Stud Book in 1884 followed by the
formulation of the Swiss Breed Standard in 1887, uniformity was introduced and the Saint Bernard became an officially recognised breed.


These days the rough (long-hair) and smooth (short-hair) are of equal value in the
breed and show ring. Both coat types are important for the maintenance of good breed type, and they are interbred on a regular basis in New Zealand, (although some countries view the rough and smooth as seperate breeds and will not allow them to be mixed). Most breeders determine it is necessary to regularly incorporate smooth coat specimens over roughs to preserve correct coat type in the roughs, in other words, continuous rough-to-rough breeding will produce puppies with a coat that is too long, soft and wavy. The rough, is often valued for its massiveness and heavy boning, however correct and astute breeding will produce specimens in either coat type that epitomize the breed - a noble dog of massive structure with a balanced muscular body and an imposing head.

Today the Saints at the Hospice are used as a tourist attraction, their traditional rescue work has now been made redundant by modern inventions such as the helicopter and by the use of more agile 'avalanche dogs' such as German Shepherds.
The St. Bernards of the Hospice spend the summer months at the Hospice du Grand St.Bernard and retire to kennels in Martigny, further down the mountain for the harsher winter months.

The North Island St. Bernard Association Incorporated is the Kiwi connection, and its members, the guardians of the most famous and largest of all of the Swiss breeds of dogs, the majestic St. Bernard.

In fact, the Alpine Mastiff dog (as they were known) established its reputation as a saviour and rescuer of lost travelers in the uncompromising and perilous conditions of the Swiss Mountains about the same time that New Zealand, as a country, was first discovered by the Dutch Explorer Abel Tasman.

From Hospice records it is presumed the first service dogs came to the Hospice in the latter half of the 17th Century, probably between 1660 and 1670. By 1695 the dogs had been bred to a certain ‘type’ which might well be considered the formal beginning of the breed.
While we often hear about the breed ‘originating’ at the Hospice, it is the researched opinion of early enthusiasts that what occurred at the Hospice, due to both the dedication of the Monks and the isolation of the location, was more the natural evolution in the perfection of ‘type’.
(Type being dogs of same size, body structure and shape, same physical traits and appearance).
The St Bernard dog had been well documented by their keepers, the Augustine Monks of the St Bernard de Menthon Hospice as companion animals and protecting, rescuing, guiding and working the Great St Bernard Pass in the Western Alps between Switzerland and Italy. For more than a century, with no formal training and only instinct to guide them, the dogs had saved hundreds of lives by the time the British Explorer Captain James Cook reached New Zealand for the first time in 1769.
Following Cooks first visit, this young country was regularly visited by explorers and other sailors, missionaries, traders and adventurers but it was still extremely sparsely populated when Barry, the most famous St Bernard of them all, during his life, rescued more than 40 travellers from ‘the white death’ during the course of his working life 1800 - 1810.
The earliest authenticated report of the breed being brought to England from its native hospice in Switzerland was in 1815 when one was brought to Leasowe Castle.   The Victorians fascination with this Alpine Mastiffs (St. Bernards) and Newfoundlands, today, still the only two breeds of dog whose sole purpose was to directly help man, was in its infancy. Some of the first dogs went to zoological societies to be on public display, to circuses who viewed their uniqueness as a major attraction, and to the very wealthy.
Queen Victoria owned two in the 1840's and they were a popular dog with the nobility.

In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by most of the Maori Tribes in New Zealand bringing New Zealand into the British Empire.

In 1840 the first Newfoundland St Bernard was documented arriving in New Zealand.
In the book "No Simple Passage" by Jenny Robins Jones, page 20, a young man of 20 years, Charles Empson came to Wellington on the sailing ship LONDON which left England 29 December 1841 with immigrants. He came alone with only his dog, a Newfoundland St Bernard. This is from his diary he kept during the voyage.
This recently discovered information is surprising given the distances that had to be covered and the harsh journey that had to be endured, but it seems the population of New Zealand was just as in love with the breed and its romantic history as the rest of the world and consequently many dogs were documented as being imported, during the time of the New Zealand Wars (or Maori Wars) until the peak at around 1880 when interest in the breed started to wane for many reasons. The least of these reasons not being the problems that arose from indiscriminate breeding.

In Switzerland during this period, the dogs were not only being bred at the Hospice but in the valleys below and Mr Heinrich Schumacher from Holligen is credited with maintaining and perfecting the type of the St Bernard. His kennel was active from 1855 to 1890 and he spent his life dedicated to the breed. He gifted several dogs to the Hospice and these contributed much to the improvement to the breed there in the mid 19th Century.
Schumacher was the first to receive pedigrees from the Swiss Stud Books for his dogs and his quality dogs were exported widely.
The English had imported hospice dogs in significant numbers since 1820, and the breed had quickly risen in popularity, but breeders had been less conscientious in their breeding practices than the Monks or the dedicated Swiss breeders.  Because the English Saint Bernard was noticeably different from the hospice or Swiss valley dogs, the English wrote their own standard in 1887. The English Saint Bernards had been crossed with the English Mastiff and were thinner and taller than their Swiss counterparts, and they were affected by the pressures of popularity beginning in 1863. Little resemblance to the original hospice type remained. Saint Bernards from both England and Switzerland were being exported around the world, and two different breed types existed with the same name. As a result, there arose a controversy regarding which country had the correct type and was the true breed authority. In 1886, an international congress was called in Brussels to decide the matter, but it was unable to reach a consensus. Another international congress was called the next year, in 1887, in Zurich, and it concluded that the Swiss standard would be used in all countries except England.

In 1882, when the English St Bernard Club was established, they attracted a massive entry of nearly 400 dogs at one of their first breed shows held in the late 1880’s.

The Swiss St. Bernard Club was founded in Basel on March 15, 1884. The St. Bernard was the very first breed entered into the Swiss Stud Book in 1884, and the breed standard was finally approved in 1887. Since then, the breed is recognised as the Swiss national dog.

In the United States, a Saint Bernard named Plinlimmon became well known in 1883. Plinlimmon was owned by an actor and became the top-winning Saint Bernard show dog of his time. His owner took him across the country, exhibiting him at theaters. In 1888, the Saint Bernard Club of America (SBCA) was founded, and the club accepted the breed standard written by the Swiss.

Little did anyone know when the breed was at its most popular, that less than a quarter of a century later war would overtake the world and the breed numbers would decline alarmingly.
Thankfully the breed was kept safe due to a few dedicated and resourceful breeders.
Since the early 20th Century the breed has remained popular but in lesser numbers internationally. The changing times meant the Hospice no longer used the dogs for rescue. The instinct to dig for people buried beneath snow and to rouse those lying in snow is still evident in the breed.
Today, Saint Bernards can be seen in homes, on the big screen, and at dog shows.
There are still Saint Bernards at the Saint Bernard Hospice in Switzerland. They no longer seek out travellers in need but instead serve as living representatives of hospice history.


St Bernards are often portrayed with the classic barrel of brandy around their neck attached to a collar.
The origin of this image probably goes to the Victorian artist Sir Edwin Landseer, who in 1820, at the age of 17, painted 'Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller' in which one of the dogs wears a barrel. The concept caught on, and St Bernards in art and culture are rarely seen without the barrel.

While the image of the brandy barrel is fictional, the St.Bernards outstanding heroic feats are indeed factual.



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