October 23, 2017

Introduction to the Great Pyrenees

You might mistake the Great Pyrenees for a polar bear but they are actually a very old livestock guardian dog from southwestern Europe. Woe be unto any predators that make the mistake of trying to harm a flock being guarded by a Great Pyrenees!

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Historically these elegant dogs protected their flocks from bears and wolves. While these giant dogs are very protective and have a natural guarding instinct, at home they are gentle and affectionate. They are especially good with children.

They can be independent-minded and a little stubborn or slow to learn commands but they make up for it by being very patient, loyal dogs. Expect drooling and some shedding with a Great Pyrenees.

Breed numbers have dropped in recent years but the breed is still popular as a livestock guardian on farms and ranches and as a companion dog.

History of the Great Pyrenees

In the United States this breed is known as the Great Pyrenees. However, in Britain and in Europe they are known as the Pyrenean Mountain Dog. In France, where the breed originated, they are called Le Chien De Montagne des Pyrenees or Le Chien des Pyrenees. Whatever you call them, they are basically large white dogs with a degree of elegance which take their name from the mountain range in southwestern Europe between France and Spain. This is historically and culturally Basque country. Basque shepherds in the mountains have kept the dogs to guard their flocks for centuries – perhaps as much as 3000 years.

The Great Pyrenees may have evolved from a group of mostly white mountain flock guardian dogs that are believed to have developed some 10,000 years ago in Asia Minor. They probably accompanied humans as they migrated throughout Europe in the following millennia. The Great Pyrenees is probably related to the Maremma Sheepdog, the Kuvasz from Hungary, the Akbash Dog from Turkey, and the Polish Tatra Sheepdog – all European livestock guardian dogs of similar appearance.

According to the Great Pyrenees Club of America, the Great Pyrenees is a lupo molossoid and not a molossoid. (“Molossoid” refers to dogs that have mastiff features. “Lupo molossoid refers to dogs that are intermediate between the mastiff type and dogs that have wolf-like features.) There has likely been some crossbreeding over the centuries but the Great Pyrenees is not a mastiff. There are other dogs from the region that are mastiff in type such as the Pyrenean Mastiff and the Spanish Mastiff but the Great Pyrenees does not fall into this category.

The Great Pyrenees has always been a mountain shepherd and had a close bond with the people of the mountains. However, the dogs were esteemed by other parts of French society. In 1675 the Dauphin in the court of King Louis XIV of France adopted them as the Royal Dog of France and they became very popular with the nobility.

The Great Pyrenees was an early immigrant to North America. Basque fishermen brought them to Newfoundland in 1662 as companions and guardians. In Newfoundland some of them were bred to black curly coated retrievers favored by the English settlers which produced the Landseer (black and white) Newfoundland. In 1824 General Lafayette brought the first Great Pyrenees to the United States.

Queen Victoria, a passionate dog lover, owned a Great Pyrenees among the many dogs she kept. And the first Pyrenean Mountain Dogs were registered with the Kennel Club in Great Britain in 1885-6. The first Great Pyrenees were brought to England for breeding in 1909.

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Unfortunately, by the late 1800s and early 1900s, the state of the Great Pyrenees in its native mountains had fallen into a sad state. In the early 1900s some dedicated fanciers set out to find good specimens of the breed to preserve it. World War I had a devastating effect on the breed’s numbers and it was hard to find quality dogs. Fanciers worked together to find some of the remaining dogs. World War II dealt another blow to the breed and again breeders and others who loved the breed had to work to try to save the Great Pyrenees.

Fortunately, some American breeders had imported dogs in the 1930s to begin breeding Great Pyrenees in North America. Some important breeding stock was imported to the United States just prior to the beginning of World War II. The Great Pyrenees has been able to thrive in North America. The American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1933. Today the Great Pyrenees is the 67th most popular breed in the United States, according to AKC registration statistics.

Great Pyrenees Health Related Issues

If you are interested in a Great Pyrenees, we encourage you to check out the web site for the Great Pyrenees Club of America (GPCA), especially their health pages.

The Great Pyrenees is generally considered to be a healthy breed.

They have a typical lifespan of 10 to 12 years which is quite old for a giant breed.

