from The New Yorker

The Wacky and Wonderful World of the Westminster Dog Show

A canine campaign can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention all the brushing, trimming, blow-drying, and styling products. Did you think it was easy being top dog?

By Kathryn Schulz

ernard de Menthon was born around the year 1000, near what is now the border of Switzerland and France. He was raised in a castle, given a first-class education, and, in time, affianced by his father to a noblewoman, as befit the scion of an ancient and wealthy family. By then, however, de Menthon had grown into a pious young man whose plans for the future did not include marriage. According to legend, the night before the wedding, he fled the castle by jumping out of a high window, whereupon a band of angels caught him and lowered him gently to the ground.

Ordained as a priest, de Menthon began preaching in villages throughout the region of Aosta, a territory that included a mountain pass already in use for at least a thousand years to cross the Western Alps. In de Menthon’s day, it was a popular route for Christians making the pilgrimage to Rome, but the journey was perilous. Bands of brigands routinely staked out the area to attack travellers, the pass itself was harrowing—eight thousand feet high, buried in snow, prone to avalanches—and de Menthon often found himself ministering to travellers who had been subjected to its terrors. And so, when he became the archdeacon of Aosta, he established a hospice in the pass, staffed by monks who offered aid to pilgrims venturing over the mountains.

At first, the hospice simply provided food, shelter, and a reminder to people inclined to make trouble that they did so under the watchful eye of God, or, anyway, of the godly. Over time, though, the monks began dispatching search parties to recover the missing. No one knows exactly when those search parties first began bringing along dogs, but by the early seventeen-hundreds the search parties were dogs—clever, indefatigable creatures capable of smelling a body under twenty feet of snow, who patrolled the area unaccompanied by humans. They generally travelled in pairs, so that, if they found someone too sick or hurt to move, one dog could return to the hospice to summon help while the other stayed behind, lying down atop the stricken person to offer warmth and hope. At some point, the hospice started keeping track of those rescues; by 1897, when one dog found a boy who had nearly frozen to death after falling into a crevasse, the dogs were known to have saved some two thousand people. Also by then, the long-dead Bernard de Menthon had been canonized, which is why the pass, the hospice, and the dogs themselves are all known today by the name St. Bernard.

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