While much of the breed’s origins remain a mystery, the Pyrenean Shepherd is one of the oldest known breeds of herding dog. These medium-sized dogs, also known as Berger des Pyrenees or Pyr Sheps, have been assisting farmers with their livestock in the mountainous Pyrenees region of France and Spain for many hundreds, and perhaps thousands of years. This breed comes in two forms, a Smooth-Faced and a Rough-Faced, which are allowed to interbreed. Long unknown outside of France, this breed is just beginning to gain a following in other countries, including the United States of America.
Much of the history of the Pyrenean Shepherd has been lost to the ages. What is known is that the Pyrenean Shepherd developed long before any records of dog breeding were kept. This breed may in fact, even pre-date the development of writing, or at least its spread in Europe. Much of what is claimed about the Pyrenean Shepherd’s origins are little more than speculation or legend. However, this is surely an ancient breed that was developed in the Pyrenees Mountains over the course of hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
There is much debate as to how, when, and where the domestication of the dog first occurred. There is an incredible amount of variation between archeological, genetic, and fossil evidence. Different studies have come to vastly different conclusions. Experts have posited that dogs were first domesticated anywhere from 7,000 to 100,000 years ago, with fossil evidence suggesting earlier dates and genetic data suggesting older dates. Likewise the birthplace of the domestic dog has been placed anywhere from North Africa, to China, to Africa. Many experts claim that all domestic dogs come from a single pack of tamed wolves; others believe that dogs were domesticated many different times across the world. One controversy which has been answered definitely is which species is the ancestor of the dog, the Grey Wolf. It is also almost universally agreed that the dog was the first animal to be domesticated.
Dogs were most likely first used as hunting companions and camp guardians by tribes of early nomadic hunter-gatherers. For many thousands of years, all human beings and their canine companions lived in this manner. A fact that is evidenced by depictions placed on cave walls by prehistoric artists. One of the most famous cave paintings is from Lascaux in France. Made around 25,000 years ago, these cave wall paintings depict many ice age mammals, as well as humans hunting them. The animals depicted were those found in the surrounding landscape, such as horses, bison, mammoths, ibex, aurochs, deer, lions, bears, and wolves (or in the opinion of some, early domesticated dogs). As the caves of Lascaux are very close to the Pyrenees Mountains that the Pyrenean Shepherd calls home, many breed fanciers claim that these ancient canine depictions are in fact of the early Pyrenean Shepherd. There is, however, no evidence to support this claim; as the paintings may not show dogs at all, but rather wolves that like lions and bears were feared predators of the time. Additionally, as agriculture had not yet been developed and would not until many thousands of years later, any dogs depicted more than likely would not have been herding dogs like the Pyrenean Shepherd.
Although the exact date is unknown and debated, it is believed that sometime before 10,000 years ago humans, leaving their nomadic ways behind, began to settle in villages and practice agriculture. While this process occurred in several different places around the world, the earliest happening is believed to have occurred in the Middle East. Although it is generally believed that the domestication of plants was the event that allowed permanent settlement, many animal species were domesticated either before or during this time as well. The first large herding animals to be kept by humans are believed to have been sheep and goats. However, large animals can be difficult to maneuver, and when confined or grouped together due to domestication they become vulnerable to predation from wild animals such as wolves and bears. This created a need for dogs that could not only maneuver the flock from one locale to the next, but also protect his charges from predation by his wild cousins. This brought about a change in the role of the dog as a servant of man, for it would have to expand beyond its previous working use of just assisting in the hunt. Luckily, dogs were able to adapt to this new role and the change from hunter/killer to herder/protector was much easier than many would believe. Dogs, having descended from wolves inherited their herding abilities from their wild counterparts who through the use of a pack herd prey animals much in the same fashion as modern herding breeds.
