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Meeting the St. Bernards « Caroline Koll's Blog

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Meeting the St. Bernards

So on the very occasion that we have an afternoon off from training, I like to go out, see and learn something new in the environment that I find myself. This week I managed to round up some fellow dog lovers and persuaded the Wongstar and Coco to join me in a visit to the home of the famous St. Bernard dogs, nearby in the town of Martigny.

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The museum was interesting (I am that kind that reads everything!), and obviously, the contact with the dogs was really what I was after! Last Sunday, in fact, one of the dogs appeared on the podium with Alberto Contador at the Tour de France!

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In the past, these clever animals were originally used to guide pilgrims (who used to travel from Rome through the treacherous mountains into France) to shelters known as “Hospices”. As a result of the deep snow, it was often difficult for these people to find their way, so guides known as “Marroniers” would send out the dogs to search for these pilgrims and guide them to safety and shelter. The Hospices themselves were a great idea, welcoming travellers, at no charge, regardless of wealth or religion, and it was even considered a privilege to host pilgrims! At the end of their stay, the pilgrims would leave behind a small gift/donation. Regardless of its value, the “gifts” would then be considered sacred and either used or stored in the Hospice. Seemingly, the St. Bernard Hospice (named after Saint Bernard), was the first to use the dogs for this purpose, and so came about the breed name.

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In later times, the St. Bernard dogs were used to trace people lost in the mountains, especially after snow storms. They would only lead their guides to people buried in snow, but did not dig people out (like I and many others think), because of the possibility of the snow caving inwards. However, there is truth in the fact that they carried small wooden barrels around their necks, containing Brandy (incidently, there is a famous distillery in Martigny), which was consumed by the mal-fated victims of the climate and perilous terrain, to regain core temperature.

Nowadays, the dogs are still trained at the centre, but more for shows. Rescues are now no longer performed by the St. Bernards, apparently because their weight exceeds 35kg, and other breeds such as the Labrador have proved more agile and practical in weight for helicopter rescues. Interestingly, the St. Bernards were also once used as the marketing image for “Milka” chocolate, which now has the less stoic “cow” as its symbol.

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Similarly, no great athlete is ever unbeatable…

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