Although there is no written evidence concerning the origin of the St Bernard, it is believed to have descended from the old Roman Mollossus, brought to the Hospice of the Great St Bernard as watchdogs between 1660 and 1670.

The Hospice, from which the breed took its name, is located at an elevation of 8,000 feet in the remote Mons Jovis Pass region of the Swiss Alps on the Italo-Swiss border. It was once the principal pass linking Switzerland and Italy.

Weather conditions in this region are always treacherous and unpredictable, with temperatures often below freezing even in summer. The heavy winter snows may reach a depth of 30 feet or more, making avalanches a constant threat. The monks and their dogs search the pass daily for signs of stranded travellers and guide them to safety. Because of their uncanny ability to find people buried six feet or more under snow. The St Bernard dogs of the Hospice have been credited with saving over 2,000 lives during the past 250 years.

It has been determined that the initial breeding stock originally came to the Hospice from the Swiss valley, probably in the 1660s. They were probably large Mastiff types of mixed blood with very heavy heads and bone, used initially as guard dogs. By 1695 they had been bred to a certain type, which might well be considered the formal beginning of our breed.

As the dogs were watchdogs and guards, the monks took them along on their walks in search for lost travellers and soon discovered their tremendous qualities of pathfinding and sense of direction. From then on the dogs were trained for guide and rescue work, with splendid results.

Records reveal that in 1787 the dogs protected the Hospice from a gang of burglars. During the years 1816 to 1818, years of severe storms, the dogs performed remarkable service and several died in the course of their rescue work.

The most famous rescue dog of all was Barry. Since his time there has always been a Barry at the Hospice Kennels. He is credited with saving over 40 lives. He worked from 1800 to 1812, when he retired to Berne. He died in 1814 and was mounted, later to be exhibited at the Berne Museum.

The following dates give a brief historical outline of the breed's first 200 years.

1660 (approx) Dogs brought to the Hospice from valleys below as companion and guard dogs.

1695 Two paintings at the Hospice - first known picures of the breed.

1707 First written record acknowledging the dogs at the Hospice.

1774 First record of life-saving work.

1800-1812 Span of the career of Barry, who saved the lives of 40 people.

1830 First cross with the Newfoundland - led to the first long-haired St Bernards.

1830 -1860 Rough-coated St Bernards given to people in valleys by Hospice and smooth-coated St Bernards predominated at the Hospice.

1855-1860 Beginning of Heinrich Schumachers (1831-1903) breeding career, which led to stud book records, many exports to other countries and an understanding by Schumacher of the basis for a breed Standard.

Another role commonly fulfilled by St Bernards for many years in Europe, indeed until quite recent times, was that of a draught animal, assisting the farmers to deliver their produce of milk, cheese, butter, bread etc. by towing small wooden carts, either working individually or as a brace.