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St. Bernard dog

What was round the St Bernard rescue dogs neck?

MMDE: The St Bernard rescue dog carried a brandy barrel round its neck

Current: The St Bernard rescue dog never carried a brandy barrel round its neck

Sometimes, the truth behind popular misconceptions can shatter life-long held warm, comforting beliefs.

If you were in need of assistance, alone on a snowy alpine mountain, and saw a St Bernard dog bounding towards you, what would you expect to see round its neck? Most people's answer is a small barrel of brandy, and the image of a large, friendly and very furry dog is hard to shake off. Unfortunately that's not the case and never has been, no matter how comforting or cute we find the story.

It turns out the origin of this picture is quite literally a picture - it's from an artist's studio in England in 1820. Once the painting gained popularity, so did the idea of the barrel of brandy. However, it's never been used once as depicted this way.

Painting

The artist who created the painting was only 17 years old at the time. His name was Edwin Landseer and it was titled Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler. It shows two St Bernards rescuing a fallen traveller, with one having a small barrel round it's neck. Landseer was the one who promoted the idea it contained brandy:

alpine mastiffs 450x360

St Bernard

St Bernard dogs have been used by the Tibetans since at least the year 1000. The Great St. Bernard pass is in the Alps between Switzerland and Italy was an important crossing point for thousands of years before that, and the Romans built a temple to Jupiter there. In 1049, the patron saint of the Alps, St Barnard, built a hospice on top of that temple to offer respite to travellers. Monks ran this facility, and over time became a search and rescue operation with dogs which they bred specially to assist them, they were large with huge woolly coats to defend against the harsh weather. The dogs were also used as watchdogs, and had excellent scent capabilities making them perfect for rescuing lost or injured travellers.It is no co-incidence the dogs became more famous than the facility, and forever known as the St. Bernard breed.

It's been pointed out that alcohol isn't helpful to someone injured in the snow, since it reduces the body temperature due to the effect of the blood vessels dilating. This rules out it's use completely on medical grounds, even if it never happened anyway.