Wolves use complicated maneuvers and communication between pack members to manipulate prey animals into going where they want them, and separate individual animals in order to make them easier to kill. To watch a wolf pack hunting deer is remarkably similar to watching a herding dog work its flock. Additionally, dogs, like wolves, have a strong protective nature towards their fellow pack members. Domestic dogs often believe that a flock of sheep is their pack, and as a result will defend it from attack. From the earliest days of agriculture, dogs have been vital for the keeping of livestock.
Farming allowed food security and population growth. This advancement was so successful that it spread from the Middle East into Europe, gradually overtaking the hunter-gatherer way of life; wherever farmers went they took their dogs with them. Eventually agriculture spread as far as the Pyrenean Mountains which separate what is now France from the Iberian Peninsula. By 6000 B.C., sheep and goat herding were so advanced in the Pyrenees that the landscape had been dramatically transformed. These ancient herders surely used dogs to assist them when managing their flocks. Whether these dogs were brought with farmers from elsewhere, possibly the Middle East, or bred from existing dogs in the region is unknown. It is widely believed that the Pyrenean Shepherd, or its closely related ancestors were the dogs used in the region from the earliest days of agriculture. If this is true, it would make the Pyrenean Shepherd one of the oldest dog breeds found anywhere in the world.
This ancient ancestry of the Pyrenean Shepherd is not backed up by much in the way of recorded evidence. However, the Pyrenees have long been largely passed by many changes in history. Peoples such as the Basques have been present here for thousands of years, pre-dating the Romans and even the Celts. The remote valleys and hillsides of the Pyrenees were largely untouched by modernity until the last century. Additionally, the Pyrenees and neighboring regions are home to many dog breeds that have been largely unchanged for centuries and possibly millennia, breeds such as the Great Pyrenees and the Grand Bleu de Gascogne. Many of the behavioral characteristics of the Pyrenean Shepherd also point to its ancient heritage. The breed is considerably less biddable than most other herding dogs, and can be very sensitive. Additionally, this breed tends to be highly affectionate with one individual or perhaps a family, but is generally known as a “one-person dog,” typically being very wary of strangers. Finally, this breed has been known to have dominance issues. All of these traits are common among the most ancient dog breeds, such as Basenjis, Salukis, and Akitas.
In much of the world, livestock herding dogs needed to be quite large, allowing them to protect their flocks against the predation of wolves, bears, and other large carnivores. In response to this need, massive livestock herding dogs entered the region during the time of the Romans and possibly earlier. These dogs were the ancestors of the Great Pyrenees and the Pyrenean Mastiff. For thousands of years the Great Pyrenees and the Pyrenean Shepherd have worked in tandem. Remarkably, despite their close relationship over the course of hundreds of years; the massive Great Pyrenees protecting the flocks, while the Pyrenean Shepherd was used exclusively for herding them and the fact that the relationship between these breeds impacted the development of each. There was very little crossing between the two; this uncrossed symbiosis is something that perhaps no two other breeds of dog anywhere in the world have shared. As times went on and predators were more or less eradicated, it would be the Pyrenean Shepherd that would come to favor being that smaller dogs are more ideal for herding for many reasons. They are less likely to be injured by a kicking animal. They are also more sure-footed and quick, particularly useful on barren mountain crags. Breeding can focus strictly on herding instinct and not on protection instincts. Most importantly, small dogs require less food. This allows farmers to keep more dogs, which in turn allows them to keep and manage larger flocks.
Many of the earliest accounts of the Pyrenees region mention shepherds and their canine companions. Writings from the Middle Ages describe how the herding dogs of the region would accompany their masters wherever they went. Beginning in the early modern period, the breed began to be depicted in paintings and illustrations. Even the oldest depictions bear a striking resemblance to modern day Pyrenean Shepherds. Some of the most noteworthy illustrations include ones made by Buffon in Histoire Naturelle, Dartiguenave’s Costumes des Pyrenees, and Descamps’ “Retour de Berger.” Any one of the dogs shown in these works could be of a Pyrenean Shepherd working today in southern France. The dogs depicted were all small, with the same ear crop present in modern breed members today. Additionally, the tails were either cropped or held in the common low position found today in the breed. A famous account of a young shepherdess seeing the Virgin Mary in 1858 mentions the presence of her Pyrenean Shepherd.
