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Saint-Bernard Rescue

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On the left: medical assistance. On the right: booze.

In the 11th century AD, the Christian archdeacon (and later saint) Bernard of Menthon founded a monastery/hostel/hospice high in the Swiss Alps, along one of the major mountain passes used by pilgrims traveling to Rome. The monks looked after travelers seeking to cross the pass into Italy and rescued any who got into trouble. Sometime in the late 1600s, the monks acquired a number of dogs, and eventually began using them in rescue work. These rescue dogs were bred into a mastiff-type dog which was large, friendly, intelligent, and uniquely colored. These eventually became known as "Saint Bernard's dogs", or more simply "St. Bernards."

Unfortunately, fact became mixed with legend, as it often does, and as a result St. Bernard dogs are often depicted in media as carrying small barrels of brandy (or, in more kid-friendly media, hot chocolate) around their necks. Supposedly, the brandy would be used to warm rescued victims from the cold. The monks of the Saint Bernard Hospice deny that this was ever used in Real Life, and say instead that the idea came from an early painting of a St. Bernard dog.

The idea that the dogs could do this, or that a drink could even save someone from hypothermia was examined and busted by the MythBusters. Alcohol would, in fact, endanger their lives because the warming effect is caused by increasing heat flow to the extremities, which would lower the core body temperature and accelerate the onset of hypothermia, though if rescue was imminent it might have the benefit of delaying frostbite. (That said, dogs are often trained to be able to sniff and dig out people trapped by natural or man-made disasters. The handlers of the dogs often carried brandy to try to warm up the people the dogs dug up before getting them to safety, which is probably how the myth got started.)

A common gag in cartoons, especially Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons, involves the dogs actually taking swigs of the brandy for themselves or the brandy making the survivors drunk.

For other types of animal rescues, see Heroic Dog, Timmy in a Well and Pet Gets the Keys.


    open/close all folders 

  • This mid 80s ad in which a man is saved not with brandy, but by Time magazine.
  • Robison Oil has a St Bernard with a oil drum in place of the brandy container for their logo mascot. Seen for the product on the Saint-Bernard Rescue page itself!
  • There was an ad for cold medicine in the 80s featuring this trope. The barrel, of course, held the medicine (possibly NeoCitran).

    Anime & Manga 
  • A strange case where it can be Justified happens in Doraemon: Nobita and the Birth of Japan. In that movie, Nobita and co time-travelled to the pre-historic era to stop a time-criminal who have established a personality cult of cavemen, and his temple is in a snowy mountain. A blizzard descended upon them and they fainted one by one (what where they thinking?). However, Nobita is rescued by a mammoth that dispenses a strange liquid that resuscitates him, via its flail, in the spirit of St. Bernard dogs. Later, it turns out that that mammoth is actually Time Police robot in disguise, who has been tailing the fellowship to find out the criminal's hideout.
  • In Kill la Kill, the Makanshoku family's pet Gattsu sorta pulls this in episode 20. We don't exactly know the contents of his flask, however.

  • The Trope Maker for this is a Victorian artist named Edwin Landseer. He drew a romanticized painting of St. Bernard's with brandy barrels saving people. It ended up popularizing this image.

    Comic Books 
  • A Donald Duck comic had Donald stranded in the mountains with his car, when eventually a St. Bernard with a barrel came to him. He chugged the liquid, only to spew it back out, because the liquor was WAY too hard for him. Then the dog pointed out that it was gasoline for the car.
  • Inverted with the alien dog Sweet Boy from Saga. His owner uses him as an assassin, and the barrel around his neck sports a skull and crossbones.

