Pyrenean Mountain Dog

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Pyrenean Mountain Dog

The Pyrenean Mountain Dog is a very large, exceptionally tall pastoral dog that has played a vital role in the protection of livestock for hundreds of years. Known as the Great Pyrenees in the United States, the breed is renowned for its gentle and caring attitude to children and smaller pets, but equally for its qualities as a guard dog. Pyreneans are loving companions who thrive on physical contact with their people: they love nothing more than lying beside (or on top of) their owner, and are known for their fondness for gentle “pawing” as a means of garnering attention and to express affection.

They are watchful and protective by nature, traits essential to a dog tasked with caring for a flock, and which may be desirable in a family pet. However, it must be well socialised to prevent aggression toward strangers, as this imposing animal may make it impossible for anyone, including the postman, to visit unless it learns to accept certain humans outside its family pack.

Pyrenean Mountain Dogs need a territory to call their own, and are not really suited to homes without a garden, which must be securely fenced, as they are surprisingly capable climbers, and tend to roam. Because of this tendency, Pyreneans can never really be trusted off the lead, as they will seldom heed an owner’s call when given the chance to explore. Training can be difficult, for selective deafness is a characteristic of this independent-minded breed. Careless breeding practices in the past have resulted in quite a high incidence of hereditary illnesses that are slowly being bred out, so prospective owners should take care when considering the purchase of a Pyrenean puppy to only buy from a reputable breeder who can furnish health certificates for parents and pups. The average life expectancy for the breed is around 10 to 11 years, though some individuals reach 13 years of age, while still enjoying a reasonable quality of life.

About & History

While Roman accounts of a large sheep herding dog native to the Pyrenean Mountain range that divides France and Spain can be traced back over 2000 years, it was not until the sixteenth century that a description somewhat resembling the Pyrenean we know today emerged. The dogs described by Brother Miguel Agustin, Prior of the Temple de la Fidelissima of Perpignan, were strong and sturdy, and athletic enough to give chase to and bring down wolves. These dogs had white coats to help the shepherds distinguish them from the wolves that preyed on their flocks. Louis, the Grand Dauphin, popularised the breed from around 1675, with the result that it became the guardian of choice for many of the palais and chateaux of France.

However, even as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, at least two distinct Pyrenean strains existed, with coarser, larger dogs associated with the Western Pyrenees, and a more sleek and slender type in the East. With the rise of the breed as an urban pet, the two strains appear to have been combined and standardised over the ensuing decades, and features of both may be seen in the physical characteristics of today’s Pyrenean. Though the breed suffered a huge decline, as did many others, during the World Wars, it also played an important role in conveying messages between troops over the mountains of Europe.

Appearance

Pyrenean Mountain Dog Large Photo

Despite its size, the Pyrenean Mountain Dog retains the athletic proportions of a smaller working dog, carrying less bulk in the head and torso, and with longer, more rangy legs than most other giant breeds. Most carry themselves with confidence, though their distrust of people other than their own can result in shyness or nervousness, undesirable traits in such a large dog. In appearance, the head resembles that of a Border Collie, with a domed crown and well-proportioned, strong muzzle. The Pyrenean has a powerful bite, with large teeth that may meet in a pincer arrangement (meaning the upper and lower incisors contact each other rather than overlapping). The eyes are dark and almond-shaped, and are rimmed by black lids. In proportion to the other facial features, the ears are quite small, and triangular in shape, set level with the eyes.

The neck is relatively short, with an abundant mane of hair that is more pronounced in dogs than in bitches. The chest is broad, but not excessively so, and the lower back and loins are very muscular. The abdomen is tucked, though again this feature is more pronounced in males. The shoulders are set high, and the long limbs are strongly boned and quite upright. The breed typically has a double dew claw on the hindlimbs, which is believed to have aided them in negotiating rocky scree in their original setting. The well-plumed tail is very expressive, being carried low when relaxed, though up and curled when the dog’s attention is aroused.

The coat is incredibly thick, befitting a dog bred for cold weather and high altitude, with a long, thick outer coat that is coarse and either straight or slightly wavy. The undercoat is dense and impermeable, and provides superb weather proofing. White is the predominant coat colour, although small patches of grey, lemon, orange or tan are permissible, mainly around the face and tail. These colours often change in intensity as the dog ages. Most male Pyreneans average 75–80 cm (30–32 in) in height, and weigh between 60 and 65 kg (132–143 lb), though the breed standard allows for a wide range of weights. Females are usually 68–73 cm (27–31 in) tall, and weigh 48–55 kg (106–121 lb).

Character & Temperament

Pyreneans are great big teddy bears with their families: affectionate, loving, and especially gentle around children, they are considerate and calm dogs to have around the home. Though they have been bred to work, they are not a high-energy breed, and are generally reserved and docile. However, their instinct to protect their “flock”, which more often than not is their family, is very strong. A Pyrenean Mountain Dog will always put itself between its owners and any perceived threat, which is anything or anybody with whom it is not familiar.

With a healthy amount of socialisation and instruction, this instinct is an admirable and useful trait in the breed, but it is essential it does not go unbridled, for it is likely to evolve into aggression in individuals allowed to behave as they wish. Though fearless in the face of danger, they are sensitive dogs, and may become sulky and withdrawn if criticised too harshly or frequently. Many of my Pyrenean-owning clients have commented on their dogs’ long memories, and so emotional trauma of this sort is best avoided.

Trainability

Photo of Pyrenean Mountain Dog puppy

As for all dogs, training should be introduced from a young age when it teaches the basics of obedience and good manners. However, stubbornness is a characteristic of the breed, and most Pyreneans have their own strong opinions about how they should behave. Rather than creating an adversarial atmosphere between owner and pet, training should be approached in a positive and patient manner, with the understanding that progress may be slow, but that persistence will pay off in the long run.

