The Debunker: Did St. Bernards Ever Carry Barrels of Brandy Around Their Necks?

by Ken Jennings

 

T. S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” but January brings the Northern Hemisphere its cruelest temperatures of the year. We’ve asked ex-Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to come in from the cold and put a chill on some of the most persistent cold-weather myths he could think of. You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you freeze (yes, we stole that from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dialogue in Batman and Robin.)

Icy Myth #3: Saint Bernard Rescue Dogs Carried Little Kegs of Brandy to the Snowbound.

The ginormous St. Bernard dog breed, immortalized by Stephen King in his horror classic Cujo, was originally bred as a rescue dog in the Swiss Alps. In fact, the breed is named for the Great St. Bernard Hospice, a monastery atop the Great St. Bernard Pass in Switzerland, where the monks famously used the dogs in rescue operations.

In popular culture, these dogs are often depicted with small kegs tied around their necks, delivering warming brandy to snowbound mountaineers. But this would be a lousy rescue idea. Alcohol brings blood closer to the skin, so its warming effect is illusory—drinking can actually lower body temperature. The monks of St. Bernard claim that their dogs never carried wine or brandy (though some were trained to bring milk from cowsheds, which is where the myth may have begin). In 1820, the famed British painter of animals Edwin Landseer painted a barrel-carrying St. Bernard into a canvas titled Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, and the association stuck. The monks now have to keep the fictitious “brandy-casks” around for tourist photos, and one was even placed on “Barry,” a heroic 19th-century rescue dog who today stands stuffed in a Bern museum.

The day of the heroic St. Bernard has passed us by, sadly. By 1975, the large dogs had been replaced in their avalanche search-and-rescue work by breeds that fit better in helicopters, like German shepherds and golden retrievers. In 2004, the monastery sold its kennel full of 34 St. Bernards to local animal associations, but they still return to the pass during the summer tourist season. They just don’t tend bar or serve cocktails.

Quick Quiz: At 44 inches, the world’s tallest dog is “Zeus,” from Otsego, Michigan. Zeus is not a Saint Bernard, but what German-Scandinavian breed?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.