Farm Guardians: The Great Pyrenees

While now most Pyrenees are raised as companions rather than farm dogs, a Pyrenees bred to work will be both a protective and calm livestock guardian.

Great Pyrenees

Despite his widespread use as a family pet, the Great Pyrenees retains his essential livestock guardian nature.

Photo by Jean-Michel Labat/ARDEA

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As long as there have been farm, there have been dogs bred and trained to work alongside the humans who run them. Dogs protect and herd livestock, they guard properties, they kill vermin, and they even pull carts. In Janet Vorwald Dohner’s book, Farm Dogs, there are 93 comprehensive profiles of various working dog breeds with lists of their sizes, histories, natures, and more. Learn the benefits and downfalls of certain breeds, and use this guide to determine which dog will be the best working companion for you.

Great Pyrenees

PIR-uh-neez

Also known as Pyr, Pyrenean Mountain Dog, PMD, Chien de Montagne des Pyrenees, GP

Origin: France

Size:
Male: 27 to 32 inches, 100 to 140 pounds
Female: 25 to 29 inches, 85 to 110 pounds

Coat: Long outer hair with soft undercoat

Color: White; may have markings of badger, gray, various shades of tan

Temperament: Independent, low energy, low reactivity

The lovely Great Pyrenees is probably the most familiar livestock guardian breed in the world, even though most no longer work as livestock guardians in North America, Europe, or their Pyrenean Mountain homeland.

The breed’s popularity extends far beyond France, and the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, as he is called outside North America, is found throughout the world.

The Pyr is a gentle dog, aloof around strangers and independent in nature. A strong trait is his love of children as well as tolerant, nurturing behavior with young animals. Despite the Pyr’s essential good nature and calm demeanor, socialization and training are required. He is still a guard dog at heart and will protect his charges. The Pyrenees offers a measured response to threats but is known as a barker, especially at night. Pyrs have a strong urge to expand their territory, which can result in roaming if not properly contained by fencing.

Working traits. When efforts first began in North America in the late 1970s to utilize LGDs, the Pyrenees was the only breed that was already well established in the country. The Pyr did well in early tests and also proved himself the least aggressive to both humans and stock, making him an excellent choice for new owners of LGDs or in situations where the dog needs to accept regular visitors to the farm. Many Pyrenees work today as either general farm and home protectors or traditional livestock guard dogs. The Pyrenees works primarily through barking and warning threats, only making physical contact if the intruder persists. Owners often describe their dogs as territorial and active guardians at night.

Since so many Pyrenees are raised primarily as companion dogs, it is advisable to search for breeders who specialize in livestock guardians or those who pay careful attention to good guardian qualities in their breeding choices. If the parents are not working dogs, ask if offspring have been placed successfully in working homes. Some dogs have been bred primarily for show or companionship and may lack proper working temperament, although there is no split in the breed between working and show lines.

A large number of these dogs, both purebred and crossbred, are turned over to rescue efforts, especially in North America. Barking, overprotectiveness, shedding, digging, and the inability to keep the dog contained are the primary reasons for surrender. The most common crosses are Anatolian/Pyr and Akbash/Pyr since these three breeds are the most common dogs in working situations today. Some of these dogs may be potential working livestock guardians or excellent family and farm guardians.

Appearance

The French describe the ideal GP head as resembling the Pyrenees brown bear, with very little stop between the muzzle and head. The Pyr has almond-shaped dark eyes, described in the breed standard as “kindly.” The small to medium ears are carried low and close to the head. The Pyr should not resemble a mastiff with heavy flews, a blunt muzzle, or a dewlap. The plumed tail is carried low unless alert, when it can form a wheel over the back. The Pyr also has double dewclaws, which must not be removed according to the standard.

Coat/color. The Pyr often appears larger than he is due to his immense double coat. The long outer coat should be weather resistant and shed dried mud. The coat forms a ruff around the neck, especially in males. Working dogs in the Pyrenees can appear taller in the leg, with less coat than the dogs seen in the show ring and homes.

Although pure white dogs are frequently used to represent the breed, white dogs with one or two patches of light tan, gray, or red-brown are more common. Blaireau, or badger-colored, patches on the head are especially attractive and were often preferred by shepherds in the past. These colored marks may occur on the ears, head, tail, or elsewhere but should not cover more than one-third of the body. Many of these patches fade as puppies mature.

Strongly marked dogs are more common in Europe than in North America. Contrary to some claims, dogs with solid patches of black hair down to the root have not been acceptable since the earliest French standard in 1907.

History

There is no doubt about this breed’s ancient role as a fierce protector against wolves and bears throughout the mountainous French- Spanish borderland. The Chien de Montagne des Pyrénées or, as he is nicknamed in France, patou, probably traces his heritage back to the dogs of the earliest pastoral peoples of this area. The fierce white dogs of the shepherds were certainly well known to the Romans.

