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10 Big Facts About Saint Bernards

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When you think of Saint Bernards, you probably think of the massive canines of the Swiss Alps, depicted in paintings delivering brandy to lost or stranded hikers. While they were amazing rescue dogs, those rescues involved very little bartending. Learn about how the myth got started, plus more facts about the fluffy mountain dog.

1. THEIR ANCESTORS WERE LIKELY MOLOSSERS.

Like other dogs bred in the Alps—including Bernese mountain dogs and Entlebuch cattle dogs—the history of the breed is a somewhat mysterious. Many believe that they originate from molossers: mastiff-like dogs brought to Switzerland by the Romans roughly 2000 years ago. The large war dogs bred with local mountain dogs, creating the beginnings of the Saint Bernard line. Valley farms and Alpine dairies used the hefty dogs for guarding, herding, and drafting. At the time, the dog was known as Talhund ("valley dog") or Bauernhund ("farm dog"). 

2. MONKS PUT THEM TO WORK IN THE SWISS ALPS. 

Long before airplanes, the only way to travel from the Entremont Valley to Italy was via a snowy path. The Mont-Joux pass was extremely treacherous: temperatures could drop as low as -22°F, and the pass was covered in dozens of feet of snow most of the year. (Robbers and looters waiting to prey on unsuspecting hikers only added to the danger.)  

Around 1050 CE, a monk named Bernard De Menthon came to the pass and began to clean up the area. He evicted the criminals and set up a hospice to give adventurers a place to recover for a few days from their travels. In 1124, Bernard was canonized as a saint and the pass he helped restore was named after him. Still, Saint Bernards did not come to Saint Bernard Pass until hundreds of years later, although the exact date is a little fuzzy—thanks to a fire in the 16th century, the archives containing their exact origin story were destroyed.

However, based on other mentions in historic texts, experts believe the dogs were first brought to the pass's hospice between 1660 and 1670. The canines were originally used there for guarding and companionship—after all, the grounds could be very lonely in the winter months. 

3. THEY'RE HERE TO HELP.

Eventually, the monks inhabiting the hospice discovered that the Saint Bernards had all the makings of an ideal rescue dog: They were great at clearing paths, could predict incoming avalanches, and, thanks to their excellent sense of smell, could detect a body buried under 20 feet of snow. (And once they located someone trapped under a snow heap, they could use their huge paws to dig them out.) In the three centuries that the hospice used the helpful dogs, it's estimated that they saved upwards of 2000 people. Trains and airplanes have lessened the need for rescue dogs, but monks continue to raise them to this day out of tradition.

4. ONE DOG WAS A PARTICULARLY SKILLED HELPER.

As legend has it, Barry the Saint Bernard was an amazing rescue dog that saved somewhere between 45 and 100 people. Barry's most impressive rescue involved finding a dying 12-year-old boy in the snow and carrying him to safety on his back. Sadly, the courageous dog was supposedly killed by one of Napoleon’s soldiers, who mistook him for a wolf. The local hero's fur was used to create a statue—complete with the iconic barrel collar—which is currently on display at the Bern Natural History Museum.

As moving as that tale is, most of it is completely false. It's possible that the dog saved 40 lives, but he definitely never rescued any frozen boys in the snow—apparently, that story was circulating years before Barry was even born. Even the story of his death is highly exaggerated; Barry died of old age after living to the ripe old age of 12 years. (It's also worth noting that the dog never wore the cliched barrel around his neck, either.) 

5. SPEAKING OF BARREL COLLARS, A TEEN CREATED THAT MYTH.

In cartoons and works of art, Saint Bernards are often depicted wearing barrels of booze around their necks, supposedly with the intention of helping cold travelers warm up. The rescue dogs never actually wore these miniature barrels, but they did carry around packs filled with food and water. 

The misconception that the dogs ever sported the barrels comes from a 17-year-old painter in 1820s England. Edwin Landseer painted a work called Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, which depicted two Saint Bernards coming to the rescue of an injured man. One is barking in alarm, while the other—sporting the barrel in question—attempts to revive the hiker. Landseer later explained that the barrel was filled with brandy, and thus a myth was born. Of course, we know today that while alcohol makes us feel warmer, it actually restricts blood flow and lowers body temperature. Carrying around tiny kegs would not have been the best strategy for reviving avalanche victims.

6. MONKS TRIED TO IMPROVE THEM. 

After one particularly hard winter, the monks attempted to cross the breed with the long-haired Newfoundland to give their rescue pooches a thicker winter coat. The plan backfired, as the longer fur captured matted snow and ice and weighed the poor dogs down. Today, you can still see the effects of the decision, as the breed has both long- and short-haired dogs. 

7. DON'T OVER-BATHE THEM. 

Saint Bernards have a lot of fur, but you don’t have to worry about frequent trips to the groomer. They have an oily, water-resistant coat, which originally warded off snow and ice when they resided in the mountains. It’s best not to over-wash them because soap will strip away necessary oils in their fur.  

8. THEY’RE GREAT WITH CHILDREN. 

Saint Bernards are gentle giants. They’re calm and patient, with an eagerness to please. This easy-going temperament makes the dog a great choice for a family pet. They’re very intelligent, so training is easy, but it’s important to start at a young age while they’re still small and easy to control. Sometimes the large dogs are unaware of their size, making training essential in order to prevent them from bowling over guests and children. 

9. THEY GROW UP FAST. 

Saint Bernard puppies are tiny things that weigh just 1 1/2 pounds at birth. Adult dogs can weigh as much as 180 pounds, so the pups have a lot of growing to do. It can take as long as three years for them to stop growing, although most of the growing happens in the first year. By three months old, Saint puppies can weigh as much as 40 pounds. From there, they will usually gain about three to five pounds a week. These growth spurts proved difficult for crew members on the set of Beethoven’s 2nd; the family movie featured just four puppies, but it took over 100 canine actors to portray them because they grew so fast. 

10. EXPECT A LOT OF DROOLING 

Thanks to the Saint’s unusual head and jaw shape, their lips and loose skin hang down, meaning they drool more than other breeds. This behavior tends to get worse when the dogs are hungry, overheated, or excited. To minimize the puddles left in their wake, try to keep them cool and prepare food out of sight. Some devoted owners will even carry around a drool rag to clean their pooch's muzzle every once in a while. 

All images courtesy of iStock.

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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