Profile: Great Pyrenees

A shepherd's dog and a family companion

Big. White. Gentle. Courageous. Intelligent. Independent. Low-key.

It must be a Great Pyrenees, the dog named after a mountain chain in Europe!

This big, happy dog was developed in the Pyrenean Mountains between France and Spain to guard the flocks and protect the homes of the shepherd and his family. Here the big dog fearlessly faced wolves and bears and alerted his family to bandits.

Virtually unknown outside his mountain home for centuries, his ancestry is a puzzle. One theory traces his origin to the Tibetan mastiff and tracks his path to the Pyrenees with wandering herdsmen and marauding conquerors from that Far Eastern region. But the Tibetan Mastiff is a dark-colored dog for all its other resemblance to the Great Pyrenees and its relatives, and most of the flock guardians are pale or white. Thus a second theory places the Pyr's origin with pale dogs in Asian Minor.

Wherever he came from, the Great Pyrenees has several sheep-guarding cousins: the Maremma from Italy, Akbash and Anatolian from Turkey, Komondor and Kuvasz from Hungary, and Tatra Sheepdog from Poland. Only the Kuvasz and the Komondor join the Great Pyrenees as AKC-recognized breeds.

Once he left the mountains, the Pyr became a favorite in the French courts. The dog's prowess as a guard was a topic of conversation as early as 1407, and the breed was dubbed the Royal Dog of France by Louis XIV in 1675. A few years earlier, the Pyr had migrated to Newfoundland with Basque fishermen to protect the new settlement, and there it took part in the development of the Newfoundland dog. Today, the Pyrenees' influence can be seen in the lankier look of the black-and-white Landseer Newfoundland.

In 1824, General Lafayette brought two Great Pyrenees to the US as a gift for a friend, but serious breeding did not begin here until 1931. Today, the Great Pyrenees ranks 45th in popularity among the AKC registered breeds with 4,521 individuals and 1639 litters registered in 1996.

The breed standard

The Great Pyrenees is a large, elegant dog with a regal expression. Males are 27-32 inches tall at the withers and weigh about 100 pounds; females are somewhat smaller and lighter. Dogs of both sexes should be somewhat longer than tall when measured from the point of the shoulder to the point of the buttocks and must be balanced in appearance and gait.

The Pyr is not a white Newfoundland and should not have the heavy head and bone of a Newf. Newf s are shorter (average height for males is 28 inches) and heavier (weight for males is 130-150 pounds). The Pyr head should be wedge-shaped with a slightly rounded crown, medium-sized, dark brown, almond-shaped eyes; small-to-medium v-shaped ears carried flat against the sides of the head; and tight lips.

The Pyr body has a strong neck, level back, moderately broad chest, broad back and loin, and long plumed tail. The tail can be carried low when the dog is at rest and over the back when the dog is alert. The double dewclaws, a characteristic of the breed, must be present on the dog's hind legs.

The Pyr coat is thick and makes the dog look heavier than it is. The long, coarse outer coat is weather resistant and the thick, woolly undercoat insulates the skin, giving the dog protection against mountain storms and frigid temperatures. The coat is more profuse around the neck and shoulders; feathering along the thighs gives the effect of “pantaloons.”

The breed is not always pure white. Markings of gray, badger, reddish brown, or tan are accepted on the head — including a full face mask, and on ears, tail, and a few body spots.

The Pyr as pet

The Pyr sheds. A lot. Those who cannot abide the thought of tufts of white hair floating through the house twice a year should consider another breed. On the other hand, those who fancy exotic knit accessories may find the Pyr right up their alley. The dog's fine undercoat can be collected when shed and spun into yarn used to make sweaters, scarves, afghans, and other items.

The Pyr coat must be kept free of mats whether the hair will remain on the dog or be collected for spinning. The undercoat tangles into felted mats that can hold dirt and cause painful hot spots on the skin. A thorough weekly brushing is necessary to keep the coat in top condition.

Owners should be particularly on the alert for fleas. If these pesky critters get established in the heavy Pyr coat, they can be difficult to eliminate. As thick and plush as the coat is, the Great Pyrenees should not be shaved in the summer; instead he should be given a shady spot and plenty of fresh water.

The Pyr needs a fenced yard with a visible barrier to remind him to stay home. Without that barrier, he will consider the world to be his territory and think he has to guard it all. He should not be tied out regularly, for tying can cause frustration that leads to aggression.

Pyr puppies grow rapidly and reach almost adult size before they are a year old. They should be well-socialized to other dogs, trained to walk on a leash, and taught basic good manners before they get too big to handle.

As with other guardian breeds, motivational training works best with the Great Pyrenees. The dog does not do well with harsh corrections or repetitive training. The breed's absence from the obedience ring is a testimony to its independence, not a comment on its intelligence. As bored as the dog gets with repetitive obedience, it takes readily to pulling a cart, patrolling the homestead perimeter, and guarding the children.

Like other large breeds, the Pyr is susceptible to hip dysplasia, so puppies should come from parents with hip certification from PennHip or the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. The breed is also subject to Factor XI deficiency, a bleeding disorder; bloat; heat stroke; lameness; and bone cancer. His low metabolism makes him sensitive to anesthesia, a condition that must be taken into effect whenever surgery is planned.

The Great Pyrenees Club of America Health Information Committee gathers data on breed health to inform members about problems. The club's code of ethics requires that breeders inform buyers about known hereditary defects in their bloodlines, test their breeding animals for hip dysplasia, and disclose the test results.

Buyers should consider the temperament as well as the health of the parent dogs when looking for a Pyr puppy. The well-bred adult Pyr is confident, gentle, and affectionate to his family, territorial about his home and flocks, and patient and tolerant. Extreme shyness, nervousness, or aggression to humans are serious faults in the breed and serious detriments in a family pet.

The Pyr is also strong-willed and independent, characteristics that do not make him the best pet for families unaccustomed to dealing with big dogs. Great Pyrenees rescue groups are often inundated with dogs that were purchased without understanding of the size, independence, and hairiness of the breed. Families should look for dogs bred as pets; the working stock Great Pyrenees may be too independent for inexperienced owners to handle and train. However, once the Pyr grabs your heart, you may want another. If this is the case, look for a puppy or rescue dog of the opposite sex; males and females may not get along well with members of their own sex.

For more information about the Great Pyrenees, see the contacts for the breed at the

Norma Bennett Woolf

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