St. Bernards and Barrel Collars: Savior in the Cold or a Myth?

Maude Earl (British, 1864 – 1943), I Hear a Voice, 1896, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, On Loan from the American Kennel Club. 

If you have had the opportunity to visit the NSLM’s current exhibition Identity and Restraint: The Art of the Dog Collar, you probably found yourself gazing up at this magnificent painting in Gallery 2 called I Hear a Voice by Maud Earl (British, 1864 – 1943) on loan from our exhibition partners, the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog. And, if you are anything like me, you most likely found yourself enchanted by the subject of the painting, a sweet yet regal-looking St. Bernard (whose name, by the way, is Frandley Stephanie).  

Sitting just to the left of this masterpiece in a glass case is what many of us expect to be hanging around the neck of a St. Bernard wandering a snowy mountain pass; a wooden barrel dog collar. In almost all forms of media, from cartoons to Swiss travel advertisements, this omnipresent imagery has been repeated and preserved in our hearts and minds.

Dog Collar, n.d. Wood, metal, and leather, 8 x 4 3/4 inches

The barrel collar currently sitting in Gallery 2 was donated to the NSLM in 2014 by Dr. and Mrs. Timothy J. Greenan along with 187 other historic dog collars (making the NSLM one of the largest repositories for dog collars in the world). Mysteriously, there is no date or place of origin associated with the barrel, leaving us to wonder about its past, and its intersection with the history of the St. Bernard breed.

St. Bernard Hospice and lake, Valais, Alps of, Switzerland, between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900, photomechanical print, LOT 13410, no. 685, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C (public domain)

The origin story of these courageous canines takes place, unsurprisingly in the St. Bernard Pass. Sitting on the Swiss-Italian border, the Pass historically acted as a gateway through the Alps and was used by the likes of Julius Ceasar in his 57 BCE campaign during the Gallic Wars as well as the Roman Emperors Augustus and Claudius as an imperial road. Being one of the more accessible points to cross meant that many travelers found themselves having to brave the treacherous St. Bernard Pass in order to make their pilgrimage to and from Rome.   

Avalanche in Grand-Saint-Bernard in the newspaper Le Messager Boîteux. Accident happened the 18 December of 1816 (public domain)

Especially in the winter months, the threat of avalanches, unexpected snowstorms, and freezing temperatures meant that many who attempted the crossing perished with no shelter for protection. That was until 1050 CE when the monk Bernard of Menthon constructed a hospice in the Pass to provide food and warmth to travelers on their journey. It’s not certain when the St. Bernard dog first arrived at the Hospice, but historians have deduced that a large dog breed from the villages in the lower valley was enlisted to aid the monks in rescuing lost travelers as early as the 1660s. 

Napoléon passant le grand St Bernard Pass, n.d. Edouard Castres (Swiss 1831 – 1902). Oil on canvas, Musée Militaire de Morges (public domain)

The monks found that the breed they recruited were natural pathfinders in deep snow cover and had a wonderful sense of smell, necessary for sniffing out buried travelers. For three centuries, these dogs worked to save approximately 2,000 distressed and injured travelers in the St. Bernard Pass. This would include members of the Napoleonic Army as they famously journeyed through the Pass on their way to clash with Austrian forces in 1800. The stories that the soldiers would tell of their journey conveyed their fondness for these dogs and credited them for their safe passage.  

Illustration in Dog of St Bernard and other Stories, pg 4, (New York, McLoughlin Bros. ca 1870), (public domain)

You may wonder what would a St. Bernard rescue have looked like? Well, multiple dogs would be patrolling the Pass and if a distressed traveler was found, a few would signal for help while one would lay on top of the victim to raise their body temperature and lick their face until they regained consciousness. Sporadically early accounts of these rescues mention St. Bernards carrying a flask, vial, or basket that carried aid to the victim.

Sir Edwin Landseer (British, 1802 – 1873), Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, 1820, Oil on Canvas, 74 7/16 × 93 5/16 in, National Gallery of Art, Purchased by Patrons’ Permanent Fund, Accession Number: 2019.120.1

The barrel first enters into the breed’s history in 1820, when English artist, Sir Edwin Landseer (British, 1802 – 1873) in his painting Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, depicted a St. Bernard wearing a barrel collar during a rescue. This painting captured the attention and the hearts of all who saw it, so much so that viewers never questioned the accuracy of Landseer’s inspiration for the collar. And so the myth grew and persists to this day!

There are those who are trying to set the record straight. The Natural History Museum in Bern states that though, “The barrel became a recognized symbol, the use of which was a success story in the early days of marketing.” A chaplain confirmed in 1956 that, “At no point in time did the dogs carry such barrels.” 

So what does this all mean for the barrel collar currently sitting in a case in the exhibition? In all likelihood, it was probably produced after 1820, after the barrel collar imagery became popular and synonymous with the St. Bernard breed, a symbol of the breed’s heroism; but, never used in the field.

Sunday, March 26 is the last day that you will be able to see Maud Earl’s I Hear a Voice and the barrel collar displayed at the NSLM. After that, Identity and Restraint will be at the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog in New York City from April 5 to September 4, 2023 and then at Pebble Hill Plantation in Thomasville, Georgia from November 3, 2023 to May 3, 2024.

To learn more, take a look at these resources:

Barry – the Legendary St. Bernard, The Natural History Museum of Bern:

A Brief History of the St. Bernard Rescue Dog, 2016, Smithsonian Magazine:

Petit, Joseph. Marengo, or the Campaign of Italy. … 1801, Second edition. United Kingdom: W. Hughes:

St. Bernard, Encyclopedia Britannica:

Edward Griffith, Alpine Spaniel “General and Particular Descriptions of the Vertebrated Animals” 1821, Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, p.210:

Heinrich Gottlieb Ludwig Reichenbach, Die vollstaendigste Naturgeschichte des In- und Auslandes. Die Raubsaeugethiere, 1852, Ghent University:

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