While Pyrenean Shepherds have always been selectively bred for traits such as small size and herding instinct, much of their development has been determined by nature. The Pyrenees can be a harsh environment, and these dogs were developed to be climate and disease resistant. Additionally, there have traditionally been barriers to the breeding of dogs between mountain valleys. This resulted in a great deal of inbreeding, as well as differences in appearance and attributes between the dogs of neighboring territories. Typically Pyrenean Shepherd breeding was accomplished by fostering the beneficial traits found in the dogs of one valley through inbreeding and then spreading those traits through the trading or selling of dogs to those in neighboring valleys, thus widening the overall gene pool. This limited interaction between the types has created considerable variation among the superficial characteristics found in the Pyrenean Shepherds of today such as coat color and type. This is likely the result of repeated genetic bottlenecking, followed by interbreeding. The relatively large population of Pyrenean Shepherds spread throughout countless geographically isolated valleys also made it more likely for new variations to develop.
Although a few immigrants took their Pyrenean Shepherds with them to other parts of Europe throughout the earlier centuries, the breed remained almost entirely unknown outside of its homeland of France until World War I. During the War, thousands of Pyrenean Shepherds served the French Army as couriers, search and rescue dogs, and patrol and guard dogs. Hundreds of breed members, and perhaps thousands, gave their lives for the Allied Cause. J. Dehrs, who was in charge of all war dogs, proclaimed after victory was won that the Pyrenean Shepherd was, “The most intelligent, the most cunning, the most able, and the fastest" of all breeds used by the French army, a list which includes the Beauceron, Briard, and Bouvier de Flandres.
After World War I, fanciers of the Pyrenean livestock dogs decided to protect and promote their beloved animals. In 1926, fanciers led by Bernard Senac-Lagrange formed the Reunion des Amateurs de Chiens Pyrenees or RACP to promote and protect the Pyrenean Shepherd and the Great Pyrenees. Eventually the breed was recognized by the French parent club and several international kennel clubs. The RACP has long desired that the temperament, working ability, and appearance of the Pyrenean Shepherd remain true to form. Breeders of the Pyrenean Shepherd have been considerably more conservative than those of most other breeds.
The Pyrenean Shepherd has developed a small but loyal following outside of France, particularly in America. The first Pyrenean Shepherd in America came in the 1800’s along with flocks of imported sheep. However, after its arrival the breed either died out in America or was interbred with other dogs to the point that is ceased to exist in any recognizable form. It has been speculated that these original 19th century Pyrenean Shepherds may have heavily factored in to the development of the Australian Shepherd. In fact, the breeds do resemble each other in many ways, particularly in coat color. It would take another century for the Pyrenean Shepherds to become established in the United States; not taking place until the 1970’s and 1980’s when fanciers began to import breeding animals. By 1987, the Pyrenean Shepherd Club of America was founded to promote and protect the breed; however, there is no history available as to the formation of the club, its members, current ambitions for the breed, nor does it appear to have an active website. The United Kennel Club, which is primarily a working dog registry, first recognized the breed in 1995, under the name Berger des Pyrenees. Fourteen years later, the American Kennel Club (AKC) would follow suite recognizing the Pyrenean Shepherd in the herding group in 2009.
There is some confusion; however, as to the proper nomenclature of the breed; in the United States and Canada the breed is known as the Pyrenean Shepherd, whereas in other parts of the world, official organizations may recognize it under a variety of different names. The Thuin, Belgium based, Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) or World Canine Organization in English; an international federation of kennel clubs with 84 member countries (the AKC of everywhere else) recognizes the Pyrenean Shepherd as two distinct breeds. The first of which, the Chien de Berger des Pyrénées à face rase (Pyrenean Sheepdog - smooth faced) was recognized on March 13th, 2001. Of this type, the FCI states:
“This variety of Pyrenean Sheepdog was principally found in the Pyrenean foot-hills where it was ‘much appreciated by horse-dealers and cattle-drovers’ according to Bernard SÉNAC-LAGRANGE (1927 club’s yearbook). Its distinctive features compared with those of other types of Pyrenean Sheepdogs gained it an appendix in the breed standard from the 1920s.”
