Known in France as, “The King of Dogs,” the Great Pyrenees has been a devoted livestock guardian in the Pyrenees Mountains for hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years. These massive dogs are known for their snow-colored coats and their protective nature. The Great Pyrenees is an ancient breed, being developed in a remote area long before records of dog breeding were kept, possibly before writing was even introduced to the region. As a result, most of the breed’s history is shrouded in mystery. What is known for sure is that the breed is very old, is native to the Pyrenees Mountains which form the border between France and Spain and that the breed has used a variety of aliases throughout history to include: the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Pyrenean Wolfhound, Bearhound, Chien des Pyrenees, Montagne des Pyrénées and Patou.
Many dog fanciers assume that all large European livestock guardians are Mastiffs, also known as Mollossers. As a result, for many years the Great Pyrenees was assumed to have been brought to the Pyrenees with the Romans, who spread Mastiffs throughout their empire. However, most modern dog experts, and particularly those who have studied the Great Pyrenees dispute this origin. There are a number of large European breeds whose ancestors were unrelated to Mastiff, although they may have been bred with Mastiff-type dogs throughout the ages. These breeds tend to be very ancient, most being hundreds, if not thousands of years old. Because these dogs are more wolf-like than most Mollossers, they have become known as Lupomollossoids, lupus being Latin for wolf.
At this point, it is unclear what breeds constitute the Lupomollossoids, what the connection between them is. Breeds which are most commonly considered to be Lupomollossoids are the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, the Tatra Mountain Sheepdog of Poland, the Akbash Dog of Turkey, and the Kuvasz of Hungary. Other breeds which are sometimes considered to be Lupomollossoids are the Maremma Sheepdog of Italy, the various Owtcharka breeds of the Caucasus Mountains, and possibly the Komondor of Hungary. These are all ancient, large livestock guarding breeds, and with the exception of the Great Pyrenees and the Maremma Sheepdog are native to Eastern Europe and Asia Minor.
When and where the Lupomollossoids originated is something of a mystery. Although it was certainly thousands of years ago, and most likely in what is now the Middle East or Southern Russia. It was in this area that humans first began to practice agriculture around 10,000 years ago. This allowed for more food security, greater populations, and settled life. However, it also created new problems. One of the major problems was that sheep and goats which are kept in pens or in tight herds in open pastures are highly vulnerable to predation from creatures such as the wolf or bear. Shepherds could not watch their flocks 24 hours a day, and needed assistance. Luckily, the dog had been domesticated from the wolf several thousand years earlier and had been serving as a loyal guardian ever since. The wolf is naturally protective towards its pack members, and regularly defends its territory and pack mates from the assault of outsiders, even other wolves. The dog has these same instincts, only it has been bred to accept humans and livestock as its pack members.
The early farmers bred those dogs which showed the greatest protective instincts and pack loyalty until they had animals which were excellent protectors. They also bred the largest specimens until their dogs were the same size as, or considerably larger than the wolf. This created a race of dogs which was both fiercely protective and physically capable of providing defense against large predators and marauding humans. As agriculture spread from the Middle East across Europe, these early farmers likely brought their livestock guarding dogs with them. While the exact date of when agriculture reached the Pyrenees is unknown, by 6,000 years ago sheep and goat herding was so prevalent that it had dramatically altered the landscape.
These early farmers definitely used some type of livestock guarding dog. Whether these dogs were brought from elsewhere such as the Middle East, or developed from local dogs will probably never be known. The truth is most likely some combination of the two. It will also probably never be known whether these earliest guardians were the ancestors of the modern day Great Pyrenees. However, there are many reasons to believe that this might be the case. If the Great Pyrenees is not a Mastiff, which appears to be the case, it would have almost certainly been developed prior to the introduction of the Mastiff into the region by the Romans. Additionally, there are incredibly similar breeds of ancient origin found in other areas. The Maremma Sheepdog almost certainly predates the Roman Empire, as do the Owtcharkas and the Akbash Dog. It is very likely that at one time Lupomollossoids were predominant over Europe, but were eventually largely replaced with Mastiff-type dogs. Lupomollossoid breeds survived in remote areas. It would not be unusual for a remnant population of dogs to survive in the Pyrenees. In many ways, history has passed this region by. The Basque people have been in the region for so many thousands of years that their language now has no surviving relatives. These mountains are the last home for animals that died out centuries or millennia elsewhere in Europe such as the Wolf, Bear, Ibex, and Desman. Perhaps most tellingly, several other dog breeds from the region have remained virtually unchanged since time immemorial, such as the Pyrenean Shepherd, Pyrenean Mastiff, and Grand Bleu de Gascogne.
