It's one of the great cliches of the canine world. While somewhat more realistic than other canine cliches -- such as beagles flying airplanes or dogs playing poker -- it's the stuff of legend, not fact. In the case of the Saint Bernard, the facts are far more interesting.
Saint Bernard History
The monastery and hospice of Saint Bernard in Switzerland dates back to the 11th century, although it did not receive that name until the 1400s. It was in the 1600s that the large dogs guarding the monastery were first mentioned in travelers' accounts. By the 18th century, these big dogs -- smaller than the modern Saint Bernard -- were regularly used on rescue missions, saving travelers who fell victim to snow storms and avalanches.
The Landseer Portrait
Sir Edwin Henry Landseer was arguably the best-known dog painter of the Victorian era. The brandy in the keg story apparently dates back to the Landseer painting entitled, "Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller," according to the Saint Bernard Club of New South Wales, Australia. In this work a Saint Bernard has that proverbial keg on his collar. While the Saint Bernard Club website discredits the idea that the breed carried such barrels, the dogs apparently did carry packed supplies for lost travelers.
Search and Rescue Dogs
These large, smart, even-tempered dogs with an excellent sense of smell were used by the monks as search and rescue dogs over the route between Italy and Switzerland, commonly known as St. Bernard Pass, according to the Smithsonian website. Over the centuries, it's believed that Saint Bernards were responsible for saving the lives of approximately 2,000 people, including frozen soldiers serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. Although today's lost travelers are now rescued via helicopter, there is still a Saint Bernard breeding kennel in a town near the monastery.
The Saint Bernard did not rescue someone by offering them a sip of brandy. Instead, these mammoth canines would dig the person out of the snow, then lie on or beside them, offering warmth. Since the dogs worked in pairs, one dog would head back to the monastery to alert rescuers. However, it wasn't uncommon for the dogs to lose their own lives while trying to save people. These brave animals often died in avalanches in the course of their rescue duties.