Famous Animals: Barry the Avalanche Dog

Skiers are always swept off their feet when the first snow falls - sometimes literally! Speeding down a slope on skis is such a great feeling! But fresh snow can cause avalanches. And who was always at our sides when the worst came to the worst? Our loyal companion, the St. Bernard!

Barry Saved 40 People’s Lives

With their good noses and powerful bodies, these dogs were able to find avalanche victims and free them from their snowy graves. One St. Bernard was especially brave and saved 40 people’s lives: Barry.

He was tirelessly on duty between 1800 and 1814, and even once carried a young boy on his back to take him to safety!

St. Bernard St. Bernard (not Barry) - Photo: cappi thompson/Shutterstock

A Quirky Rescue Team

In those days, the few roads were in poor condition and there was no council team to spread salt, no fire service and no rescue service. Well, not quite. There was a rescue service, but it might be a little different to what you’d imagine. On the Great St. Bernard Pass (a mountain pass) in the Alps, it was made up of a band of monks and their St. Bernard dogs.

The Dangerous St. Bernard

Before a big tunnel was dug through the mountain in 1964, it was incredibly dangerous to travel this way in winter. Of course, there were several (sales)people that didn’t take this danger seriously. Despite the warnings, they set off on their way - and it wasn’t uncommon for them to be submerged by avalanches.

So, the monks set up a rescue lodge and trained St. Bernard dogs to save the victims from certain death. The dog breed was ideal for the job: St. Bernards are big, powerful, even-tempered and reliable. They are also very good at orientation and have exceptional noses.

So What Happened to Barry?

Good old Barry was actually injured himself. Not by an avalanche, but by an avalanche victim that thought he was a wolf in his panic. Thankfully, the monks were able to nurse Barry back to health.

Afterwards, he was able to relax with his paws up. Barry lived out his well-earned retirement in Bern, where he died of old age.

What’s with the Schnapps Barrel?

St. Bernards are often shown with a small schnapps barrel around their necks. The high-proof brew was supposed to warm up the freezing victims. But there isn’t actually any definitive evidence today that the dogs wore these barrels.

Find out more about dogs’ astounding skills in our dog-factsheet!