There is a great deal of debate and discussion as to what Lupomollosoid breeds were the direct ancestors of which. For example, many believe that the Kuvasz is the ancestor of the Great Pyrenees or vice versa. However, given the wide ranging geographical origin and ancient existence of most of these breeds, it is likely that no current breed is the ancestor of any other, but rather that they are all descended from the same ancestors, making them distant cousins.
Whenever these dogs first arrived in the area, they quickly proved themselves invaluable. The Pyrenees Mountains have always been home to large predators, which have survived in the remote mountain slopes and valleys in greater numbers than almost anywhere else in Western Europe. Additionally, there have periodically been human bandits in the region which would prey upon the flocks. Every aspect of the Great Pyrenees has been developed to maximize the breeds livestock protection abilities. The breed’s size allows it to battles wolves, and even sometimes bears. The protective instincts have been honed over many millennia. The Great Pyrenees’ loud bark helps to alert its masters and scare off potential attackers. The dog’s white fur was most likely selected to allow shepherds to easily distinguish the dog from marauding gray and black wolves at night.
In many regions, the Great Pyrenees would have had to serve as both a guardian and a herder. However, Pyrenean farmers have long kept another breed, the Pyrenean Shepherd, for this purpose. Perhaps nowhere else in the world have two dogs breeds had such an effect on the development of the other with so very little interbreeding; cohabitating and working the same lands over the course of centuries. The small Pyrenean Shepherd, or Berger des Pyrenees was solely responsible for the herding of flocks, allowing the Great Pyrenees to be solely responsible for flock protection. This division of responsibilities allowed breeders to focus their efforts on creating highly specialized dogs that excelled at their given duties; either herding or protection, without the worry of losing effectiveness in either category by trying to create a more well rounded dog to do both. A similar partnership among breeds can be seen in Hungary, with the Komondor replacing the Great Pyrenees and the Puli replacing the Pyrenean Shepherd.
For many centuries, the Great Pyrenees remained a flock guardian of the remote mountains. As a result, very few, if any mentions of the breed are made in medieval literature. Eventually, the local French nobility began to realize that this dedicated guardian of livestock would also make a dedicated guardian of their estates. One of the first written mentions of the Great Pyrenees describes this practice. In 1407, French writers commented on the usefulness of the, “Great Dogs of the Mountains,” in guarding strategic forts in the Pyrenees Mountains, most importantly the Chateau Fort de Lourdes.
One of the first books written specifically for the breed; Monsieur Eugene Byasson’s 1907 work, “Le Chien des Pyrenees” (Pyrenean Mountain Dog), tells the story of the 1675 visit by Louis of France, (the French Dauphin, or Crown Prince and son of Louis XIV) to the small town of Bareges in south-western France. While enjoying the warm mineral springs common to the area, 14 year old Louis, came upon and fell in love with a Great Pyrenees that frequented the area; referred to as “Le patou” at this time, these specially bred sheep protection dogs were used by local shepherds to counter attacks by wolves. When it was time to return home, Louis arranged for the dog to be brought back to the Louvre with him and subsequently honored his new friend by adopting the breed as the Royal Dog of France.
Largely inspired by the Dauphin’s pet, the Marquis Louvois went to Bareges two years later to acquire a Great Pyrenees for himself. The dog which he brought back to the royal court was said to be exceptionally beautiful, and caused even more of a stir among the French nobility than even the Dauphin’s dog had. Over the course of the 1700’s, the Great Pyrenees became the preferred guardian of French Estate owners. These dogs loyally protected their masters’ property across the entire French nation. By 1808, French writers were describing markets in the Pyrenees which were essentially dedicated to Great Pyrenees adults and puppies. Mountain shepherds were said to be guaranteed to make money as long as their dogs were purebreds. This may be the first instance of what is now known as a puppy-mill. Although the breed remained primarily in France, some were exported to other nations during the 1800’s by visitors who were impressed by these large protective dogs. In 1850, Queen Victoria possessed a Great Pyrenees, and in 1870, the Great Pyrenees was used to help restore the Saint Bernard after its population was devastated by distemper and avalanches. 1885 brought the first registrations of Great Pyrenees with the Kennel Club (UK) and the first exhibition of the breed at the Crystal Palace dog show.
