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This article appeared in the December 2006 Goat Rancher

The last time we checked, our friend [Robyn Poyner] who tracks such things had counted 40 distinct breeds of livestock guardian dogs. [click on ]  The amazing thing is that each and every one of them will do an A-1 job of protecting your herds. It’s even more amazing when you realize that each breed of LGD is the product of a herding culture that developed in relative isolation and formed their type, or style, of guardian dogs with little thought for aesthetics and tremendous emphasis on the dogs’ performance in their particular situation. For those of you who may be saying, "Enough of history already, I want a dog that will perform like I need it to perform to meet my needs today," it is important to realize that the very traits you want and need in a dog were formed in these ancient, unique cultures and the differences between breeds today reflect the differences in the needs of those older cultures. For those of you who still have no interest in LGDs beyond simply wanting a dog that works, perhaps the dog that would serve you best and is already taking shape in the United States is the U.S Guardian Dog. This dog reflects the melting pot that is synonymous with our country. It is, quite simply, a blend of as many LGD breeds as modern transportation has made possible in today’s world and is a functional animal performing on many farms and ranches today.

For us goat producers who need every bit of functionality a guardian can have and still want a little more, breeds are the answer that we, and many others, find to combine performance, aesthetics and more predictable personalities in animals everyone involved can only call beautiful, even if many of us disagree on which breed really is the most beautiful. To be honest, there are even disagreements among folks as to what constitutes a breed and what any given breed can or cannot look like. For us, an LGD breed is a particular type of dog, from a particular area, historically used to protect livestock, which has been frozen at some point in time to stop the developmental evolution of the dog so as to preserve the characteristics for future generations. In the case of Great Pyrenees, that happened in the early 20th century on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains which form the border between France and Spain and we think it was an excellent choice.

The dogs that would become the Great Pyrenees, arrived in the area around 3000 B.C. as part of the Great Sheep Migration, or The Transhumanance, that saw the populating of the European continent with shepherds and their flocks in a 2000 year exodus from what we now call the Middle East. As the migrating people stopped and settled in various locations, their flocks and the dogs that protected them would spend several thousand years developing their distinct characteristics yet remain close enough genetically that we can see the Akbash (Turkey), the Maremma (Italy), the Greek Sheepdog, the Kuvaz (Hungary), the Chuvatch (Slovakia) and the Tatra (Poland) are all "kissin" cousins" of the Great Pyrenees. Joseph B. Gentzel, in his book, The Great Pyrenees, From France With Love was the first to sift the available data and present this exciting and coherent story of the development of the white European guardians, providing a modern and scientifically based replacement to the older theories that left so much to be desired.

From the time the shepherds arrived in the Pyrenees until the Carthaginians and the Romans arrived around 1000 B.C., the dogs developed in the isolation of the mountains, culled by their shepherds so that only those dogs who possessed the abilities to counter the threats to the flocks posed by the wolves and bears of the Pyrenees continued to pass on their genetics. After about 5000 years of development, the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, or the Great Pyrenees as we know them, was declared a "breed". Standards were codified and "breeders" who "showed" took over the maintenance of the breed with little argument from the shepherds since the bears and wolves that had once threatened their flocks were virtually exterminated throughout the mountains.

Great Pyrenees have paid the price that many other dogs over the years have paid for the prize of popularity. When you buy a Great Pyrenees today, you need to know the breeder can provide references or you need to see the dog working as it is now possible to find Great Pyrenees plagued by joint problems, not inclined to guard, and all told, bearing little resemblance to the elegant and committed guardians that the dogs are when at their best.