However, there are some health issues that can appear in individual dogs such as Addison’s Disease, degenerative myelopathy, Glanzmann’s Thrombasthenia (a blood disorder), several kinds of cancer (hemangiosarcoma, osteosarcoma, lymphosarcoma, and mast cell tumors), subaortic stenosis (a cardiac problem), congenital deafness, hypothyroidism, neuronal degeneration, several possible eye problems (cataracts, persistent pupillary membrane, progressive retinal atrophy, canine multifocal retinopathy 1), Sebaceous Adenitis (a skin problem), spondylosis (a spinal disorder), elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia, patellar luxation, osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), and panosteitis. Many of these conditions are rare, treatable, or there are tests for them to help breeders avoid them. In other cases, research is underway to find answers for the conditions.

The Great Pyrenees Club of America recommends that dogs be tested for hip dysplasia, patellar luxation, and have one of the following tests: congenital cardiac exam, thyroid (from an approved lab), elbow dysplasia, a BAER test for hearing, an OCD test for the shoulders, an ACVO eye exam, a Canine Multifocal Retinopathy (CMR) test, genetic screening for Glanzmann’s Thrombasthenia (GT), or an advanced cardiac exam. Testing is especially important for any dog being considered for breeding.

You can check the database for health statistics regarding the Great Pyrenees on the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) web site.

Great Pyrenees Temperament

The Great Pyrenees is often described as “majestic” and it’s true that these dogs are large and very strong. They are reserved with strangers but gentle and affectionate at home. They are confident dogs and they will be territorial and protective when necessary. But they prefer not to expend too much energy if they don’t have to do so. They are generally composed, patient, and loyal dogs. The American Kennel Club describes them as having an almost “Zen-like” calm, but they can quickly spring into action if necessary. They are graceful and beautiful dogs when moving, despite their very large size, well able to meet any threat.

At home they tend to be strong-willed and independent. They are devoted to their families but they don’t always obey immediately. This is not the best dog to get if you like a dog than instantly does what you command it to do or if you have dreams of becoming an obedience champion. Your ideas about what’s important and your Great Pyrenees’s ideas about what’s important may not be the same. When you call a Great Pyrenees he will probably come – in his own good time.

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This breed is very good with children. They make a good family dog. As always, we do recommend that you supervise when small children and dogs interact with each other. It’s always best to be safe.

Obviously, this is a very large breed and they require plenty of room. They are not extremely active but their sheer size means that they are not generally a good fit for an apartment. They need regular daily exercise. This is not a breed that you should allow off leash. They require a fenced yard.

The Great Pyrenees is a breed that drools quite a bit so this is something you should be prepared for before you invite one into your home. They also shed. And, as a livestock guardian breed, they bark quite a bit, especially at night. So, while they are beautiful, gentle dogs, this is not the right breed for everyone. If you don’t want your lovely, tidy home to be covered with drool and dog hair, or you have close neighbors who object to a lot of barking, you may want to consider a different breed.

On the other hand, the Great Pyrenees can be the perfect dog for many people, especially if he has access to the outdoors. They are good with other animals and tend to be gentle with smaller creatures. They often enjoy cold weather. Great Pyrenees compete in many kinds of canine events such as rally, agility, tracking, draft (hauling), and, yes, even obedience. Conformation dog shows are also fun. Some people with farms and ranches still keep Great Pyrenees as working livestock guardian dogs – a job which the dogs love to do.

Great Pyrenees Grooming

Male Great Pyrenees are about 27 to 32 inches tall at the withers; a female will stand from 25 to 29 inches tall. You can expect a 27 inch male dog to weigh about 100 pounds. Expect a 25 inch female dog to weigh about 85 pounds. Their weight should be in proportion to their overall size and structure. It’s not unusual for some large males to weigh as much as 130 pounds.

The Great Pyrenees’s coat is white with markings that are badger, gray, reddish brown, or shades of tan. The coat is lush and weatherproof.

The breed requires regular brushing once or twice a week to remove dead hair and cut down on shedding but they actually need a minimum of grooming to stay handsome. The coat is coarse so a brush will remove any dirt. Loose undercoat can be removed with a coat rake or wide-toothed comb. Bathe as needed.

You should NEVER clip a Great Pyrenees in the summer. These dogs need their coat for protection from the sun.

DO check ears regularly for mites, excess earwax, and other problems. Keep the ears dry and clean as needed.

Clip your Great Pyrenees’s nails and dew claws regularly. This breed has double dewclaws on their rear legs so be sure to keep them trimmed, too. These rear dewclaws are part of the breed’s uniqueness so don’t let someone tell you that they should be removed.