    Comic Strips 
  • In The Wizard of Id:
    • In one strip, the French ambassador is lost in the snow. They send out a Bernard with gin and a poodle with tonic.
    • At least once, Town Drunk Bung has resorted to getting in trouble on a mountain so that he'll be rescued by a Saint Bernard and he can drink its brandy.
  • Two cartoons of The Far Side toy with the idea:
    • One with a guy in an outhouse in the middle of nowhere, yelling for help, cutting to a Saint-Bernard with a roll of toilet paper around its collar (The caption is "Far away on a hillside, a very specialized breed of dog heard the cry for help.").
    • Another is "Some of our more common rescue animals", featuring among others: a Saint-Bernard with a keg of brandy, a dolphin with a pair of swim trunks, a snake with car keys, and a rhinoceros with a pizza.
  • The cover of the 2018 collected edition of Alex shows Alex, lost in the snow with a dying iPhone, delighted to see a St Bernard with a charger round its neck.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In the Laurel and Hardy vehicle Swiss Miss, Stan Laurel coaxes a tot of brandy from a Saint Bernard.
  • After the climatic bobsled chase in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, James Bond is found by a St Bernard. Bond jokingly berates it for pawing him, telling the dog to go get the brandy instead, and make it five-star.
  • There is a Saint-Bernard in Feuer, Eis und Dosenbier that carries a barrel filled with something so high-proof that it's flammable and, in larger quantities, highly explosive. Also, the barrel is leaking, so when the protagonists need to find out where the (blazing fast) dog has gone, they simply ignite the flammable liquid that has leaked out of the barrel and onto the ground.

  • In Terry Pratchett's The Unadulterated Cat, one chapter imagines what the world would be like if we'd attempted to breed cats to fit all the roles dogs take in society, with the St Bernard being replaced by the St Eric. Many lost mountain hikers have been kept warm by the sheer fury of seeing a St Eric give up looking for them and go to sleep.
  • Mentioned once in the Dresden Files while Dresden is doing his thing to the villain of the book; he claims his Big Friendly Dog Mouse is training to be a St. Bernard and asks the villain not to break his, Mouse's, heart by telling him they don't actually carry kegs.
  • Played with by the Ohulan Cutash Rescue Off The Mountain Team in the Discworld tie-in Mrs Bradshaw's Handbook: while they do have a rescue dog (and a rescue dragon), the brandy barrels are around the necks of goblins. Like all goblin liquors, the brandy is made from snails.
  • Lampshaded in The Yiddish Policemen's Union when Landsman is rescued from certain death by either exposure or being shot by Men In Black. He asks the examining doctor where the "big dog with the little thing of brandy around his neck" is. The doctor wants to know if Landsman is craving a drink or just likes large, salivating dogs.

    Live-Action TV 

  • A 1949 Punch! magazine cartoon. A man has a St. Bernard and several puppies, all of which wear neck casks. The man says "Of course, I only breed them for the brandy."

  • The mascot of the National Hockey League's Colorado Avalanche is an anthropomorphic St. Bernard dog named Bernie, due to the breed's reputation for saving people from avalanches.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the Mystara setting for Dungeons & Dragons, lupins are canine humanoids, who come in various breeds. The Glantri Mountaineer is a lupin based on the St Bernard, and has Healing Hands.
  • Eberron: In the Talenta Plains, blink dogs (intelligent, friendly magical dogs with teleportation powers) are said to rescue travelers in danger. This is why House Ghallanda, the House of Hospitality, uses a blink dog as part of their crest. Per Word of God, this was all a direct reference to the famous Saint Bernards.

  • In P.D.Q. Bach's "half-act opera" The Stoned Guest, a St. Bernard appears right on cue after Don Octave says "For who can save us now?", and the cast sings its praises until they get around to discovering that the cask around its neck has been drained of its contents.

    Video Games 
  • In the 1990s Apple Macintosh skiing game MacSki, every fifth object that the player collides with will result in him temporarily being incapacitated while a Saint Bernard trudges onscreen to rescue him.
  • In LittleBigPlanet for the PlayStation Portable, you have to find Clock Hans' youngest but biggest child in, "Dogged Determination" with the help of a Saint Bernard. It does not have the brandy, however.
  • The Pokémon Stoutland may resemble a Scottish Terrier more than a Saint Bernard, but it seems to be partially based on one, with its tubby build and habit of rescuing people trapped in snowy mountains. This being a kids' game, it doesn't make any mention of brandy or similar.

    Web Comics 
  • In a Skin Horse Sunday wallpaper showing craft beer labels for all the main characters, the label for Sweetheart's Canadian IPA shows her with a barrel round her neck.
  • When the polar bear Doc from The Whiteboard thinks Jinx and Kasi got buried under snow he is going to be the rescue dog:
    Doc: Sandy! I need the first-aid kit and the avalanche poles! Call for a medevac chopper! And find my collar with the little brandy cask!