Speaking of "at their best", what does it mean? We have to divide any description of a Great Pyrenees into two parts, physical and behavior. Physically, the standards are set by the Great Pyrenees Club of America. A female Pyr must be 25 to 29 inches tall at the withers (measured across the top of their shoulders) while a male should be 28 to 32 inches. While no weight is mandated, the dogs should be well muscled but trim, neither bulky like a mastiff nor thin like a greyhound. Their head should well formed "with a certain elegance" with lips tight, not droopy and the almond shaped amber eyes rimmed with dark black as well as having a dark black nose. The coat is white with not more than thirty percent of their body colored any of several colors. They are considered long haired dogs but actually have two coats, so effective a Pyr can go swimming and be bone dry underneath the coat. The coat is self cleaning and dirt or even motor oil just disappears within a day or two. Washing the coat will leave it pretty white but it will also destroy the oils essential for keeping the coat waterproof. Our Pyrs are all cream colored as the only white Great Pyrenees on our farm are those that just moved in and haven’t had time to assume what we call "their working color". Unlike other long haired dogs, Pyrs "blow their coat" once or twice a year removing matts and leaving great clumps of hair decorating the goat pens. They can get to looking pretty ratty at times but all the maintenance their coat really needs is to check behind their ears for matts which will hold moisture and provide an excellent environment for parasites. Besides providing protection from the storms of the Pyrenees Mountains, their thick coat acts as armor to help prevent injury from sharp sticks and rocks, briars, bugs, and even the teeth and claws of predators when the need arises. Being white, the coat will reflect sunlight, preventing their pink skin from becoming sunburned in the summer, while not inhibiting cooling in hot weather because dogs sweat only though their feet and their tongue. Plenty of water, for drinking and for wading, combined with shade will get any Pyr through even the hottest summers. An identifying trait of Great Pyrenees is the double dew claw on the hind legs. Although some other breeds may have the double dew, for Great Pyrenees it is a requirement. These dew claws are working toes and an x-ray will show that there is bone actually in the double dews. These double dews are used as an aid when moving over rough ground, climbing rocks or even fences, and for additional stability when standing which is their preferred fighting position. For a detailed description of the perfect physical Great Pyrenees, go to the GPCA website and browse their "Illustrated Standard".

Behaviorally, probably an "independent nature" most typifies the Great Pyrenees. These dogs have spent millennia developing the abilities to make the split second decisions necessary to protect their stock in an emergency and they are not bred to please their human masters as are most other dogs. A Pyr needs to decide for itself that the action you are requesting is appropriate for the time and place; once that decision is made, your Great Pyrenees will obey perfectly if not quite immediately. Lest you think this is not acceptable behavior for any dog, remember that Great Pyrenees bond with their stock and need to assure themselves that the stock is safe before they turn their attention elsewhere. Imagine a Pyr coming when called only to leave the herd open to a predator. It is unimaginable that they would do such a thing but humans are often irritated by this very behavior. All Livestock Guardian Dogs are aggressive when necessary to protect their stock and all are excellent fighters, to the death when called upon to fight. Great Pyrenees can and do use aggressive behavior and are capable of both killing and laying down their lives to save their charges from predation. One thing we love about the Great Pyrenees is that we think they are the least aggressive of all the LGDs and no one so far has ever argued that point. A Great Pyr would prefer to deter a predator rather than fight it, and, to that end, Great Pyrenees bark, a lot, they’re famous for it. This trait makes them unsuitable for heavily populated areas as the dogs know barking is necessary, not to say enjoyable, and the neighbors often know the barking irritates them to no end. A Pyr will patrol its boundaries and both males and females will mark the extent of their territory. No Pyr needs to be taught how to guard its goats, but some, especially puppies and older juveniles, often need to be taught that some behaviors such as chasing and grabbing are inappropriate. In almost every case, interrupting this undesired behavior and issuing a firm reprimand will stop the problem although even dams have to repeat their corrections often for some of their pups. Consistency of correction combined with careful monitoring are as necessary with pups as they are with our children and young dogs respond to firm consistent correction as well, if not better than, most children. For the occasional problem behavior needing more complex corrective practices, consult with your dog’s breeder or other person experienced with this type of behavior. One thing everyone associated with an LGD needs to remember is that undue violence (in the dog’s opinion, not the human’s) especially with older dogs, can not only be counter productive but dangerous. While a Great Pyrenees should never attack its recognized caregiver, a person showing serious threat may very well be fair game.

