by   David Hancock

Powerful dogs bred to protect livestock have been utilized from the upland areas of Iberia in the west, right across to Iran and on to the highlands of Eastern Europe, from mountainous Balkan regions in the south and northwards to former Soviet states. Some were called shepherd dogs, others mountain dogs and a few dubbed 'mastiffs', despite the more precise use of that word in modern times. Their coat colours can vary from solid white to dark-grey and from a rich russet to solid black, often with tan. Many that developed as breeds are no longer used as herd-protectors and their numbers in north-west Europe seriously declined when the use of draught dogs became a victim of the mechanized age. A number of shared features connect these far-flung types: a dense weatherproof jacket, a substantial build, an impressive magnanimity and a strong protective instinct to guard livestock placed under their supervision. As a group, they would be most accurately described as the flock guardians; in Britain in the distant past they were referred to as 'shepherd's mastiffs', but they were valued all over Europe, especially in mountainous areas - as found in south-western France, northern Portugal and Spain, central Italy and the Alps of Switzerland. 

  This manifests itself in the resultant distribution of such big herd-protectors: the Maremma of Italy, the Estrela Mountain Dog and Cao Rafeiro do Alentjo of Portugal, the Kuvasz of Hungary, the Pyrenean Mountain Dog and its sister breed, the Pyrenean Mastiff, the Tatra Mountain Dog of Poland, the Rumanian sheepdog, the Sar Planina of Yugoslavia, the Transcaucasian Owtcharka and the Kuvasz of Slovakia. These modern breeds may have developed separately over the last thousand years but the similarities are all too obvious. Local preferences have manifested themselves, with black and tan dogs being favoured in northern Switzerland, southern Germany and in the Beauce area of France and the red and white of the St Bernard in the south, more like the big dogs of the Pyrenees, the Abruzzi and the Greek and Yugoslavian mountain areas. Time and time again you will find writers on these breeds linking them with an origin from the Tibetan Mastiff. But I believe all such big mountain dogs or shepherd dogs share a common origin and came south with migrating people, ending up in the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Balkans and the foothills of the Himalayas.

It disappoints me therefore to see the St Bernard being bred more like a mastiff than a mountain dog. Historically, the hospice dogs were much more like the other mountain breeds and did not feature the massive head, loose lips and excessive dewlaps of the modern pedigree St Bernard. I can never see the rationale in extolling the proud history of a breed and then perpetuating that breed in a different mould. Huge dogs have a magnanimity, a munificence and a majesty all of their own and simply don't need exaggeration to promote themselves or win our admiration. Sadly too the St Bernard has lost its working role and seems to be bred for bulk rather than activity. Every depiction of a Hospice dog shows a strapping active dog, lacking carthorse bone and drooling lips. No dog with slobbering lips would last long in sub-zero temperatures.

Nowadays, the mountain rescue services of the Alpine nations make great use of dogs, nearly always German Shepherd Dogs, dogs thankfully rated on what they can do not on physical beauty. We all love a handsome dog but must be careful we don't end up with just mindless, role-less  pet-dogs with no purpose or inspiration to influence breed design. If the breed of St Bernard were to be bred like a 'transhumance' breed in the mountain dog mould, the soundness and indeed the historical accuracy of the breed would be greatly enhanced. Transhumance dogs had to spend months in the high summer pastures - deterring wolves and human threats - move livestock immense distances or across perilous mountain passes, needing the size to impose themselves and survive harsh conditions, a weatherproof coat to keep out a wide range of temperatures and really sound feet to withstand the daily wear on them. Drooling lips, sagging eyelids and surplus bulk does such a breed no favours.

The breed histories of the other mountain dogs, like the Pyrenean breeds, contrast starkly with the sheer nonsense written about the St Bernard down the years. And what a pity that is, for the St Bernard is a truly magnificent breed, full of virtue and worthy of our admiration. The St Bernard really doesn't need wildly-exaggerated stories about its prowess in the snow-rescue field. The facts indicate that the role of the hospice-dog was to prevent travellers getting lost in deep snow, rather than rescue them with brandy and blankets. The monks had no fixed ideas on breeding, resorting to outside blood of other breeds and never having success in rearing puppies at the hospice, needing to send whelping bitches down to the valley.

The monks sold or gave away the very large pups and those with long coats. Yet the short-coated variety has never had the acclaim of the longer-coated version. Wynn, in his History of the Mastiff, states that at one stage the monks obtained dogs that were probably identical with those which defended flocks in the Abruzzi mountains. The legendary Barry was a medium-sized short-coated dog. Herr Schumacher has written that around 1830 the monks had to resort to Newfoundland and Great Dane bitches to produce more robust offspring. From 1835 to 1845, huge "Alpine mastiffs" were often recorded and even drawn by Landseer. A dog called L'Ami was exhibited in 1829 as the largest dog in England and as an Alpine mastiff but was probably a cropped-eared Great Dane. Many of the St Bernards imported into Britain from 1860 were described as "coming from the Monastery of St Bernard" but most of them were merely descendents of dogs which had been bred there years before. "Idstone" refers to an outcross to a Pyrenean 'wolfhound' when the hospice kennels were stricken with distemper. The exaggerated claims of hero-feats by such as the Rev MacDona led to the breed becoming much admired - with the early dog shows being well-populated with it.

Looking at contemporary St Bernards I suspect that the master-breeders who developed the breed in Britain towards the end of the last century resorted to mastiff blood to produce the desired massiveness and powerful head and obtain extra stature in the breed. This is perhaps now coming through in excess and the St. Bernard has become very different from every other breed of dog from the mountainous areas of the western world. But whether true to their ancestor-stock or not, the big dog from Switzerland has captured our hearts with its gracious grandeur, considerable handsomeness and long-acknowledged qualities as a companion-dog. The Mount St Bernard dog deserves to be regarded and bred as a mountain dog - possessing the anatomy to support that testing role - with a justification for becoming dubbed as the 'King of the Mountain Dogs', a well-merited distinctive title for a breed that has lost its way.