Check your dog’s eyebrows regularly, too. They should not curl down into the eyes where they could cause irritation. You can clip them if necessary but use caution with scissors around the eyes.

Otherwise your Great Pyrenees does not need any trimming or clipping.

For some wonderful tricks on grooming your Great Pyrenees for the show ring and more specific information about grooming, we recommend this page on the Great Pyrenees Club of America site.

Great Pyrenees Fun Facts

  • One Great Pyrenees – a dog named Duke the Dog – became mayor of Cormorant, Minnesota in 2014.
  • The Newfoundland and the Saint Bernard are considered to be related to the Great Pyrenees. When the Saint Bernard nearly died out in the 19th century, the Great Pyrenees was on of the large breeds used to help restore the breed.
  • The French word “Patou” is one of the fond terms used to refer to the Great Pyrenees. It comes from the word “pastre,” meaning shepherd. Patou refers to a shepherd’s dog and not a herding dog. Dogs like the Great Pyrenees protect the sheep instead of herding them.
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Common Great Pyrenees Mixes

We were able to find some Great Pyrenees dogs available as rescues online but only a few Great Pyreneese mixes. The mixes we found were Great Pyreneese/mixed (unidentified), Great Pyrenees/Australian Shepherd, Great Pyrenees/Border Collie, Great Pyrenees/Anatolian Shepherd, Great Pyrenees/Golden Retriever, Great Pyrenees/Collie, Great Pyrenees/Labrador, Great Pyrenees/Saint Bernard, and Great Pyrenees/Cattle Dog.

Great Pyrenees FAQ’s

What is a Great Pyrenees Life Expectancy?

Many Great Pyrenees live to be 10 to 12 years. This is longer than many giant breeds.

Are Great Pyrenees easy to train?

No, most sources say that the breed is not very easy to train. They are intelligent but independent. This often tends to be true of livestock guardian breeds since they have to make their own decisions when guarding their flocks. They don’t always depend on humans for direction. However, Great Pyrenees can be trained and do well in many dog sports. They are patient dogs. It will take patience on your part to train your dog. You’ll have to find ways to motivate your Great Pyrenees and make training fun for him.

Do Great Pyrenees shed a lot of hair?

Yes. They don’t shed all the time but they have a coarse outer coat and a thick, soft undercoat. Some dogs will “blow coat” once a year when they shed a lot all at once. Other dogs will have a big shed in the spring and autumn. Regular brushing will help reduce the shedding and prevent any tangles or mats from forming.

What type of Dog Food should I feed a Great Pyrenees?

The Great Pyrenees Club of America says that Great Pyrenees have a low metabolism. We recommend a food with good quality protein and fat. You can look for foods with meat as the first ingredient and a named fat source. Try to avoid artificial flavors, preservatives, and colorings. Keep carbohydrates low to moderate if possible. There is no need to feed a food with enormous amounts of calories if your Great Pyrenees is not getting lots of exercise. Make sure your dog is getting an amount of food that is suitable to his current level of activity.

You can feed adult dogs two meals per day. Avoid overfeeding. This is especially important for breeds that are moderately active such as the Great Pyrenees. They may not get enough exercise to work off calories, especially today when most of them are no longer doing their historical job. Great Pyrenees puppies will generally do well eating a large breed puppy food to help them grow slowly. Keep puppies slim to avoid joint and bone problems later in life. Puppies can do well eating three meals per day until they are old enough to eat two adult meals per day.

Do Great Pyrenees make good apartment pets?

No, we would not recommend the Great Pyrenees as an apartment pet. Their giant size and night time barking would make them unsuitable for more apartments. They have moderate exercise requirements but still need a chance to run and play every day.

Are Great Pyrenees good with Children?

Yes, the Great Pyrenees is very good with children. They are typically gentle dogs with an innate understanding that they need to be careful with young children and animals. However, we still recommend that you supervise interaction between any dog and small children, just to be safe.

Carlotta Cooper

Carlotta Cooper is a freelance writer and a long-time contributing editor for the weekly dog show magazine, Dog News. She is the author of The Dog Adoption Bible, the Dog Writers Association of America Adoptashelter.com award-winner for 2013. Additionally, Carlotta is the author of Canine Cuisine: 101 Natural Dog Food & Treat Recipes to Make Your Dog Health and Happy, as well as other books about pets. She is a guest writer for numerous website and blogs and a frequent pet food reviewer.

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