The Great Pyrenees, or Pyrenean Mountain Dog as it is called in Europe, has guarded sheep in the mountains of France and Spain as long as history records. Its lineage has been entirely lost in time, but it is probably related to the other ancient flock guardian breeds. Its ancestors may have been giant Asian dogs, perhaps the white dogs of Asia Minor or the Tibetan Mastiff from farther east.
In any case, the Great Pyrenees has been preserved intact for thousands of years in fossils and art. The breed has changed surprisingly little since the days it stood guard alone in the mountains. On the French side of the Pyrenees range, the dogs were built identically to modern specimens, but with large black patches in their coats. On the Spanish side, white was the predominate color, but the dogs were more lightly built with tapering noses.
While the Great Pyrenees had an important role in guarding the châteaux as early as the 1400s, it officially became the breed of nobility later, when Louis XIV took one home as a pet. Louis named the Great Pyrenees the Royal Dog of France in 1675, making it a popular choice for many aristocrats.
Lafayette sent the first specimens to America in 1824, when he gave two to a friend. A few more dogs followed in subsequent years, but the breed did not catch on at this time.
By the early 1900s, the Great Pyrenees was in a serious plight. The French Revolution had previously toppled the aristocracy and thus caused the loss of Royal Dog status, returning the breed to its role as a working dog. The Great Pyrenees fared little better in the hands of the commoners, however. The country folk made made some easy cash for a time by selling their poorer-quality puppies to unsuspecting tourists, but in the end eliminated their own canine export market through their unscrupulous practices. While some dogs were still scattered across France, many of these were drafted into the military in World War I, where they served as pack animals, some paying the ultimate price.
The Great Pyrenees was rescued from the brink of extinction after the war through the efforts of Bernard Senac-Lagrange, dog expert and vice president of the French Kennel Club. He searched France for the best specimens, and then created the first written standard for the breed to promote a focus on quality dogs, not the animals that had ruined the breed’s reputation among tourists.
Lagrange made every effort to help breeders in other countries purchase good breeding stock, so it was not long before the Great Pyrenees appeared in America once again. The breed was recognized by the AKC in 1933, bringing it further attention as a show dog.
It was extremely fortunate that the Great Pyrenees was firmly established on our shores by the time World War II hit, as in France it was pressed back into military service. The United States military considered the breed too cumbersome to make a good war dog, preferring breeds such as the German Shepherd. This ensured that the future of the Great Pyrenees was secure.
In fairly short order, American breeders managed to sand off some of the rougher edges of this livestock guardian’s temperament, creating a dependably sweet pet and show dog. However, this has not spoiled the breed’s working abilities. The Great Pyrenees is probably the most popular guard dog for sheep and goats in the United States today, as it is both familiar and readily available across the country. Today, the Great Pyrenees ranks 69th in AKC registration statistics.
There is no question that the Great Pyrenees is an excellent pet and therapy dog. If given his choice, however, he would probably prefer to live outdoors and protect his territory and possessions. He is not only a guardian of livestock, but is a reliable family watchdog, as well.
In cold weather, the Great Pyrenees can do extra work as a pack or draft dog, able to haul a cart full of firewood, tote a sled for the children, or pack along supplies on a hiking trail.
In some parts of the world, the Great Pyrenees is a common choice for search and rescue in the wake of avalanches.
“Gentle giant” may be a cliche, but it is perfectly applicable to the Great Pyrenees. He is a dog that can be trusted implicitly with the safety of the entire family. He is confident and serious, but perfectly sound in disposition. He has a soft place in his heart for anything small, whether a newborn lamb, a young toddler, or even a cat. He can put up with the most feisty little dog, although he may stubbornly resist the addition of another Great Pyrenees of the same sex to the household.
Owners marvel at the intuition of this breed. This trait serves him well. Not only can he readily distinguish between friend and foe, he can be a true companion, as well, responding quietly and kindly to the moods of his people. The Great Pyrenees may not be very demonstrative, but he will often use a paw or a gentle nudge to display his affection.
Just because he is a sweet, loyal dog, do not assume that he can be easily controlled. The Great Pyrenees was bred for millennia to think independently and make his own decisions. He has little interest in taking orders, especially when he sees no purpose for them. Arbitrary obedience exercises might amuse a herding dog, but the Great Pyrenees will view the whole process with obvious disdain. Fortunately, he is naturally quite mannerly, and any additional training in etiquette he needs can be taught naturally during the daily routine, provided that his respect has been earned.
The Great Pyrenees does not have to be a working dog to have a strong territorial instinct. He absolutely must be kept within a fence or on a leash, as he will periodically wander off to expand his range. He strongly distrusts unfamiliar people, dogs, and wild animals of the large, threatening type. However, he will readily learn to accept visitors that you welcome in person. He will regard trespassers with suspicion, particularly if he is of a working bloodline, ever so much more so if he hails directly from France.
No training is needed to shape a Great Pyrenees into a successful livestock guardian—he comes fully equipped with all the instinct he needs. Your role will simply be to introduce him to his flock at a young age. He bonds quickly, and may be ready to work as early as six months of age. On the job, he may appear to be lazy, spending his entire day sleeping. Don’t be fooled, however. The Great Pyrenees can sleep with one ear open. He may patrol at night, but mostly he prefers to deter predators by marking his boundaries. When a potential threat is sighted, his first line of defense is his deep bark. The Great Pyrenees only goes on the offensive if he is convinced that life-threatening danger is impending. Then watch out, because his speed and agility will astonish you.
The Great Pyrenees is usually structurally sound, but he does have special needs. He is susceptible to both heat and intense sun. Although it may sound like a good idea, do not shave him down in the summer, as he is prone to sunburn and hot spots. Instead, help him beat the heat by letting him rest in the shade and drink plenty of cool water.
He will continue to physically mature until he is about 1 1/2 years old. To avoid “growing pains” and joint damage, do not roughhouse with him on hard surfaces or let him jump above his elbow height at this time. Fortunately, Great Pyrenees puppies are typically calmer than those of most breeds, so this should not be too much of a problem.
The most common inherited problems in the Great Pyrenees are:
- Entropion (eyelids that turn inward).
- Hip dysplasia.
- Luxating patellas (slipped kneecaps).
- Cancer, particularly of the bones and reproductive system.
- Suitability for families with children and most other pets.
- Little doggy odor.
- Low exercise requirements.
- Suitability for the coldest climates.
- Surprisingly low food requirements relative to size.
- Minimal training needs for working dogs.
- Surprising agility.
- Unsuitability for small homes and yards.
- Remarkable ability as an escape artist.
- Night barking.
- Difficulty of training.
- Extensive shedding.
- Grooming needs.
- Unsuitability for hot, humid climates.
- Short lifespan.