Although the true origins of the Saint Bernard breed are not well documented, some aspects of this extraordinary breed are known. Authenticated facts combined with reasoned speculation are believed to best describe the development of this magnificent breed.
The Monastery and hospice were founded by Bernard de Menthon, an Augustine monk, in the middle of the eleventh century (no exact date can be found). These edifices were located in the only pass through the Alps between Italy and Switzerland. Being the site of heroic rescue tales, it was later named the Great Saint Bernard Pass to differentiate it from the Little Saint Bernard Pass that is between France and Italy. The altitude at the Great Saint Bernard Pass is a little more than 8,000 feet above sea level. As it was snow free only a few months during the warmest part of the summer, it was very dangerous for foot travelers journeying to or past the hospice. Being caught on foot in that difficult terrain during unexpected inclement weather was often fatal, but those who braved that treacherous territory were comforted to know that the hospice was staffed with dedicated monks and their special dogs. Nothing was written about the hospice dogs during the first 700 years of their existence. Many stories surround the formation of the breed. The earliest known depiction of the breed was two paintings done in 1695. Some attribute these to the work of a well-known Italian artist named Salvatore Rosa. Each painting shows a well-built shorthaired dog with a typey head, a long tail, and dewclaws. One dog is splash coated, while the other dog is mantle coated. One expert, Professor Albert Heim, concluded that these paintings show a breed that had been in existence for approximately 25 years. Thus, the most accepted estimate is that the breed originated sometime between 1660 and 1670.
The dogs which were bred consistently at the hospice from the 1660’s until the period represented by the paintings of 1695 came from the Swiss valleys near the hospice. These dogs were likely descendants of the mastiff style Asiatic dogs that were first brought there by the Roman armies during two war periods. Valley dogs existed for centuries without being known as a particular breed. The typey dogs developed at the hospice were derived from those previously existing in the countryside of Switzerland.