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Oh Wise and Merciful Matthew:

Did St. Bernards really carry around little barrels on their necks, and if so, what was in them?

-- Ida Know, Escondido

Here's your answer, Ida-- no. The little brandy barrels were dreamed up by 19th-century British painters, principally the esteemed Sir Edwin Landseer. He was an animal portraitist who filled his subjects with so much human sentiment and drama that the beasts would fairly leap off the canvas and lick your hand. The most famous of these paintings is called Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler. It shows a pair of Saints (originally called Alpine mastiffs) in a snowy landscape standing over the body of a "distressed traveler," who is stiff as a frozen fish stick. One of the dogs has a small barrel hooked to its collar. But hypothermia victims can't be "reanimated" with alcohol, and where Sir Ed got his goofball keg idea is anybody's guess.

Saints are definitely mountain rescue dogs, though. Swiss monks have bred and trained them for hundreds of years at their hospice in the Great St. Bernard Pass. If you'd like your own, an authentic monk-bred puppy (barrel not included) will set you a thousand bucks, plus airfare.

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