    Western Animation 
  • There's at least one Bugs Bunny cartoon with the Saint Bernard — but instead of sharing his brandy with others, he drinks it himself and shows up drunk at his rescues.
    • In the short "Piker's Peak," the barrel contains a minibar. The dog uses the contents to mix himself a martini.
    • In Cracked Ice (Tashlin, 1937), a St. Bernard uses his wares to assist an ice skater who had fallen through the ice. W.C. Squeals (a pig avatar of W.C. Fields) sees it and first feigns drowning to obtain some of the dog's booze. Failing that, he schemes to steal the flask around the dog's neck.
  • In the Tom and Jerry episode "The A-Tom-Inable Snowman," each time Tom suffers an accident the Saint Bernard helps him... almost all of the time making him drunk. This culminates in the Saint Bernard appearing in a tropical island and Tom, being drunk, hopping into the sunset, while Jerry and the Saint Bernard wave byebye at him.
  • A Chilly Willy cartoon also features Saint Bernard making the Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain of the show really drunk.
  • In the Disney short "Alpine Climbers," Pluto falls in the snow and comes out blue and frigid. A Saint Bernard pours his keg of brandy on Pluto's mouth, and a rainbow of colors spreads from Pluto's belly to his extremities as he warms up again.
  • The Mighty Mouse cartoon "A Swiss Miss" has a rhyming St. Bernard stating his mission to rescue Pearl Pureheart but failing to execute it. He accidentally uses the contents of his flask to aid Oil Can Harry, who had fallen into an icy lake.
  • Little Cesario, one of the MGM One Shot Cartoons, involves a clumsy St. Bernard puppy who has never successfully saved anyone, but looks up to the heroic Big Alexander, a veteran St, Bernard rescue dog. Later on Big Alexander gets stuck in a blizzard, and it's up to Little Cesario to save him.
  • The Fairly OddParents! Christmas Episode has one of these saving Timmy's Bumbling Dad from a snow-in. The barrel around its neck contains eggnog, conveniently allowing the writers to skirt the depiction of booze in a kid's show.
  • Popeye: One short features a Saint Bernard rescuing Popeye. Upon recognizing him from the comics, the dog gives him spinach instead of brandy.

    Real Life 
  • You can buy the kegs for your Saint Bernard pet, though it's not recommended you have liquid in them for hygiene reasons due to the dog's tendency to slobber. If you do, alcohol is actually a good choice due to its antiseptic qualities.
  • It's not unheard of for rescue animals to be sent out carrying flasks or barrels... of water, not brandy. While bringing booze to an avalanche victim is counterproductive as detailed above, bringing water can help the victim stay hydrated in the event they can't be immediately reached for whatever reason.
  • Brandy aside, St. Bernard dogs actually do have a history of real-life rescues. The breed originated at the Great Saint Bernard Hospice in the Swiss Alps. (In this context, "hospice" is a sort of monastery that provides travelers with a place to stay.) Originally they were breeding guard dogs but later switched to focusing on mountain rescues, as the Alps were very snowy and hazardous and people could easily find themselves in need of rescue. (Also this was the 1700s, so it's not as if anybody had snowmobiles.) The dogs were thus bred to be strong enough to get through snow drifts and to have a keen enough sense of smell to find people in need. The most famous of these dogs was named Barry, who reportedly saved between 40 and 100 people in the course of his career. One book from 1823 claims that Barry always carried a "little phial" which contained "a reviving liquor for the distressed travellers whom he found among the mountains". (Note that the word "liquor" is used to mean "an alcoholic drink" mostly in the U.S., but the author of this book was British. The "liquor" he mentioned was probably nonalcoholic. Barry's preserved body in the Berne Natural History Museum has what definitely looks like a brandy cask, but it's a 1923 addition.) However, the modern Saint Bernard dog is far larger than the Saint Bernards that performed alpine rescues (around the size of a German Shepherd) - a large amount of avalanches in 1816-1818 killed many of them while they were performing rescues which led the monks at the Great St Bernard Hospice to crossbreed them with Newfoundland dogs to keep the breed alive. This cost them their usefulness at mountain rescue since their now-heavy fur would get frozen and weigh them down.
  • First aid dogs were used in both World Wars to find injured soldiers in No Mans Land. Some of the dogs carried a backpack of first aid supplies that the wounded soldier could use to treat themselves until the stretcher bearers could get to him.