Written by Doris Donnerman (last updated April 6, 2009)
A member of the Mastiff family, this dog, once known as the Pyrenean Mastiff, most likely was brought into Europe from Asia by two different routes. One brought by sea, accompanying the Phoenician traders from Cadiz to Spain, and one by land, marching westward with the Aryan hordes, leaving its kin in all the prominent mountain valleys of Europe. As they developed their individual characteristics in the seclusion of their own environment, the descendants came to be known as Leonberg, Pomeranian Sheepdog, Maremma, Kuvasz, St. Bernard and Komondor. As a breed the Great Pyrenees thus dates back far into the centuries before Christ, its fossil remains being found in deposits of the Age of Bronze, 1800-1000 B.C.
Once in Europe, the Pyrenean Mastiff developed under climatic conditions similar to those of his native habitat and remained well isolated in the high mountainous areas until medieval times. By 1407 French writers told of the usefulness of these "Great Dogs of the Mountains" as guardians of the Chateau of Lourdes, where they were regarded as regular assistant guards to the men on their daily rounds.
In 1675 they were adopted as the Royal Dog of France by Louis XIV, then the Dauphin. They subsequently became much sought after by the nobility. However, much of their life has been spent in giving useful and devoted service to their French and Spanish peasant shepherd masters, protecting the farms in winter. In summer, guarding the valuable flocks and herds entrusted to their care on the high mountain pasturages. "The Great Dogs of the Mountains" were used to patrol at night and give the alarm of approaching danger. Equipped with a spiked collar, they became such renowned enemies of the bears and wolves that roamed the mountains that they were called "Pyrenean Bearhounds" or "Pyrenean Wolfhounds" in some of the early writings.
Highly intelligent and easy to train, they became useful, through their inherent distrust of strangers, for running contraband goods across the mountain passes which were most difficult to maneuver. Thus they served mankind in yet another useful capacity.
It is noted that this great breed played an important part in the efforts of World War II. In France, several specimens were trained and used in service and some met their death in service of carrying messages and packs for the troops. In America, they were trained exclusively for pack work and were destined for use in an Alaskan campaign, had such became necessary.
Suited only for Arctic service because of their color, they were never trained for guard work because of being such a perfect target. Because of their size, density of coat, and color, they were rejected for Army work. However, on July 9, 1942, the secretary of the Great Pyrenees Club of America cooperated in arranging for a trial unit of eight to be sent to Front Royal, Virginia, for training. These original eight dogs worked out so well that they were sent to Camp Rimini in the Rocky Mountains and calls came in for subsequent shipments, all to be sent to that camp. There they were used for pack work, the dogs being trained in tandem fashion in units of three in carrying a sixty lb. dismantled machine-gun, pulling a toboggan loaded with Red Cross supplies, and carrying packs of up to forty pounds of ammunition. The dogs in one unit alternated in these tasks and worked with one man.
The plea for one hundred dogs for this training was far more than could be assembled. Fortunately, all ideas of an Alaskan campaign were abandoned and subsequently all dogs trained in this service came home in February, 1943. However, a few of the earlier specimens did get out of the country and saw active service with units in the Aleutian Islands, in Labrador, and in Greenland. All dogs were returned with official Army discharges and honorable mention for meritorious service. About twenty-five Great Pyrenees reached training sites, a unit large enough to prove the value of these dogs in a highly specialized field of service.
In addition to his age-old position in the scheme of pastoral life as protector of the shepherd and his flock the Great Pyrenees has been used for centuries as a guard and watch dog on the large estates of his native France. He is as serious in play as he is in work, adapting and molding himself to the moods, desires and even the very life of his human companions. He is all of this, through fair weather and foul, through leisure hours and hours fraught with danger, responsibility, and extreme exertion. He is the exemplification of gentleness and docility with those he knows, of faithfulness and devotion for his master even to the point of self-sacrifice and of courage in the protection of the flock placed in his care and of the ones he loves.
The Great Pyrenees is a loyal and devoted companion-guard for the country home. The Great Pyrenees actually excels and fits best into the scheme of life in the country of his adoption. Trustworthy in disposition, the Great Pyrenees is an ideal dog for children. They are, also, clean in their habits, quiet in the house, lithe in their movements, and easily kept in condition. Highly intelligent and easily trained, deeply devoted to home and family, not excessively heavy eaters or overly large in size, or cumbersome, they make the ideal watchdog for the home. They do not require excessive amounts of exercise to keep in condition nor constant grooming to keep looking fit.
The general appearance this breed of dog is of immense size has great majesty, keen intelligence, unsurpassed beauty with certain elegance. In the rolling ambling gait it shows unmistakably the purpose for which it has been bred, the strenuous work of guarding the flocks in all kinds of weather on the steep mountain slopes of the Pyrenees. The coat can withstand severe weather, with a heavy fine white under coat and long, flat, thick outer coat of coarser hair.
The average height at the shoulder is twenty-seven inches to thirty-two inches for the males, with a weight from 100 to 125 pounds. While the female stands between twenty-five inches to twenty-nine inches and weighing between 90 to 115 pounds.
Additional information on the Great Pyrenees can be found at the website for the American Kennel Club.
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