Great Pyrenees: Not Just Another Pretty Face

From the September 2018 Issue ShowSight. Click to subscribe.

Many years ago, long before a kennel was built or the many acres were fenced, I had two Great Pyrenees; Maggie (two years old) and Molly (seven months old). Very late one evening I had them out in the yard on leashes for their last walk before bedtime. A car drove by with three men in it. They started throwing out beer cans and then the window was lowered and one of them yelled “Hey lady, what kind a dogs are those?” I ignored them and started walking back towards the house. They then backed up and pulled into my driveway. As the back door started to open, I said, “You are on private property…do not get out of the car.” He continued out and suddenly I felt one of the leashes go slack. I looked down and found that Maggie had backed completely out of her choke collar. Before I could react, she was running toward the car. Just as he reached the back of the car, Maggie jumped up, putting her paws on his shoulders, pushed him backwards onto the trunk and held him there.

I walked over, slipped the collar back around her neck and pulled her off. Needless to say, he was back in the car and off in a flash. Her behavior that night is typical of what these dogs can and will do to protect. I thought she was magnificent. She never put her mouth on him and she was willing to leave him when I asked her to. Maggie lived to be 12 years old and that was the first and last time she ever got out of a collar. Although had there ever been another need, I have no doubt she could and would have. That was my personal experience but over the years I have heard numerous other heroic stories of other Pyrs. The Pyr that moved between a toddler and a rattlesnake and took the bite. The Pyr that moved his sheep to safety before the barn burned to the ground. The Pyr that alerted his owners to a house fire. There are many, many stories of these dogs, doing what they were bred to do, that we never hear about. All the working Pyrs that keep their livestock safe every day. The therapy dogs that spend hours in nursing homes and hospitals connecting with and comforting the patients; working with patients who are relearning motor skills. The reader dogs that are a highlight at many libraries. The assistance or service dogs that make their owners’ lives easier. And last but not least, the Pyrs that bring joy and companionship to their owners every day.

I was in the Pyrenees Mountains of France last year and was fortunate to come upon two young Pyrs moving a large flock of sheep down the mountain. It was a sight to behold! The only level terrain was the roadway and the dogs and sheep were moving down the middle of the road in spite of the automobiles, cyclists, and the horses and cows that also roam the mountainside there. And they were doing it all on their own, all alone with no shepherd around. Of course, I got out of the car to take pictures. They were not alarmed by my presence or aggressive in any way. They continued to calmly move along, dropping back occasionally to move a stray sheep back into the group. They never approached me nor would they take food from one of the cyclist who offered it as he was trying to move through. They were intent on doing their job. Seeing these dogs in their native country, doing the job they have been bred to do for centuries, brought tears to my eyes. It is a moment in time that I will never forget and one I hope to see again on future trips to the mountains.

Great Pyrenees take their name from the mountain range in southwestern Europe, where they have long been used as guardians of the flocks. The breed likely evolved from a group of principally white mountain flock guard dogs that originated ten or eleven thousand years ago in Asia Minor. It is very plausible that these large white dogs arrived in the Pyrenees Mountains with their shepherds about 3000 BC. There they encountered the indigenous people of the area, one of which were the Basques, descendants of Cro-Magnon Man. In the isolation of the Pyrenees Mountains over these millenniums, the breed developed the characteristics that make it unique to the group of flock guardian dogs in general and the primarily white members of the group.

By the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the state of the breed had deteriorated because there were very few natural predators left in the mountains and the practices of many unscrupulous breeders selling to native tourists through the region. In 1907 Monsieur Dretzen from Paris, along with Count de Bylandt of Holland and Monsieur Byasson of Argeles-Gazost, formed the Club du Chien des Pyrenees (CCP) a.k.a. Argeles Club in Argeles-Gazost. They combed the mountains for a group of “faultlessly typical” specimens. Monsieur Dretzen took these dogs back to his kennel in Paris. Also in 1907, the Pastoure Club at Lourdes, Hautes Pyrenees, France, was organized to perpetuate interest in the breed. Each club wrote a breed standard.

After the decimating effects of World War I, the breed’s numbers and quality had been severely compromised. A few dedicated breeders, headed by Monsieur Senac Lagrange, worked to restore the breed to its former glory. They joined together the remnants of the two former clubs and formed the Reunion des Amateurs de Chiens Pyreneans which still exists today. It was this club that was responsible for the breed standard being published in 1927. This standard has served as a basis for all current standards for the breed. After World War II, it was again Monsieur Senac Lagrange who took the lead in getting the breed back on its feet from the devastating effects of the German occupation.

In 1931, Mr. and Mrs. Francis V. Crane imported several dogs and seriously launched the breed in North America with the founding of Basquaerie Kennels in Needham, Massachusetts. Their lifelong effort on behalf of the breed provided the breed with an atmosphere in which it could thrive and prosper. They imported important breeding stock out of Europe just before the Continent was closed by World War II. The American Kennel Club accorded the Great Pyrenees official recognition in February, 1933, and beginning in April, 1933, separate classification began for the breed at licensed shows.