Throughout the Middle Ages, sheep and shepherds moved in search of summer pastures in the Pyrenees. As early as 1407, the big white dogs were also used to guard the historic Château Fort de Lourdes. In 1675, King Louis XIV took a patou back to the palace at Louvre and declared the breed the national dog of France. Its popularity spread as more royalty took these striking dogs into their homes and estates as protectors and companions. At times, the dogs also served as elegant fashion accessories. By the early 1800s, visitors to small towns in the Pyrenees could buy puppies in the markets, which became a thriving business for the local people.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, fanciers began to organize clubs and write standards, hoping to bring renewed interest to their beloved breed, which was losing its traditional job as wolves were exterminated and rural people left for jobs in the cities. After World War I further decimated the Pyrenees’ numbers in his homeland, Bernard Sénac Lagrange led a group of dedicated breeders in saving the patou. The separate clubs came together and created the breed standard of 1927, which continues as the basis for the breed today, both in France and around the world.

The Reunion des Amateurs de Chiens Pyreneans now champions all the native breeds of the Pyrenees. Their efforts were needed again when the population of the Pyrenees fell to dangerously low levels after the Second World War and many observers believed that there were no working dogs left in the French Pyrenees.

Today there is renewed interest in pastoralism in the Pyrenees, both as agriculture and a cultural activity. The brown bear has been reintroduced, wolves have migrated from the Italian and Swiss Alps, and stray dogs threaten the flocks. Beginning in 1985, agricultural organizations and conservationists began efforts to reestablish working PMDs and their traditional herding dog partner, the Labrit, or Pyrenean Shepherd. This mission was supported through the work of several groups, which are continuing to work with shepherds and dogs, as well as studying the most appropriate methods and techniques for living with predators.

By 1885, Pyrenean Mountain Dogs were recognized by the British Kennel Club, but attempts to establish the breed did not succeed until the 1930s, when the population increased and the Pyrenean Mountain Dog Club was organized. Most Pyrs in Britain today are companion dogs and especially suited to more rural lifestyles.

Across the Ocean

As early as 1662 Basque fisherman brought their French Pyrenean and Portuguese dogs to Newfoundland, where they contributed to the famous breed of that name. In 1824, it was reported that General Lafayette sent two PMDs from France to a friend in America. Thomas Jefferson also asked some French friends to send him some sheepdogs. Absorbed into the American melting pot, the breed disappeared until the early 1930s, when Pyrenean Mountain Dogs were imported again to the Basquaerie Kennel in Massachusetts. The dogs were rapidly adopted, and the Great Pyrenees Club of America was founded in 1934, utilizing the French standard but taking an Americanized name. Fortunately, a number of dogs were brought over from France before World War II.

The beautiful Pyr quickly proved itself as a companion dog. When the need for working livestock guardians sharply increased in the 1970s, the Pyrenees was the most readily available LGD breed in North America, and some dogs saw a return to their original purpose. Due to his essential good nature, the Pyr remains a favorite choice of both country families and working farms. The Pyrenees continues his considerable popularity today, with some 2,000 puppies registered annually. Many more unregistered and crossbred working dogs are also present.

Down Under

The history of the Pyrenean Mountain Dog in Australia paralleled that of the breed in North America in many ways. Samuel Pratt Winter purchased his dogs in the Pyrenees Mountains in 1843 and brought them to Victoria, where they were used on his property. For the next 35 years or so these working Pyrenean Mountain Dogs were bred and used as guardians against both dingoes and human thieves by many other people in both Victoria and Tasmania. Curiously, they disappeared as working dogs before the turn of the century.

New imports began in 1939, reestablishing the breed. The Pyrenean Mountain Dog Club of Victoria, organized in 1971, supports the breed nationwide. Numbers are not large, especially in working homes, with only about 50 pups registered each year. Fortunately, the breed pool is diverse, as dogs have been imported from North America and Britain, France, and elsewhere in Europe.

The Pyrenean Mountain Dog has also been found in New Zealand since 1947, with frequent imports from both Australia and Great Britain. The Pyrenean Mountain Dog Club was formed in the 1970s, and the breed is recognized by the NZKC.

The worldwide Pyrenean Mountain Dog community holds a series of world conferences focused on preservation, health, and a cooperative exchange of information. Small differences may exist between the standards of the various country organizations.


Coat Care

Great Pyrenees breeders advise that the coat not be clipped or sheared since the dog needs it for protection from the sun as well as for insulation. Unfortunately, poor coats are a common complaint in working-dog situations. Instead of the correct harsh outer coat, too many dogs have soft “cottony” coats that mat, attract foreign matter, and retain dirt. If your dog has a cottony coat, be prepared for frequent grooming. In any case, do not expect a working Pyr to have a show-quality coat.


For another working dog breed, see: Farm Guardians: The Maremma Sheepdog.


Excerpted from Farm Dogs © 2016 by Janet Vorwald Dohner. Used with permission by Storey Publishing.