The second type, the Chien de Berger des Pyrénées à poil long (Long-haired Pyrenean Sheepdog) was recognized by the FCI on March 26th, 2009. Of this second variety the FCI states:
“Coming from humble beginnings, it was practically unknown to the official dog scene until the early 20th century. Its type varies considerably from one valley to the next, its shape, its coat can be very different, but its character and behaviour never vary. The first official standard was drawn up between 1921 and 1925 by Mr. Bernard Sénac-Lagrange. It was first modified under his presidency and then under those of Messrs. Charles Duconte (1954-1986), Guy Mansencal (1986-2000) and Alain Pécoult (since 2000-…) in close collaboration with Raymond Triquet since 2001.”
Unlike many breeds which are now mainly companion animals, the Pyrenean Shepherd remains primarily a working animal. These dogs are still found in the Pyrenees Mountains, herding sheep and goats as they have for many centuries. They have also found work abroad in locations such as the American West. Although the breed is beginning to develop a small following in America as a companion animal; with more and more owners keeping the Pyrenean Shepherd as nothing more than a pet, it’s popularity still remains relatively low; placing in 162nd place out of 167 breeds (sixth to last) in AKC registrations for the year 2010.
The Pyrenean Shepherd comes in two forms, a Rough-Faced and a Smooth-Faced. Although shown separately, both forms regularly interbreed, and puppies of both forms are frequently born to the same litter.
Although almost all breed members are very small for a herding dog, the Pyrenean Shepherd exhibits substantial variations in size. Males are typically between 15½ to 21 inches tall at the shoulder and females are typically between 15 to 20½ inches tall at the shoulder. Smooth-Faced dogs are usually significantly larger. The breed typically weighs between 15 and 32 pounds. This breed should be thin, with the ribs easily felt.
The Pyrenean Shepherd has a small head for its body size, with a short, straight snout. These dogs should have large and expressive eyes, which are typically hazel or dark brown. However, merle or grey dogs usually have wall eyes. The Pyrenean Shepherd should have semi-prick or rose ears, with prick-eared dogs likely being a mix. Because of the way the breed’s lips hang, most Pyrenean Shepherds appear to be smiling.
The Pyrenean Shepherd is a dog built for athleticism and work. The breed should be well-proportioned and muscular. The breed has a naturally long tail, although not as long as the body of the dog. It is traditional for the breed to have its tail docked, although this is not required.
The two Pyrenean Shepherd varieties are primarily distinguished by their coats. Both varieties have medium-long to long fur covering most of their bodies. This flat to semi-wavy fur should be quite harsh, and is typically described as being halfway between the hair of a goat and the wool of the sheep. The Smooth-Coated Pyrenean shepherd has considerably shorter hair over the face, and looks like a breed such as an Australian Cattle Dog. The Rough-Faced Pyrenean Shepherd has long fur over most of its face, making the breed appear more like an Old English Sheepdog or a Polish Lowland Sheepdog. However, the fur on the Rough-Faced Pyrenean Sheepdog should never cover the dog’s eyes or restrict vision.
The Pyrenean Shepherd exhibits a greater variety of colors than is common among most modern dog breeds. The breed can be found in many shades of fawn some of which are interspersed with black fur, any gray from charcoal to pearl gray, many different shades of merle, brindle, black, and black with white markings. Dogs which are pure white are considered highly undesirable.
