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February 15, 2010 / Dave Gorham

The Cask is a Crock

Growing up in the ’60s, of course I spent too much time watching cartoons; Looney Tunes were my favorite. Because of this, I grew up thinking St. Bernards were unstoppable, cold-proof, rescue dogs in the Alps who traveled with casks of whiskey to warm trapped and/or buried skiers and mountain climbers. I’ll admit I carried this “fact” into my 20s, at least.

Is this the endearing SAR dog you remember from your childhood? Image: Looney Tunes

There is, as is often the case, both fact and fiction woven into the Looney Tunes characters and stories. Fact: St. Bernards are/were search and rescue (SAR) dogs in the Alps (and other places). Fiction: They did not carry a cask of whiskey (or scotch, brandy, schnapps, or anything else). Let’s move past the problems of a cask around the animal’s neck; one who is likely traveling long and hard miles, as well as quickly digging and sniffing through uncounted locations. Instead let’s move right to the problem of alcohol: A nice, slushy, sub-freezing blend that would be the absolute last thing, no matter how tasty, a person freezing to death would want or need.

The Looney Tunes folks were likely inspired by an Edwin Lanseer painting from 1820. Notice how the early rescue St. Bernards of the Landseer painting look different than today’s St. Bernards? Reportedly, many St. Bernards were killed in scores of avalanches brought about by increased severe weather of the early 1800s, so much so that the survival of the breed was actually threatened. To save the breed the remaining St. Bernards were bred with Newfoundlands. Unfortunately, the resulting long, thick fur would become wet and freeze, rendering the St. Bernard much less effective as a cold-weather mountain rescue dog.

Looney Tunes inspiration? Image: 1820 Landseer painting “The Discovery and Rescue.”

Today search and rescue (SAR) dogs are of many breeds and serve many functions. From German Shepherds, to Collies, to Labrador Retrievers they serve law enforcement, the handicapped, the military and natural disaster response teams. Avalanche is one of the more well known natural disasters utilizing the SAR dog, but crisis teams responding to the devastated areas of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes all include specially-trained teams of dogs ready to sniff out human scent from under the rubble of collapsed buildings, from within the piles of debris after receding flood waters or from layers of snow and ice more then 6 feet deep.

The modern SAR dog alerts on human scent from under the snow. Photo: Wiki



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