In the 11th century, monks founded a hospice as a refuge for travellers and pilgrims on the 2469 metre-high Great Saint Bernard Pass. Large mountain dogs have been kept at the hospice since the mid 17th century to guard and protect those staying there. The first visual evidence of the presence of mountain dogs dates back to 1695, and the first written document is a hospice memo from the year 1707. The dogs were rapidly adopted as companion dogs and above all as rescue dogs for travellers who lost their way in the snow and mist. The dogs from the Great Saint Bernard Pass saved the lives of a great number of people, averting many deaths in the snow. The reputation of the Saint Bernards (then called "Barry dogs") grew throughout Europe in the 19th century thanks to chronicles published in many languages and to reports passed on by word of mouth by the soldiers who had crossed the pass with Napoleon Bonaparte in 1800. The legendary Barry became the archetype of the rescue dog.
The direct ancestors of the Saint Bernards were the large farm dogs found widely across the area. In the space of a few generations, these dogs were bred according to specifically defined ideal criteria to make them into the breed that exists today. In 1867, Heinrich Schumacher from Holligen near Bern became the first person to present documents showing the ancestry of his dogs.
In February 1884, the Swiss dog register was started. The first ever entry was a Saint Bernard called Léon, and the 28 additional entries were all also Saint Bernards. On 15th March 1884, the Swiss Saint Bernard Club was founded in Basel. On the occasion of an international cynology congress on 2nd June 1887, the Saint Bernard was officially recognised as a Swiss dog breed and compulsory standards set for the breed. The Saint Bernard has been regarded as Switzerland’s national dog ever since.