Socialisation is particularly important, for the defensive behaviour of the Pyrenean toward strangers can become a worrisome problem in strong-willed individual dogs, particularly males. Attending puppy parties once the initial vaccination course has been completed is a great way to begin to socialise a young dog, and the organisers (often veterinary nurses) will usually be happy to provide guidance for new owners on training their mischievous bundle of fluff.

Health

Though the incidence of several of these conditions is decreasing, there are some health concerns to note in the breed.

  • Acute Moist Dermatitis – The Pyrenean is prone to developing what are commonly known as hot spots, discrete areas of skin that suddenly become inflamed, ulcerated and infected, with accompanying hair loss, pain, and self-mutilation. These often appear over the course of several hours, and represent a severe, localised allergic reaction, often to insect bites.
  • Deafness – Congenital deafness is seen to occur in some puppies. Signs should be noticed by the breeder well before the pups are ready for sale or rehoming.
  • Demodicosis – Most mammals carry a considerable population of Demodex mites within the pores of their skin throughout their lives. These are acquired by pups while suckling from the mother, and the numbers of mites are normally controlled by an immune response. The Pyrenean Mountain Dog is one of the breeds that sometimes fails to mount an adequate response to these parasites, and so may suffer itch, hair loss, and skin infection as a result. If affected as pups, many eventually overcome this problem, whereas dogs with adult-onset demodicosis will likely need lifelong anti-parasitic treatments.
  • Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome – This is an uncommon genetic disorder affecting the connective tissues in the body, and manifests as inelastic, loose, and fragile skin.
  • Epilepsy – This can take many forms, from the dramatic grand mal form with convulsive movements and loss of consciousness, to vacant spells or compulsive behaviours (fly catching, for example). Diagnosis of epilepsy is based on ruling out other potential causes for these episodes, and treatment may be required for dogs experiencing severe or frequent bouts of seizures.
  • Factor VIII Deficiency – This is a sex-linked hereditary clotting disorder, which is often called Haemophilia A. Insufficient production of Factor VIII leads to prolonged bleeding times after minor injuries. Males are affected by the disorder, while females are genetic carriers.
  • Gastric Dilatation–Volvulus – A dramatic condition in which the dog’s stomach rotates around its long axis, causing massive abdominal bloating and severe shock. Pyreneans and other large dogs are predisposed. Feeding several smaller meals throughout the day and avoiding exercise for an hour after eating are measures that can help prevent this from occurring.
  • Haemangiosarcoma – A malignant tumour of blood vessels that most often arises on the spleen, but which can also affect the heart and other organs. Symptoms are associated with internal bleeding, with collapse often being the first sign of a problem.
  • Hip Dysplasia – This is a common cause of lameness in young large breed dogs, and is due to developmental abnormalities within the growing hip joints. The incidence of hip dysplasia is reducing due to the widespread implementation of a hip scoring scheme for breeding dogs, as this is a strongly hereditary condition.
  • Hygroma – A benign but often persistent fluid swelling over bony joints, usually the elbows and hocks. Should not cause the dog any distress or pain, and may be prevented by providing soft, padded bedding to prevent pressure on these poorly protected areas.
  • Hypothyroidism – The thyroid gland functions to maintain a normal metabolic rate in health. Thyroid disease, usually the result of immune-mediated damage, causes weight gain and skin changes, and can exacerbate seizure activity in epileptic individuals. Thankfully, the condition is easily treated once a diagnosis is made.
  • Lupoid Onychodystrophy – This is often seen in adult Pyreneans as the growth of brittle or visibly abnormal nails, and is caused by inflammation at the nail bed, from where growth occurs. It can result in significant pain and usually requires a combination of steroid, antibiotic, and mineral supplements for optimal management.
  • Pannus – An inflammatory condition in which immune cells invade the clear surface of the eye, giving it a red or pink appearance.
  • von Willebrand’s Disease – Another clotting disorder (see Factor VIII deficiency) seen in the breed, caused by poor platelet function. The Pyrenean Mountain Dog is one of several breeds that should be screened for this condition before undergoing even minor surgical procedures.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The breed does not require a huge amount of exercise: between 30 and 60 minutes of walking per day is usually sufficient. Being an alpine breed, Pyreneans do not tolerate heat very well, and so should not be walked during the hottest times of the day during the summer. With this level of exercise and occasional access to a garden, most are content to spend the rest of their time quietly lazing around the home.

Grooming

The impressively dense coat requires little work to maintain, and needs only weekly brushing or combing to prevent knotting. Dirt tends not to penetrate the undercoat, and so bathing is rarely required. However, Pyreneans do shed quite heavily, and because of their sheer size do leave an obvious trail of hair, which is something that should be considered by prospective owners. As they are not hugely active, their nails need to be clipped at least once every 8 weeks, and this should be gently introduced with basic puppy training, for wrestling with a reluctant fully-grown Pyrenean for a nail clip is a difficult task.

Famous Pyrenean Mountain Dogs

The striking and dignified Pyrenean Mountain Dog has appeared in such films and TV shows as:

  • Finding Neverland
  • King of Queens
  • Dumb and Dumber
  • Santa Buddies

Cross-Breeds

The breed is often crossed with other large working dogs to enhance particular characteristics of either breed:

  • Collie Pyrenees – Cross between a Border Collie and Pyrenean Mountain Dog
  • Germanees – Cross between a Pyrenean and German Shepherd
  • Golden Pyrenees – Cross between a Golden Retriever and Pyrenean Mountain Dog
  • Great Bernese – Crose between a Bernese and Pyrenean Mountain Dog
  • Saint Pyrenees – Cross between St Bernard and Pyrenean

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