Posts Tagged ‘St. Bernardd’

An 1929 depiction fo an Alpine spaniel.

Breed historians who explore the origins of the St. Bernard and the Clumber spaniel run into something a little bit strange. It turns out that an ancestor of both breeds is a dog called an Alpine spaniel.

The dog featured in the 1829 depiction above looks a bit like a spaniel or some other form of gun dog.

Now, here’s something shocking. It may be that the actual dogs that did the rescuing from avalanches at the St. Bernard Pass were actually spaniels. Yes, Alpine spaniels.

What about Barry the St. Bernard? Wasn’t he a mastiff?

Well, here’s the thing. This is what we typically think Barry looked like when he was alive:

That’s an actual dog at the Great St. Bernard Hospice. It’s very different from the St. Bernard we have today, but it was probably very different from Barry.

It’s very likely that the ancestral St. Bernard dog were Alpine spaniels that were crossed with Sennenhund-type dogs. Keep in mind that, only two breeds of Sennenhund (the Bernese and Greaters Swiss)  are very large dogs.  The Entlebucher and the Appenzeller are smaller dogs. It makes sense that the monks would have crossed spaniel-type dogs with these multipurpose farm dogs. The spaniel-type dogs are easily trained, as are the Sennenhund-types. The monks wanted a dog with the spaniel’s ability to air scent, but they also wanted a dog that had a bit more volume to it that could handle the very harsh conditions of the Alps. Also, most of the native Sennenhund breeds are smooth-haired, which was an asset for any dog working in heavy snow cover. Heavily feathered dogs tend to collect snowballs and ice in their fur.

I submit that the ancestral Alpine spaniel and St. Bernard dog was a mixture of these spaniel and Sennenhund dogs. That is why analysis of the skulls of the dogs from the St. Bernard Pass that have been kept at the Natural History Museum at Bern varied between spaniel and mastiff-types.

Which brings us to the noted search-and-rescue dog named Barry who was born in 1800. The famous story is that Barry rescued 40 lives in the mountains, and that he died rescuing the 41st. Usually, it is said that an escaped convict killed Barry, or someone mistook him for a wolf and shot him. In reality,  Barry was given a retirement from rescue work when he was 12 years old, and he was sent to Bern to live out the rest of his life. When he was 14, he died, and he was preserved as a taxidermied specimen. He was put on display at the Natural History Museum in Bern in 1815, and his remains were displayed there until 1926. His taxidermied form was refurbished, and it was intentionally redone to make him look more like a modern St. Bernard. In 1926, the St. Bernard is a popular pet dog worldwide, and the dogs at the hospice look like the 1919 photograph.

This is what the average person thinks Barry looked like:

This is not correct.

Here’s his original taxidermied form.

The Natural History Museum in Bern estimates his original size to have been between 40 and 45 kilos (88 to 99 pounds). That’s much smaller than the typical St. Bernard. Also note that he lived to be 14. The average life expectancy for a St. Bernard is 6-9 years, depending upon which survey data one is using. His head was very different from a St. Bernard as we know them today, and he lacks the black mask that we now associate with the breed.

So how did the breed become the big mastiff that we know today?

Well, keep in mind that the Swiss did not invent the dog fancy. The Swiss were more interested in producing a dog that could do its work.

In 1830, the monks began breeding their dogs with Newfoundland dogs. Now, Newfoundland dogs are also a cross between a mastiff-type dog and a dog that had some gun dog ancestors (St. John’s water dog). This breed was a common pet in nineteenth century Europe, and the tendency was to focus more its mastiff ancestry than its water dog ancestry. It wasn’t long before St. Bernards stopped having any spaniel features at all.

This is what the dogs looked like in 1848:

The Newfoundland cross is said to have reintroduced the long-haired gene into the St. Bernard/Alpine spaniel. The long-haired dogs were given away or sold to visitors and dog dealers, simply because the heavy feathering was so much of a disadvantage in the snow.

The dogs made their way into the British fancy, which then based its whole concept of the Alpine Spaniel on these dogs. Because the dogs really weren’t that much like spaniels anymore, they started calling the St. Bernards.

And this breed became very popular worldwide. It was known for its intelligence and gentle temperament, but it soon became known for its large size. It wasn’t long before this breed became one of the largest in the world and became very different from its ancestors.


Now, although the story of the Alpine spaniel’s more famous descendant is not that well-known among its fanciers, the other descendant’s patrons understand it perfectly.

The other descendant actually became a working gun dog. Although there is not much evidence that the Swiss used the Alpine spaniel as a gun dog, the fact that its ancestors included dogs of the spaniel-type meant that it could be used as a  flushing dog.

I am talking about the Clumber spaniel:

Compare that Clumber in the painting above with this Alpine spaniel.

The Clumbers are supposed to have Alpine spaniel blood. Clumbers were supposedly developed by the Duc de Noailles, a French nobleman who was marshal of France when the monarchy was overthrown. The dogs were sent to England to save them from the French Revolution. (The Duc died in 1794, and most of his family wound up guillotined.  It is interesting that he saved his dogs, but he couldn’t save his family!). The dogs wound up in the hands of the Duke of Newcastle, who kept them at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire.

I have some problems with the French theory of the Clumber’s origins. France has no tradition of flushing spaniels. All the epagneul breeds from France are bred and trained as index dogs, including the Pont-Audemer spaniel, which is a water spaniel. The British do have a tradition of flushing spaniels, and it seems more likely that the dogs have a British origin.

It is possible that the Duke of Newcastle got some Alpine spaniels from the French.  Perhaps the Duc de Noailles did have some Alpine spaniels that he had to send to England. Whenthey  arrived in England, they were bred to other spaniels to make them flushing dogs.

I doubt that bassets played much of a role in its development, simply because many land spaniels in the Britain in the mid-nineteenth century had already been bred to have short legs. I don’t see why it takes the addition of basset blood to make the Clumber short-legged. It could have easily received that trait through selective breeding or through later outcrosses with short-legged spaniels of other strains.

Here are some Clumbers from Stonehenge’s The Dog in Health and Disease 1858:

Notice that the dogs look as if they have the features of spaniels and St. Bernards.

And I think that might not be a bad way to think of St. Bernards and Clumbers. Clumbers and St. Bernards are very different dogs today, but they come from a common ancestor, which included both mastiff and spaniel features. The dog that became the modern St. Bernard drew heavily on its mastiff heritage until it began to lose its spanielness, and the Clumber is a spaniel that looks a bit like it had a St. Bernard somewhere in its background.

I no longer believe the things I have written in this post. I need to make a revision at some point.

Clumbers likely derive from aboriginal English red and white spaniels.

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