Today, the Great Pyrenees is a working dog as well as a companion and family dog. Most never see a show ring, but they are trusted and beloved members in homes and may function as livestock guardian dogs on farms and ranches. They are very social dogs in the family but can be wary of strangers in the work environment (this includes the home). They adapt easily to other situations such as dog shows and make extraordinary ambassadors for the breed in settings such as hospitals and nursing homes. They have a special ability to identify and distinguish predators or unwelcome intruders.

The very traits that make Great Pyrenees such a unique breed and “Pyr people” find so admirable can also make living with them a challenge. Great Pyrenees are livestock guardian dogs. They were bred to be left alone in the mountain valleys. They are guard dogs by instinct, not by training and they cannot be expected to welcome uninvited intrusions onto your property. They are not “attack” dogs but can be very intimidating to the surprised visitor. It is the owner’s obligation to maintain their Pyr so that his guarding instincts can be exercised in a responsible way. Great Pyrenees’ basic personality is different from most breeds, since most breeds were bred to take commands from people. Pyrs were bred to work on their own. They are intelligent, sometimes willful dogs. They have minds of their own and are not easily obedience trained. Many are almost cat-like in their independence. They are also barkers, especially at night. The amount of barking varies from individual to individual, but the instinct is there and in some cases can cause major problems. Most Great Pyrenees in urban or suburban settings must be kept indoors at night because of the barking. Because of their instinct to establish and patrol a large territory, Pyrs must be confined in a well-fenced area. They are roamers and when out of the fence they must be kept on lead at all times. While most Pyrs are very protective of small animals, many will not tolerate another large dog of the same sex in their territory.

If, after thoroughly researching the breed you decide that this is a dog that you would like to share your life with, please buy from a responsible breeder. When visiting the breeder, ask to see the parents of the puppy. Make sure that both parents are OFA or Penn Hip certified clear of hip dysplasia. When choosing a puppy, look for a happy, healthy, outgoing puppy. You do not want a shy, emaciated or sickly-appearing pup. The coat should carry a glossy shine. There should be no discharge from the eyes or nose and the puppy should be moving along on sturdy legs. The puppy should be at least eight weeks old. You should also inquire about a breeder/buyer contract, which explains what is expected of you, the buyer, and of the breeder. Your puppy should come from registered parents, should have a pedigree from the breeder, a health record showing when and what inoculations and medications have been given and also care and feeding instructions. Buy from someone who is knowledgeable about the breed and who is willing to share this information with you. This will be the beginning of a relationship that should last as long as your Great Pyrenees is a part of your family. You can expect that a good breeder will ask you about your plans and facilities for your Pyr. In fact, buyers should be cautious of breeders who do not ask questions. It could indicate that the breeder is not very concerned about the future of their pups. Some questions you might expect:

• Do you have a well fenced area? Pyrs are roamers and must be kept in your home, in a securely fenced area or on leash. Underground or invisible fencing is not appropriate for Pyrs. Very often it will not keep them in and it will not keep other animals or people out. Remember, Pyrs are guardian dogs.

• Do you have neighbors who many complain about a barking dog? Remember, Pyrs are barkers, especially at night.

• Do you have the time to give your dog regular discipline, basic obedience training, proper socialization and grooming? All dogs, but most especially large guardian dogs, need regular day-to-day discipline, basic obedience training, companionship and attention to ensure that they become a pleasure and not a problem.

• Do you own other dogs? If so, what breeds and sexes? Pyrs are territorial dogs. Male Pyrs will seldom tolerate another large male dog in their territory and females sometimes will not tolerate another large female in her territory. If you should have this experience, do you have the ability to keep the dogs separated for the rest of their lives?

• Can you afford to own a giant breed dog? While adult Pyrs are not big eaters, growing pups require more, good quality food. And while basic routine vaccinations may not cost more for a large dog than they do for a small dog, a large dog does require a higher dosage of medications and anesthesia than a smaller dog. This can add considerably to your vet bill. It also costs more to board a large dog should you have the need.

• Do all family members want this pup? It is a mistake to buy a dog for the kids when it requires the management of responsible adults to care for a dog. It is also unfair to the pup if a family member resents his presence in the home.

Do your research and be patient and cautious. The first available puppy or the lowest price may not be the best choice. Well-bred Pyrs are not constantly available and purchasing the right puppy may mean waiting for a while. They are not inexpensive and the price may vary somewhat depending on what area of the country you live in. People who sell pups for much less than the average for your area probably have not put as much time or care into the breeding or rearing of their pups. Please be sure you are willing to make a commitment for the next 10 to 12 years to meet the physical and emotional needs of a Great Pyrenees. These dogs are living; breathing sensitive creatures that should not be discarded simply because they have become an inconvenience or your living arrangement or personal life have changed. Any number of Great Pyrenees end up in rescue each year because people did not research the breed thoroughly or did not take this commitment seriously.

Okay, you’ve done your homework; you’ve found that puppy and brought it home. Be prepared. This will be the beginning of a lifelong love affair with a truly unique and magnificent breed. It might also be the beginning of a new life with dogs; a new kennel; a new devotee of this breed. We all started with one Pyr. I did in 1984 with my Maggie. Now, many years later, I have fifteen and have owned and loved many more in between. They are a lot like potato chips. You can’t have just one!

For more information about the Great Pyrenees or Great Pyrenees breeders, Please go to the Great Pyrenees Club of America website at:

*Some information excerpted from publications of the Great Pyrenees Club of America, Inc.

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