At the turn of the 18th century, servants called marroniers were assigned to accompany travelers between the hospice and Bourg-Saint-Pierre, a municipality on the Swiss side. By 1750, marroniers were routinely accompanied by St. Bernard dogs, whose broad chests helped to clear paths for travelers. The marroniers soon discovered the dogs’ tremendous sense of smell and ability to discover people buried deep in the snow, and sent them out in packs of two or three alone to seek lost or injured travelers.
The canines made rescue excursions on the St. Bernard Pass for the next 150 years. Often the dogs would find buried travelers, dig through the snow and lie on top of the injured to provide warmth. Meanwhile, the other dog would return to the hospice to alert the monks of the stranded pilgrim. The system became so organized that when Napoleon and his 250,000 soldiers crossed through the pass between 1790 and 1810, not one soldier lost his life.
The most famous of the St. Bernard rescue dogs was Barry, who lived in the monastery from 1800-1814. Barry is said to have saved the lives of more than 40 people from the freezing snow and treacherous conditions of the Alps.
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In 1815, Barry’s taxidermied body was put on exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Berne, Switzerland, where it has stood for the last 200 years and remains today, standing proudly in the lobby of the museum.
The legend surrounding Barry was that he was killed while attempting a rescue; however, this is untrue. Barry retired to Bern, Switzerland and after his death, his body was passed into the care of the Natural History Museum of Bern. His story and name have been used in literary works, and a monument to him stands in the Cimetière des Chiens, a well-known pet cemetery near Paris.
At the hospice, one dog has always been named Barry in his honor and, since 2004, the Foundation Barry du Grand Saint Bernard has been set up to take over the responsibility for breeding dogs from the hospice.