The Great Pyrenees is, as its name suggest, a very large dog. It ranges in size from around 25-32 inches at the shoulder. In weight it ranges from 85-140 pounds. It is primarily markings of badger, gray, or varying shade of tan and has a long, flat, harsh protective coat.
The Great Pyrenees originated in the Pyrenees mountains of Europe which form the border between France and Spain. They were developed by the Basque people to protect their flocks from predation by bears and wolves. The dogs have been used for this purpose for over a thousand years. Since a lot of the bears and wolves have disappeared from the mountains, the dogs today are still guarding homes and property. Historically, the dogs have also been used in France to guard large estates. The ability of these dogs to work was achieved by selective breeding in which only the most successful workers were allowed to reproduce themselves, and therefore, a great deal of this inbred instinct remains strong. It is upon this thousand-year selection that we draw when we breed modern dogs for working purposes.
The Dog as Worker
The Great Pyrenees is a territorial guard by nature, which means that he works to keep his territory free from predatory danger. Because of this, there may be times when the shepherd does not see the dog for long periods of time. He knows that the job is being done because the losses decrease. If the dog is working effectively, the stockman may never see a predator, and the flock will never be disturbed.
good working dog has been selected for hostility toward all possible predators. This is why Great Pyrenees, although bred to work on bears and wolves, are equally effective on wild and feral dogs which are an increasing problem to stockman. By nature, the Great Pyrenees is nocturnal. It has no tolerance for other dogs except the herding dogs that it works with, and very small dogs. It can be trusted with small, young and helpless animals of any kind, but it has to be watched as a young pup with some supervision as it usually takes a pup 18 months to become a livestock guardian dog. It is one of the most interesting qualities of a Great Pyrenees-the absolute intolerance of all predators, coupled with extraordinary patience and kindness to stock.
There are basically two ways in which Pyrenees are utilized as protectors of stock. The first is what we call an all-purpose “Ranch or Farm Dog.” This is a dog that lives on a farm, usually in the proximity of the farmyard and ranch house. He is part pet, part guard dog. He takes care of the ranch, the family, and the stock that is usually pastured close to the house. The other Pyrenees is what we call a “Livestock Guardian Dog.” The Livestock Guardian dog is not a pet, and he is not allowed access to the farmyard or to the house. His sole duty is to protect the stock, in some cases on large isolated pastures or ranges. Both types are a working part of the stock operation and function as such. Pyrenees have been known to increase their territory and may also protect stock belonging to adjoining neighbors pastures. The breed performs admirably in either of these situations.
Because of the differences in the ranch/farm and working livestock guardian environment, if the stockman is looking for a working livestock guardian, the fact that a farm raised pup is born to parents who are “Ranch” or “Farm-Dogs” does not necessarily confirm its ability to perform successfully in open range, semi-isolated conditions. Most pups go to new homes between 7 and 12 weeks and have spent most of that time with their dam and littermates. A slight advantage is given to pups being raised with livestock as the breeders can observe their interaction. Many superb and effective working Pyrenees have never seen a sheep before their arrival at the ranch. What is most important is whether or not the parents and/or relatives have produced animals that have worked successfully in your situation.
Choosing a Dog
Once the decision has been made to obtain a Great Pyrenees for predator control, the next question is what kind of dog to obtain and where to obtain a dog.
The first choice must be made between a grown dog and a pup. This will be based upon individual needs and available animals. In general, a pup is to be most recommended, but grown dogs may be very satisfactory on an individual basis. If you decide on a grown dog, be cautious of sellers who offer you a “Trained” dog. If a dog is already an effective worker, the chances are slim that a person would part with such a dog. Also, if such a dog should become available, there is still the problem of adapting the dog to his new environment and territory. A grown dog should come with a contract stating a trial period of time so if the dog does not work out for the new owner, it can be returned. The training of a livestock-guarding dog cannot be equated to the training of a herding dog. The next choice will be male or female. In this breed, either sex will do a very creditable job; so, if you have a strong preference, by all means exercise it. If you get a female, you should have her spayed at about 6-12 months. It she is not spayed, you will lose her usefulness for those 3 weeks twice a year when she is in season, and such a time may come at the peak of lambing. She will be more reliable and more effective if she is spayed. Contrary to popular myth, a Great Pyrenees female will mate with a male dog of any breed if he is insistent enough. Male dogs should also be neutered. The male dog will exercise his sexual drive in response to any female canine. This definitely includes coyotes. If you have a female herding dog, or if your neighbors have an unspayed female dog, your male working dog will quite naturally seek out the company of such females. A dog who is distracted from his stock is useless.
