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A nose for a success story

The latest exhibition at Berne's Natural History museum celebrates the sense of smell of animals. (picture: Lisa Schäublin)

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Switzerland’s most famous dog is being celebrated with a museum exhibition about him - and his sense of smell. Barry was a St Bernard, who in 12 years is said to have rescued over 40 people.

Barry’s home for most of his life was some 2,500 metres above sea level, at a hospice founded nearly a thousand years ago to shelter and help travellers on the mountain pass from which his breed took its name.

This crossing point between Switzerland and Italy is a bleak place when the weather turns bad, and all too often the assistance involved rescue.

"When you have a white-out in fog and snow you need a good nose to know your feet," says Marc Nussbaumer, who has written a biography of Barry. "The dogs have an excellent sense of smell and always knew where the paths were."

Although he is an expert on Barry, Nussbaumer has been unable to establish the number of rescue missions in which he took part. "Last year I visited the hospice and asked the monks, but all they could say is that it might have been over 40 or it could have been 200. They never kept records of their life-saving work."

In 1812, at the age of 12, Barry was taken to Berne and died there two years later. At the monks’ request, his remains were stuffed and put on public display in the Natural History Museum as a symbol of the rescue work of the dogs and the monks for 250 years.

The Barry exhibition, which is at the museum until November 12, is subtitled "A Tribute to the Nose". It examines and explains the sense of smell of animals and humans, showing for example how dogs «see» with the nose.

It also looks at how travellers cross the St Bernard pass today - and at the rescue services which took over from the dogs.

But the central character is Barry, watching over the exhibition with snow falling behind him. Around his neck is not a keg of brandy but a metal collar.

"The monks told me the St Bernard dogs never carried kegs," said Nussbaumer. "My theory is that this particular legend started after a dog-breeder began using the keg as a trademark to represent quality."

by Richard Dawson


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