Another behavior typical of Great Pyrenees is digging. They dig in the summer to find cool earth to lie in; they dig in the winter to provide some shelter; they dig in the spring and fall because they can, and apparently enjoy it. We have found many craters as well as some tunnel systems on our farm that might put the UMW to shame. If confined against their will, they’ll certainly dig to escape and any escape proof pen must have a floor impervious to a determined assault by Pyr paws. Great Pyrenees are often food aggressive which means it is always safer to feed the dogs separately (not just two pans but separate rooms to be safe) or to have self feeders where they can determine their own order for eating. In extreme cases you may need two self feeders as occasionally a dog will refuse to share its self feeder with another. We make a practice of regularly removing food from our dogs’ mouths from puppyhood to insure they never get the idea that food aggression toward humans is acceptable. Food aggression is closely related to dominance, or alpha status among the dogs. Any time there are one or more dogs together, one will be the ascendant one and the others will be subservient, although not necessarily groveling. At times, a dog will be assigned a leadership position (we have no idea how) for special projects and become alpha only at those time while the usual alpha dog will become a follower for the duration of their activity. Often this activity can be babysitting delivering does or watching the kids. A dog that seems always content with beta status in the pack will assume total control of all dogs in relation to their behavior towards her (in our experience it’s usually a female dog) charges and will not only threaten but attack another dog that violates her rules. One very inconvenient aspect of alpha behavior is same gender aggression. Two adult intact Pyrs of the same gender who have not been raised together (this means together – all the time – not just on the same property) will fight immediately upon meeting in order to show dominance. These fights can be lethal and should be avoided at all costs. If you should be present at one of these fights, do not try to break it up by placing any part of your body between the dogs. They are very focused and will totally ignore your attempt at intervention, most probably resulting in injuries of some sort to you. The safest way to break up a fight is to grab a tail and start dragging to a place you can secure the dog safely while you collect the second dog. If two people are available, each one can grab a tail, not letting go until one dog is safely secured. A dog that can go from sound asleep to running full out faster than you can read the description will have no trouble totally relaxing when it knows there is no possibility of continuing the fight and no trouble renewing the fight immediately if it has the opportunity. In Great Pyrenees, an altered dog with no previous relationship to the intact dog will virtually always accept the intact dog’s claim to alpha and any fight will be brief and pose no problem. (Warning: This is not true for other breeds of LGDs).

One trait that Great Pyrenees share with all LGDs is bonding. It is the reason that they are so effective as guardians of livestock. It is also the reason for the vast majority of failed LGDs. Since a Pyr will bond to something, new owners often and through ignorance, let the dog bond to them and then wonder why it won’t stay with the stock. Puppies coming to a new home do not belong in the house, much less the bed of the new owner. They need to continue their life in the comforting presence of goats as it will be the only thing familiar to them if they have been removed from their littermates. Any working Great Pyrenees can be treated with affection but only in the presence of its goat herd, never away from it. In fact, forming a friendly and trusting relationship with your Pyr is only common sense; it makes administering medications like heartworm preventative a non-event, treating an injured dog a benign rather than a dangerous experience, and it is satisfying to us to have a dependable friend in the goatyard when, as we all know, most goats would sell their grandmother for food. Our dogs get a dog treat every day when we check the goats. This relationship also means the dogs will come when called unless they cannot afford to be diverted from their duties at the time.

Great Pyrenees are low maintenance dogs; you can spend hours and hours with them but that is your choice. You do need to check for matts behind the ears, apply tick prevention (we’ve never found a better product than Frontline), administer heartworm prevention which we understand is necessary all over the country rather than just in the South as it used to be, look for hot spots (a red sore place with no hair, generally in the hotter weather – the best treatment we know of is Cut Heal but corn starch will work in a pinch) and generally check their condition regularly. Occasionally, a Pyr will have double dews that grow around and penetrate their pad so the dew claws need to be checked on a regular basis, too. We visually inspect our goats daily and look at the dogs at the same time.