Dealing with Breeders
Perhaps in choosing a good working dog, the single most important factor is the party from whom the dog is purchased. The instinct of the dog to work is genetically determined, so it becomes critical that the person breeding the pups be thoroughly acquainted with the animals behind the breeding and with their working potential and production. The breeder must also recognize proper working temperament and pick it out. As a general rule, the pup who is excessively friendly or excessively shy will not make a good livestock guardian. Not all pups in any liner have good working natures. Beware of the person who seems to have all the answers (or none), or who tells you that any Pyrenees will do the job and that no particular care is involved in achieving a good working performance. That simply is not true and shows an ignorance of the breed and the function of livestock guardians. It is a good idea to ask the breeder for references. Any responsible breeder will be happy to give you names and addresses of buyers who have used his dogs in situations similar to yours. A caring and responsible breeder will also be anxious to do all that he can to insure your success with your dog. Ask questions. If the answers seem vague or very general, perhaps the party from whom you contemplate getting your pup does not have much experience with working dogs. Although a Pyrenees works largely on instinct, there are certain specific things that must be done to achieve optimum performance. The breeder should have these answers or be willing to find them for you. Whenever you buy a pup, you should have the right to have it examined by your own vet to assure yourself that it is in good health. If it is not, you should have the right to return it to the breeder and have your purchase price refunded. All working dogs should come from stock which has had its hips x-rayed and certified free of hip dysplasia. This condition is a great crippler and renders a working dog a great deal less effective. If by chance your dog develops hip dysplasia or any other physical condition which is hereditary and limits its effectiveness as a working dog, you should be able to obtain a replacement dog from the breeder. A responsible breeder will guarantee any pup produced by him for at least one year (sometimes longer) against hereditary or congenital defects which would limit the dog’s performance. Additionally, some breeders of livestock guardians will guarantee you a dog that will work, and if the pup is not satisfactory, they will replace it. Guarantees do vary from one breeder to another, but a health and soundness guarantee is the absolute minimum which should be expected, and all such guarantees should be uttered in writing. The willingness of a breeder to offer a written guarantee is your assurance that the breeder has put time, care, and concern into his breeding and pups, and cares enough about his pups and your needs to stand behind that planning. Written guarantees further avoid disputes at a later date about what was actually promised or agreed to.
Do not be put off it the breeder is also seriously breeding show dogs and family companions as well as livestock guardian dogs, as long as he or she seems to have a good knowledge of the use of Great Pyrenees as working dogs and meets the criteria described above. This usually shows his interest in the Great Pyrenees as a total animal. No animals receive more care or concern in breeding and rearing than do show dogs. It you purchase a working dog from a litter bred by a party also interested in show dogs, you usually can be assured that your pup has had the very best start in those first critical months of life. A buyer can assure him or herself of the working potential of pups from dual purpose breeders by expecting them to adhere to the standards that have already been discussed.
In addition to The Great Pyrenees Club of America, there are regional clubs located throughout the country that are devoted to the promotion and protection of this ancient and useful breed. Many of these clubs have adopted for themselves Codes of Ethics that govern the activities of members within the breed. Clubs devoted to the breed foster educational opportunities of members so that they may be well versed in both breeding practices and working values within the breed. A list of these clubs is available from the secretary of the G.P.C.A. and is published annually in the national publication, “The Bulletin.” Buyers would be well advised to ask the party from whom they hope to purchase a dog if he belongs to either a national or a local organization, or both.
Although this may seem like a great deal of information concerning the purchase of a livestock guarding dog, a dog who does not do his job or is ill or crippled is a great loss in terms of both time and money. Anyone looking for a working Great Pyrenees would be well advised to make lots of inquiries and take the time necessary to acquire a properly bred, carefully reared, adequately guaranteed dog.
A list of livestock guardian dog breeders can be found at Livestock Guardian Breeders List. For more information contact Peter Sannicandro firstname.lastname@example.org
A publication of the Great Pyrenees Club of America, Inc. revised 1991