As was common among dog breeds of the time, the Great Pyrenees initially exhibited a great deal more variation than it does today. As late as 1874, the magazine “L’Acclimation” described three distinct varieties of the Chien des Montagne, or Great Pyrenees. There was a Chien des Pyrenees Occidentales, or West Pyrenean Dog. These dogs were known for being white and black and having a heavy muzzle, hanging lips, and rounded ears. There was also a Chien des Pyrenees Orientales, or East Pyrenean Dog. These dogs are more similar to the modern Great Pyrenees, having white coats with tan or grey markings, a more refined muzzle, and pointed ears. “L’Acclimation” tells of a third variety that was native to the area around Andorra; that variety was either thought to be extremely rare or possibly extinct.
By the end of the 1800’s, poor breeding and a decline in predator populations had begun to take its toll on both the quality and need of the Great Pyrenees breed. In 1907, two different breed clubs were founded to promote and protect the Great Pyrenees. The Pastour Club founded at Cauterets by Dr. Moulonguet, J. Camajou, Monsieur Bernard Sénac-Lagrange, and Baron A. de la Chevrelièrea; and the Argelès or Pyrenean Dog Club founded at Argelès-Gazost by Count Henri de Bylandt, Monsieur Théodore Dretzen, and Monsieur Eugene Byasson. The two clubs searched for the best examples of the breed throughout France, but particularly in the Pyrenees Mountains.
World War I decimated the Great Pyrenees population, as it did that of many French dog breeds. The war also brought about the dissolution of both the Pastour and Argelès clubs as well. French fanciers led by Monsieur Senac-Lagrange combined the remnants of the two earlier clubs to form the Reunion des Amateurs des Chiens Pyrenees (RACP) in 1923. The club, which is still active today was designed to protect and promote both the Great Pyrenees and the Pyrenean Shepherd, and created standards for both in 1927. Beginning in 1935, Jeanne Harper Trois Fontaines, began to export dogs around the world from her Fontenay Kennel in Amsterdam. She is largely credited with the popularity of the Great Pyrenees outside of France. During World War II, most of France was occupied by German forces. This led to devastation for both the French people and their native dogs. The Great Pyrenees population suffered even more greatly than it had in the First World War. It would again be Senac-Lagrange who would take the lead in the post war restoration of the breed.
The first Great Pyrenees to reach North America, did so with Basque Fishermen destined for Newfoundland in 1662. These dogs were intended to be companions and guardians of the settlement. Although it has long been debated, there is a belief that these dogs were major contributors to the development of the Newfoundland Dog, and in fact gave the Landseer the white and black coat for which it is famous. There may be some credibility to this possibility, given that black and white coated Great Pyrenees were known to exist in the western Pyrenees where the Basques have historically dwelt. The first known Great Pyrenees in the United States came ashore in 1824, when General Lafayette gave two males to his friend J.S. Skinner. The first Great Pyrenees bred in America came from the Basquarie Kennels in Needham, Massachusetts. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Francis V. Crane, imported dogs for their breeding program from 1931 until the outbreak of World War II. The American Kennel Club (AKC) first granted the breed recognition in February, 1933. The United Kennel Club (UKC) followed after the conclusion of World War II in 1949. The Great Pyrenees Club of America (GPCA) was founded to protect and promote the Great Pyrenees breed by the Cranes in 1934 and was recognized by the AKC in 1935. These North American breeding programs would prove instrumental in preserving the breed as they imported pre-war breeding stock out of Europe before the Continent was closed by World War II. These descendants of these dogs would then be exported back to Europe postwar for use in breeding programs to rebuild the breed there.
Today you can still find the Great Pyrenees present in their ancestral mountains, protecting flocks of sheep as they have for millennia. More recently, the breed has been experimented with as a means of predator control in the American West, tasked with defense against marauding coyotes, cougars, and the recently reintroduced wolf. Studies conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture have indicated that the Great Pyrenees is the most successful breed at reducing livestock losses, as well as being less likely to injure sheep or humans. Some Great Pyrenees still work as property guardians as well, although this task has been primarily taken over by other breeds such as the Rottweiler and the Belgian Mallinois. Despite the fact that most Great Pyrenees remain able to readily perform these tasks, the majority of today’s Great Pyrenees are either show dogs or companion animals. These gentle and protective dogs make wonderful companions for many families and new uses are still being found for this breed, including search and rescue work and as therapy dogs. The breed’s population has largely rebounded from the World Wars, especially in France and the United States. According to the AKC’s list of most popular dogs for 2010, the Great Pyrenees is in 71st place out of 167 recognized breeds.
It is impossible to not notice a Great Pyrenees as it walks down the street. These beautiful animals are striking in appearance, with massive size and long, primarily white coats. A male Great Pyrenees typically stands between 27 and 33 inches tall at the shoulder, while the females stand between 25 and 30 inches tall at the shoulder. These dogs are not only tall, but massive as well. Male Great Pyrenees usually weigh between 100 and 120 pounds, while the smaller females usually weigh between 80 and 100 pounds. The weight of the dog should always be proportionate to its height.