Feeding Great Pyrenees is a simple process if you use self feeders, and not much more complicated if you don’t. We feed Diamond Sporting Dog kibble (dry dog food chunks) that is 24% protein and 20% fat as free choice and the dogs thrive on it. Working dogs need more protein and fat than pets do and in the colder climates the need is even greater. Some people prefer to feed a RAW diet consisting of all the different parts of the fed animals and consider it a more healthy diet. We agree with them but the cost seems prohibitive to us and since we don’t eat all that healthy a diet ourselves we think food that is designed for the dogs is a step up and better for them than sharing our food. We do check the tag to make sure we’re not feeding the dogs all or mostly corn or wheat and make sure the tag lists meat or meat meal as the primary ingredient. Most importantly as far as feeding is concerned, monitor your dogs’ condition and adjust their diet to keep them healthy and in good condition. One note here is that we do feed goats that die on our farm to the dogs. We chunk the goats with the hide on and include all the parts, then freeze them to kill the parasite sarcocysts, and use the meat to supplement the diet, for treats, or to add nutrition to the diet of a lactating bitch. Puppies can pull a dam down and if you don’t have goat parts around to feed her, we recommend getting suet at the butcher shop or slaughter house and adding milk replacer to her food. In response to the worry about teaching your dogs to kill goats by feeding them the meat, we can assure you that it is only a myth. If it was true, after five thousand years we would have neither goats nor dogs to concern ourselves with. In addition, it makes sense to get one last economic benefit from an animal that is lost to you and permanently placed in the "loss" column.

We would like to add a note of controversy at this point and deal with the subject of spaying and neutering. We feel strongly that unless you have an intention to breed and raise Great Pyrenees as well as the knowledge and the facilities to prevent unplanned breedings that spaying and neutering is the only sensible option. We know that many people disagree with us on this point but here are the reasons behind our belief. First, intact dogs of either gender remind us more of adolescent human boys than anything else. Males will go to great lengths to track down the source of the odor announcing a bitch in heat while the bitch will expend the same extraordinary efforts to get bred when she is in heat. All this time spent on sex has the same effect upon guarding as it does upon the grades and other responsibilities of teenage boys. Some can handle it but many cannot and the job can suffer for it. When the job is protecting livestock, one lapse in judgment can be quite expensive. In addition, indiscriminant breeding can lead to reduced quality of the dogs, a mongrelization of the LGD instinct through breeding with non-LGD dogs with predictable results when a dog that looks like a Pyr (all too often any dog that is big and white looks like a Pyr to the unknowing) and has a high prey drive is locked in with the ultimate prey. Such breedings also contribute to the "disposable dog" syndrome that is so common a symptom in a society that focuses so heavily on consumerism. Animal shelters everywhere are overwhelmed with failed or unwanted dogs and we feel that adding to that problem is irresponsible at a time when resources seem to be dwindling. We remind you we are not against breeding Great Pyrenees, we do it ourselves, but we are against practices that allow unplanned breeding that help no one and add to society’s already large burden.

There is so much more to be said about working Great Pyrenees Livestock Guardians that it would take a book to cover everything in detail. Our website, has a section in the site map under Great Pyrenees that is entitled "Information Pages". It includes more detail on preparing for your first Great Pyr, discipline, introducing your Great Pyrenees, the effect of anesthesia on Pyrs, links to a double dew x-ray, and other items we feel are critical for a Pyr owner to know. We can be reached by email at and are always glad to correspond with people who own Pyrs or any LGDs for that matter.


Dan & Paula Lane
Copyright © 2006 [Bountiful Farm]. All rights reserved.

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