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Posts Tagged ‘St. Bernard’

Alpine mastiffs

alpine mastiff 1

One of the hardest things about doing any kind of research into the history of dog breeds is keeping all the breed and type names straight.

Here’s one that confused me for years:  Alpine mastiff.

Most of us have been taught somewhere that the term “Alpine mastiff” means St. Bernard, but actually, it refers to a livestock guardian breed from the Italian Alps that also ranged into Switzerland. It may be an ancestor of the St. Bernard breed, because one of these dogs was actually imported to England in 1829 directly from the St. Bernard Hospice.

The dogs at the hospice were mostly of the sennenhund type– essentially red sable and brindle variants of the progenitors of the Bernese and Greater Swiss mountain dogs. These dogs were big, but they certainly were not giants. (The famed Alpine rescue dog named Barry was in the 85-95 pound range).

It may have been from these animals that we Anglo-Saxons got the idea that St. Bernards were giant dogs. 

The Alpine mastiff also played a role in developing the modern English mastiff breed, which is also famed for its vast size.

The most famous image of an Alpine mastiff is of “Lion,” an Alpine mastiff exhibited at the Spring Gardens in 1817. The dog was brought from the St. Bernard Hospice and eventually wound up in the hands of a Mrs. L.W. Boode. At the time, he was believed to be the largest dog in England, and when Sir Edwin Landseer encountered him, he had to do portrait.

lion alpine mastiff

Lion

This breed is likely the origin for the common fawn coloration in English mastiffs, which actually came in many more colors before they became standardized.

But one thing is pretty clear:  the Alpine mastiff was not the same breed as the St. Bernard. Over time, though, we’ve merged the terms.

The modern St. Bernard is probably derived from it, but when one looks at the images of the actual working dogs at the hospice, they were not breeding giant mastiffs.

Of course, once these giant dogs became known in England, it wasn’t long before they came to expect every dog from the St. Bernard Hospice to be a behemoth.

And now the modern mostly sennenhund-derived St. Bernard is suffering the health consequences of being bred to look like an Alpine masitff.

I should note that there is no genetic evidence showing a relationship between St. Bernards and English mastiffs, but it is well-documented that “Alpine mastiffs” played a role in developing the modern English mastiff.

So maybe the Alpine mastiff played no role in developing the St. Bernard.

Which is really a bizarre idea to consider.

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yukon sled dogs

Photo courtesy of Nara U.

Newfoundlands, arctic spitzes, and at least one St. Bernard.

I particularly like that Newfoundland in the front.

He’s obviously the leader.

He looks very sharp.

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The differences between the dogs bred by the monks of the Congregation of Canons of the Great Saint Bernard and the modern breed are quite startling.

st. bernards 1913

st. bernards at the monastery 1913

They don’t even look like the same kind of dog.

It’s like the difference between a Jack Russell and a Siberian husky.

(Photos courtesy of Nara U).

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Photo courtesy of Nara U.

 

 

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This is Lady Clyde. This image appears in Country Life Illustrated (25 September 1897).

This dog reminds me very much of a Greater Swiss mountain dog– just of a different color.

 

 

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This is a portrait of Karl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, the man best known for establishing the Weimaraner gun dog.

This portrait dates to 1805, which is why I am fairly certain that this dog isn’t  a St. Bernard.  St. Bernards were not popular as pets until the late 1880’s. Further, the long-coat in the St. Bernard was established in the 1850’s when Newfoundland dogs were crossed in.

The Newfoundland dog, however, was the most popular dog throughout the world in the early nineteenth century. It was the first widely popular large pet dog for the family.

This dog might have been a long-haired red and white Küherhund (cow herdsman’s dog) with long hair. The Küherhund type was very similar to the tricolored mountain dogs of Switzerland. Indeed, the red and white and predominantly white dogs were just a variant of the Swiss mountain dog landrance, but it was the monks of the hospice at the Great Saint Bernard Pass who took these dogs and bred them into the modern St. Bernard. Even the long-coated Küherhund during this time period were not as profusely coated as this dog.

Also, in 1805, Switzerland was under French occupation.  Napoleon had tried to set up a centralized republic in Switzerland, but it had been a failure, but in 1803, Napoleon issued the Act of Mediation, which restored the old canton system for which Switzerland is famous.

Because of these reasons, it is unlikely that a noble who was living in what is now the German state of Thuringia would have kept what was then an obscure Swiss breed.  In those days, nobles tried to avoid keeping commoners’ dogs, unless, like the Newfoundland and the various forms of collie, the dogs had been romanticized for their sagacity. The St. Bernard would get its turn at being this romanticized sagacious dog, but in 1805, it was a relative unknown.

Therefore, it is with some reservation that I say that this dog is a red and white Newfoundland. Its long coat is indicative of the Newfoundland of that time period, not the St. Bernard. I don’t know of any native Thuringian dogs that would fit this dog’s description. The main farm dog of Thuringia is actually one of the main ancestors of the German shepherd dog, and it never could have been confused with a St. Bernard or a Newfoundland.

It has often been suggested that red and yellow were always part of the Newfoundland water dog landrace. I think this portrait is the best evidence of this reality. The dog clearly has a black nose, so we know that this dog isn’t a liver and white. It is very likely a recessive red and white. In the solid-colored dogs of this type or of the St. John’s-type, this would have produced a dog very similar to a fox red Labrador or a dark golden retriever.

I wonder if St. Bernard historians have attached themselves to this image. Everyone knows that the early St. Bernards were smooth-coated dogs, and the long-haired dogs didn’t make an appearance at the hospice until the 1850’s. And even then, St. Bernards were not the dog that everyone had to have in 1805.

The St. Bernard just doesn’t fit.

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