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St Bernard puppies become breed dogs

Lost travelers can no longer count on the help of a St Bernard dog to guide them to safety.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2005 19:15 IST

The couple hunch forward, clutching their coat collars. Blinded by fog, stung by cold rain, they struggle through a battering wind that threatens to blow them off course on the high Alpine pass. Staggering, they finally reach the safety of the St. Bernard Hospice.

Luckily, they were only crossing the hospice parking lot. For in this new chapter of the Grand Saint Bernard Pass' colorful history, lost travelers can no longer count on the help of a St. Bernard dog to guide them to safety.

There is a new generation of chubby white and brown puppies spending the summer at the monastery where their storied breed originated, but they aren't here to learn how to save avalanche victims. The 12 pups are being used to ensure the purity of the ancient pedigree.

"It's a shame," said Marie-Helene Sbai, as she and her boyfriend shook the rain off their coats in the museum's entrance. "It's the entire dog's heritage that no longer exists. It's clear that they weren't really rescuing people anymore." St. Bernards, raised by the hospice's religious order since the 17th century, are credited with saving some 2,000 pilgrims traveling between Switzerland and Italy over the centuries. But with the advent of heat sensors and helicopters, the dogs became obsolete. A St. Bernard was last used in a search around 1975, say the friars, who were finally forced to sell the dogs that had become a drain on the hospice's finances.

In April, two foundations were created to care for the dogs and build a museum in their honor.

The Barry of the Great Saint Bernard Foundation, which bought the dogs, was set up in January with 750,000 francs ($656,000) donated by Christine Cerletti, a singer in the northern Swiss city of Basel. It is named after a St. Bernard that lived in the monastery from 1800 to 1812 and helped save more than 40 people.

A second foundation created by former Geneva banker Bernard de Watteville and his wife, Caroline, is building a museum 35 kilometers (22 miles) away in Martigny, at the foot of the pass on the Swiss side where the dogs have spent winters for the five decades since their rescue duties began to dwindle. The sale of the dogs was on condition that they be returned to the hospice every summer for the tourist season.

At the monastery atop the Alpine pass, the St. Bernards live a cloistered, rather humdrum life.

They are kept in metal cages on a bleak gravel lot outside in good weather.

When foul conditions hit,the pass has wind and snow 245 days of the year and is renowned for sudden weather changes,the heavy-jowled dogs silently stare at visitors from small glass enclosures inside the museum.

The dogs are taken for daily walks of 1{ to 2 hours. But other than that, there is little to do.

"I find it heartbreaking," Muriel Saels, a visitor from Brussels, Belgium, said after paying the entry fee of 7 Swiss francs ($5.55) to see the dogs. "They seem to lack human affection though they seem well-cared for. It makes you want to kidnap the puppies.

"Sure, dogs need a lot of sleep, but they need to go out and run around free. The puppies need to discover nature, drink from a stream, get muddy, jump in puddles, sniff flowers, learn to be afraid of cars. Life is in nature, not in a glass cage." But letting the dogs roam freely isn't an option in a breeding program. The females would run the risk of being impregnated by local dogs or those belonging to tourists.

There are a dozen adult female dogs in the program and one male, Tasso. This year, there were two litters of six pups each. They were born in Martigny and joined their elders at the hospice in late June because until then the pass was too chilly for them. Dog lovers willing to meet the 2,000-franc (US$1,585;euro1,285) price tag can buy a puppy from the foundation if they can navigate the red tape. Applicants considered suitable meet with a foundation representative. After a thorough review of the application, selected candidates are put on a waiting list.

The big, slobbering dogs are not for everyone. Upkeep, as the friars have long maintained, is expensive and time-consuming. Large, strong, muscular animals with powerful heads, St. Bernards are one of the heaviest breeds, according to the American Kennel Club. The males weigh 63-77 kilograms (140-170 pounds), but sometimes hit 90 kilograms (200 pounds).

A fit and trained St. Bernard can pull a load on wheels of more than 1,350 kilograms (3,000 pounds), so an untrained dog easily can drag its master on a wild chase around the neighborhood upon sighting a cat.

And, unsurprisingly for a breed that developed in the Alps, the dogs don't do well in hot climates. They require weekly brushing, with more grooming during their twice yearly shedding. Still, St. Bernards were the 37th most popular dog in 2004, selling better than Newfoundlands, Irish setters, border collies and Dalmatians, the American Kennel Club says. Labradors, golden retrievers and German shepherds ranked as the top three. The St. Bernard's popularity likely comes from being a symbol of rescue and solace known around the world, even if that famous whisky barrel around their necks is a myth dreamed up by 19th century artist Edwin Landseer.

Even though they are no longer needed for rescues, visitors to Bourg Saint Pierre say there is something special about being able to see the dogs in the place where the breed won its fame. "I am Swiss and I am proud to have this heritage. The St. Bernards are as quintessentially Swiss as chocolate, watches or the Alps," said Laurent Zimmermann, a Genevan who came up the 2,473-meter (8,100-foot) pass to visit the hospice museum with his two young sons.

"I remember coming to see the dogs here when I was little. Now I am bringing my own kids."

First Published: Aug 25, 2005 23:00 IST