Overall, the appearance of the Great Pyrenees speaks to breed’s calm and gentle nature, with its great underlying power. The breed’s head is small in relation to the dog’s size, and should be somewhat wider than it is long. This breed has a relatively short snout for its body size, but nowhere near as short as those of true Mollosser breeds such as Bulldog or English Mastiff. All Great Pyrenees should have a solid black nose. The Breed has small-almond shaped eyes which have a calm, intelligent expression. The Great Pyrenees has small, triangular-shaped ears.
Almost as striking as the Great Pyrenees’ great size is the breed’s weather resistant double coat. The outercoat is long, coarse, and either straight or wavy. The undercoat is dense, fine, and wooly. The hair, particularly in males, is thickest around the neck, giving the Great Pyrenees the appearance of having a mane. The hair on the back of the Great Pyrenees has some feathering, which has led some admirers to say that the breed looks like it is wearing pantaloons. The Great Pyrenees is thought of as a solid white dog, and many breed members are. However, many Great Pyrenees also have colored markings, typically around the head, ears, tail, and on the body. These markings should never cover more than a third of the dog’s body. Acceptable marking colors include grey, badger, reddish brown, and various shades of tan.
The Great Pyrenees has a long tail, which is usually held low. The tails of the most desirable dogs form a hook. When a Great Pyrenees is alert, it will hold its tail over its back is a large circle, with only the tip touching the back.
The Great Pyrenees has long been renowned for its affection and loyalty with its family. These dogs are generally not fawningly affectionate like some breeds, but they love human company. They want to be around their owners all the time. Many Great Pyrenees think that they are lapdogs, and will gladly cuddle right up with their owners. The breed is also known for leaning against family members. The Great Pyrenees is famously gentle with children. However, these are guard dogs, and have a protective nature. The Great Pyrenees is always wary around strangers, but will usually tolerate guests who have been invited in. Although they can be aggressive if the situation warrants it, they are not considered to be an overly agressive breed and definitely not an attack dog. The massive size of the Great Pyrenees can; however, be very intimidating and the breed has been known to be a bit over-protective at times. It is not uncommon for a Great Pyrenees try to protect the family children when they are rough housing with their friends; not understanding that it is just a game. It is important to properly socialize a Great Pyrenees to make sure that their protective instincts don’t become a liability.
Great Pyrenees are typically accepting of dogs that they have been raised with or carefully introduced to, and consider them members of the flock. However, this breed is not known for being friendly with strange dogs. Bred to defend against wolves, the Great Pyrenees is often territorial with other canines. These dogs are usually dominant towards other dogs, and will typically try to drive them off, especially from what they consider their own territory. Additionally, the Great Pyrenees will normally try to intervene when a dog is playing too rough with a child or other dog that the Great Pyrenees believes it is in charge of protecting. The Great Pyrenees is very large and powerful, and is capable of seriously injuring or even killing another dog. Proper socialization is very important with this breed, and caution should always be exercised when introducing new dogs to each other.
The Great Pyrenees is a livestock guardian and usually gets along very well with large animals such as sheep, cattle, and horses. The breed is famously gentle with sheep. However, these dogs will usually try to drive off strange animals, both wild and domestic. Sometimes, a Great Pyrenees will attack a strange animal if it thinks it is necessary. Also, these dogs are usually not good around small animals. In particular, the Great Pyrenees rarely gets along with cats, which often resent being protected. This does not mean that a Great Pyrenees cannot learn to live with small animal pets, quite the opposite. A well-socialized Great Pyrenees will most likely do very well with familiar animals. Just remember that a Great Pyrenees which is best friends with your cat may drive off or seriously injure your neighbor’s cat.
The Great Pyrenees was bred to work independently of humans, guarding flocks alone for hours and sometimes days at a time. They had to be able to make their own determinations and decisions. As a result the breed is known for being independent, and sometimes willful. A Great Pyrenees is much more likely to do what it wants than what an owner wants it to. Training the Great Pyrenees can be a real challenge. This does not mean that a Great Pyrenees cannot be trained. These dogs are highly intelligent. However, you will have to spend a significant amount more time and effort than you would with many other breeds. Additionally, these dogs are likely to exhibit selective listening even when well-trained. If you are looking for a dog to use in obedience competitions or who will perform numerous tricks, the Great Pyrenees is definitely not the right breed for you.