The Pyrenean Shepherd exhibits much greater variation in temperament than other breeds. The breed’s temperament also is somewhat more susceptible to environmental factors than most other dogs. While it is impossible to know what the temperament of any individual dog will be on breed alone, it is particularly difficult with the Pyrenean Shepherd.
As a rule, the Pyrenean Shepherd is a one-person dog, who prefers the company of an individual master, or a small family. In general, The Pyrenean Shepherd is known for being exceptionally loyal and affectionate with its family, including children. However, Pyrenean Shepherds that have not been raised around children are likely to have some issues. The breed is usually not particularly good around strangers. The Pyrenean Shepherd tends to be aloof around strangers, and is often nervous or fearful. Pyrenean Shepherds that have not been properly socialized have a tendency to become aggressive or extremely fearful. The Pyrenean Shepherd is also known to have dominance issues. If it is not made clear to a Pyrenean Shepherd who is the boss, the dog will take it upon itself to become the boss.
Pyrenean Shepherds have traditionally worked alongside other dogs, and are not typically dog aggressive. However, proper socialization is definitely necessary to avoid fear or other difficulties. As a herding breed, Pyrenean Shepherds will generally do fine around non-canine pets if properly socialized with them. However, the herding instinct of these animals may take over, resulting in a very annoyed housecat.
The Pyrenean Shepherd is known for being very receptive to learning and training. However, this breed is not as receptive to training as the majority of herding breeds and is known for being somewhat hard headed. If you are willing to show some extra dedication and spend a little more time, a Pyrenean Shepherd can be excellently trained. However, these dogs have a tendency to only listen to one master, or a few family members. Training and socialization is very important with this breed as they are known to develop shyness, dominance, and aggression issues. Additionally, the Pyrenean Shepherd is known to be overly susceptible to correction. This can result in fear or aggression. Trainers must be especially careful and patient when working with these dogs.
Pyrenean Shepherds have very high exercise and mental stimulation requirements, much higher than those of most similarly-sized. These are working dogs, not couch potatoes. These dogs must receive a very large amount of serious exercise every day. If not properly exercised, a Pyrenean Shepherd is very likely to become nervous and overly excitable. A nervous or overly excited Pyrenean Shepherd may become unpredictable. These dogs are also quite likely to become excessive barkers, sometimes almost uncontrollably so. Although this breed does not have a particular reputation for being destructive, these intelligent dogs are likely to become destructive if bored.
Pyrenean Shepherds were bred to alert their masters upon the approach of people or animals. As a result, the breed tends to be very vocal. This trait makes the breed an excellent watchdog. However, if left unchecked, it can also get out of control. Pyrenean Sheepdogs must be properly socialized, trained, and stimulated, otherwise they may bark at anything that goes past, sometimes for hours. In urban areas, this may lead to noise complaints.
Although at first glance it would appear that the Pyrenean Shepherd would require a significant amount of coat maintenance, this is not the case. These dogs’ coats were bred to be low maintenance and to protect them from the elements. As a result they are harsh and coarse. Most Pyrenean Shepherds will not require professional grooming. In fact, breed standards disapprove of certain types of grooming, particularly on the Smooth-Faced Variety. These dogs will however require a regular firm brushing. These dogs are considered moderate shedders. Although this would not be the ideal breed for allergy sufferers, you will not have a large quantity of fur on your furniture from a Pyrenean Shepherd.
The Pyrenean Shepherd has been bred as a working dog for many centuries, and perhaps millennia. Genetically inherited disorders and other health problems would not be tolerated by breeders, and would have likely killed animals in the harsh mountainous climate. To this day, working ability and temperament are the primary focuses of most Pyrenean Shepherd breeders. As a result, the Pyrenean Shepherd is a very healthy dog. In fact, they have one of the longest life expectancies of any dog breed at 14 to 15 years. This does not mean that Pyrenean Shepherds are immune to genetically inherited disorders. It does mean that there are no inherited conditions that are particularly prevalent in the breed.
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.
Some health issues which have been encountered in the Pyrenean Shepherd include: