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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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