The Great Pyrenees is usually calm when indoors. The breed is not known for being high-energy or particularly energetic. However, these dogs still must be exercised regularly. Puppies pose a particular problem. Like all large dogs, Great Pyrenees puppies must have their exercise closely regulated to protect their growing bones. As a result, they may become very rambunctious. Exercise must be replaced with affection or other stimulation. Although the breed’s exercise requirements are not extreme, it is very important that they be met. These dogs often become destructive when bored, particularly when they are puppies, and even a very young Great Pyrenees is powerful enough to completely destroy an entire room. Bored and lonely Great Pyrenees also may become very vocal and possibly overly protective and territorial.
The Great Pyrenees is driven to defend its territory. However, the breed generally thinks that its territory is everything that it can see. As a result, the Great Pyrenees is a notorious wanderer. It is imperative that this independent and strong-willed breed is kept on a leash at all times when not in a fenced enclosure. Whatever fence the breed is kept in must be very tall and very secure. These dogs are more than capable of knocking down a weak fence. Remember, the Great Pyrenees was bred to be fearless and will not back down, standing their ground against packs of wolves or even bears. The breed is known for standing in the road and challenging cars that are invading what it considers to be its territory.
One aspect of the Great Pyrenees which may cause problems for many owners is the breed’s voice. As a guardian, the Great Pyrenees was supposed to bark, both to alert the shepherds of a potential intrusion and to scare off any intruder before violence became necessary. The Great Pyrenees will bark regularly, making this vigilant breed an excellent watchdog. However, this breed is very, very load, with a deep, booming bark. Great Pyrenees living in urban or suburban areas usually must be kept indoors at night. Otherwise, they will try to alert their owners of the passing of every car, raccoon, or newspaper delivery, angering the neighbors in the process.
The Great Pyrenees is surprisingly easy to groom. The coats of these dogs are not only weather resistant, they are also dirt resistant and matt resistant as well. Thirty minutes of brushing a weak is all that most Great Pyrenees will require. Unless an owner wants to shave a Great Pyrenees for heat reasons, the breed will probably never require professional grooming. However, this does not mean that the breed is not a shedder. In fact, the Great Pyrenees is one of the heaviest shedders in the dog world, which is made more noticeable by the fact that the breed has very long, white hair. If you own a Great Pyrenees, your furniture and carpets will be covered with long, white dog hair. Your car will probably be covered as well. You will almost always be covered with hair. If you can’t stand the thought of dog hair, or if a member of your family has allergies, the Great Pyrenees is almost certainly not the right breed for you.
The Great Pyrenees has a tendency to slobber. Although the Great Pyrenees will probably slobber less than a Mastiff-type breed such as a Saint Bernard, you will still have to deal with drool, and quite a bit of it. If the thought of drool hanging from a dog’s mouth disgusts you, you should probably look for a different breed.
The Great Pyrenees must be carefully examined by its owners, at least weekly, and preferably daily. The long hair of this dog can hide many problems on the skin, most notably cuts, scrapes, ticks, and fleas. Additionally, things such as burrs or tape may stick deep in the dogs fur, causing discomfort. Careful and regular examinations will solve these problems.
The Great Pyrenees has been bred primarily as a working animal for centuries. These dogs had to survive in a harsh environment, and perform a difficult task there. Unhealthy dogs would likely not have survived, and would not have been bred if they had. As a result, the Great Pyrenees is healthier than most large dog breeds, regularly living to between 10 and 12 years. However, during points in the breed’s history the Great Pyrenees has suffered from poor breeding and substantially reduced numbers. They do suffer from some inherited disorders because of this.
The Great Pyrenees Club of America is dedicated to the protection and responsible breeding of the Great Pyrenees. To further this mission, they conduct regular health surveys. Results from 2010 showed that the most common causes of death among the Great Pyrenees were cancer, osteosarcoma, heart problems, liver failure, old age, and degenerative myopathy. Common non-fatal conditions included skeletal issues such as dysplasia, allergies, and eye problems.
Osteosarcoma is of particular concern to Great Pyrenees fanciers. This form of cancer is considerably more common in the Great Pyrenees than most other breeds. Osteosarcoma is a bone cancer. It is usually very aggressive, and spreads rapidly. As the cancer spreads throughout the bone, it becomes increasingly painful for the dog. Cancerous bones break easily, especially in a dog which puts as much stress on its bones as a Great Pyrenees. The condition is often fatal, but veterinarians are looking for a cure.
It is always advisable to get your pets tested by either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and/or the Canine Eye Registration Foundation, particularly if you intend to breed. The OFA and CERF test for various genetically inherited disorders such as blindness and hip dysplasia that may impact either your dog or its descendants.
Other genetically inheritable disorders which the Great Pyrenees is known to suffer from include: