Breed History

A Dog Of The Mountains

The dogs take their name from the mountain range in southwestern Europe that straddles France and Spain, where they long have been used as guardians of the flocks. In the United States and Canada they are called Great Pyrenees. In the United Kingdom and on the continent of Europe, they are known as the Pyrenean Mountain Dog. In their native France, they are called Le Grand Chien de Montagne des Pyrenees or Le Chien des Pyrenees.Whatever the name, it is the beautiful white dog with a “certain elegance” which for centuries has been the working associate of peasant shepherds high on the mountain slopes. The dog was discovered by French nobility in the seventeenth century and elevated to the status of court dog of France. While it is generally accepted that no living breed of dog can be traced back to its native form, and what is known about dogs prior to a century or two is so little, it may seem that almost all theories of ancestry are of small importance. However, it’s interesting to speculate today, as others have done before us, as to origin.

Far into Antiquity

The Great Pyrenees is classified as a member of the great family of Livestock Guardian Dogs. These dogs can be found in varying colors and somewhat varying body types from central Asia through Turkey and into Europe. One theory of the origin of this group of dogs is generally regarded to be Asia Minor, where the first domestication of the sheep occurred. The group could be over 9000 years old and one of the very earliest use of domesticated dogs. From there the dogs moved outward wherever the shepherds and the sheep existed. In geographically isolated areas they developed into what we today call breeds. A prototype of the European dogs may be seen in the Akbash of Turkey. In Europe these breeds are mostly white in color and include among others, the Maremma of Italy, the Kuvasz and Komondor of Hungry, the Polish Tatra and other large mostly white “dogs of the mountains” guardian dogs. It is possible that the Romans played a role in the groups migration and is a plausible direct link in the development of the Great Pyrenees within the Pyrenees Mountains. Here, for the possibly several centuries, the breed developed, in isolation, its unique characteristics. So although the possibility of the Great Pyrenees as a distinct breed cannot be definitely identified in time, the group of dogs from which it may have descended is surely very ancient. Fossil remains of the dogs are found in deposits of the Bronze Age, 1800-1000 BC. There are references in Roman agricultural writings of late BC and early AD period of white Dogs use to guard sheep. Once in Europe, the Pyrenean Mountain Dog remained isolated in the high mountain areas until Medieval times. There we find him sculptured in bas-relief over the North Gate of Carcassone, bearing the Royal Arms of France, approximately 500 years before his adoption as the Court Dog of the Seventeenth Century. In 1407, French writings tell of the usefulness of these “Great Dogs of the Mountains” as guardians of the Chateau of Lourdes, where they were considered regular assistant guards to men on their daily rounds and where provision was made for them in the sentry boxes. In 1675, they were adopted as the Royal Dog of France by Dauphin, Louis XIV, and subsequently became much sought after by nobility. Having a precocious sense of smell and exceptionally keen eyesight, each dog was counted as equal to two men, be it as a guard of the chateau, as invaluable companion of the shepherds, or as useful pack and message carrying animals across the mountains. Much of their life was spent on the steep slopes with their peasant masters guarding the valuable flocks entrusted to their care, and lying on the doorway to their peasant masters dwelling, thus gaining the designation “mat dog.”

Modern Breed History

In 1824, General Lafayette introduced the first pair to America by bringing over two males to his friend J.S. Skinner, author of “The Dog and the Sportsman”. In 1850, British Queen Victoria owned a Pyrenean Mountain Dog and in 1885-86, the first Pyrenean Mountain Dogs were registered with the Kennel Club of London and shown at the Crystal Palace. In 1897 the breed “standard” or description on the breed was written by Count Henry de Bylandt. In 1907 two clubs were organized to perpetuate interest in the breed. The Argeles Gazost club and The Pastoure Club of Cauterets. Both of these clubs wrote standards that appear to be an elaboration of and consistent with the Bylandt work. It was not until 1909 that the first Pyrenean Mountain Dogs were introduced to England for breeding purposes by Lady Sybil Grant, daughter of Lord Roseberry. It was 26 years later (1935) that the Pyrenean was again bred in a kennel in England. At that time, MME Jeanne Harper Trois-Fontaines started her De Fontaney Kennel at Hyde Heath, Amersham, later becoming well known the world over and accounting for the many exports to distant lands. In Belgium and Northern France, Pyrenean Mountain Dogs were used until comparatively recent times for pulling small carts and delivering milk. In World War I the dogs were used in liaison work in several parts of the world. During the 1920’s The breed’s numbers (and quality) had been depleted in its native France, and a few dedicated breeders, headed by Monsieur Senac-Lagrange, worked to restore the breed to its former glory and joined together to form the Reunion Des Amateurs de Chiens Pyreneans which still exists today. This was the club that was responsible for the breed standard being published in 1927. This standard has served as a basis for all current standards for the breed. In America, a few dogs were brought here in the century following General Lafayette’s gift, but these dogs were pet and work dogs, and relatively few Americans knew of their presence, or of the breed.

First Kennel in the U.S.A.

In 1931, Mr. and Mrs. Francis V. Crane imported several specimens to seriously launch the new breed with the founding of the Basquarie Kennels at Needham, Massachusetts. This Kennel became the largest Pyrenean kennel ever to be established, and its breeding line and stud dogs supplied the network of smaller breeders throughout the United States and other countries. Their efforts provided the breed with an atmosphere in which it could thrive and prosper. Mr. and Mrs. Crane imported over 60 dogs from Europe, primarily from France up until the time active hostilities of World War II broke out. Without Mr. and Mrs. Crane and their interest in the breed, it is doubtful whether the great French bloodlines of the time could have survived the occupation and ravages of World War II. In it’s native France, the detrimental effects of two world wars was evident on the state of the breed, but again, the leadership and devotion of Monsieur Bernard Senac-Lagrange got the breed back on its feet again. The American Kennel Club accorded the Great Pyrenees official recognition in February 1933 and beginning April 1933, separate classification began for the breed at licensed shows. Today, basically the Great Pyrenees is a companion and family dog. Most of our dogs never see a show ring, but they are entrusted and beloved members in homes and may function as livestock guardian dogs on farms and ranches.