History of the Great Pyrenees
Pyrs are named for a mountain range in southwestern Europe where they were used as guardians of the flocks. In the United States 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 Le Chien de Montagne des Pyrenees or Le Chien des Pyrenees.
Whatever the name, for centuries it 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. It is generally accepted that no living breed of dog can be traced back to its wild form, and what is known about dogs of any sort prior to a century or two ago is so little, it may seem that almost all theories of ancestry are of small importance. However, it is interesting to speculate today as to origin.
A member of the Mastiff family, (used here to describe a group of large dogs rather than a single breed), and once known as the Pyrenean Mastiff, the dog is believed to have migrated into Europe from Asia Minor in two distinct waves. By sea it accompanied the Phoenician traders from Cadiz to Spain, then up into the Spanish Pyrenees. By land the dog moved westward with the Aryan hordes, leaving its kin in all the prominent mountain valleys of Europe. These later developed individual characteristics in the seclusion of their own environment and came to be known as the Maremana, Kuvasz, Komondor, Polish Tatra, Anatolian, Akbash, and Mastin de los Pirineos.
Far into Antiquity
As a race, the Pyrenean dog thus dates back far into antiquity, to the centuries before Christ, where its fossil remains are found in deposits of the Bronze Age, 1800-1000 B.C. Once in Europe, the Pyrenean Mountain Dog developed under climatic conditions similar to those of his native habitat, and remained isolated in the high mountain areas until Medieval times. Then 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 the 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 the 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 equal to two men, be it as guard of the chateau, as invaluable companion of shepherds, or as useful pack and message carrying animal 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.
Across the Ocean
In 1662, dogs were carried to Newfoundland by Basque fishermen as companions and guardians of the new Settlement. Here it was they became mated with the black curlycoated retriever, favorite of the English settlers. This cross resulted in the formation of the Landseer (black and white) Newfoundland.
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, Britains Queen Victoria owned a Pyrenean Mountain Dog, and in 1885-86, the first Pyrenean Mountain Dogs were registered with the Kennel Club in London and shown at the Crystal Palace.
In 1870, Pyrenean blood was used with that of other large breeds to help bring back the St. Bernard after that noble dogs numbers had been so greatly depleted by avalanches and distemper at the hospice in Switzerland.
In 1907 the Pastoure Club at Lourdes, Hautes Pyrenees, France, was organized to perpetuate interest in the breed. The first standard for the breed was published at that time.
It was not until 1909 that the first Pyrenean Mountain Dogs were introduced into England for breeding purposes by Lady Sybil Grant, daughter of Lord Roseberry. It was twenty-six years later (1935) that Pyreneans were again bred in a kennel in England. At that time, Mme. Jeanne Harper Trois Fontaines started her De Fontenay Kennel at Hyde Heath, Amersham, later becoming well known the world over and accounting for 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 1920s, the breeds 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. It was this 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 Lafayettes gift, but these dogs were pet and work dogs, and relatively few Americans knew of their presenceor 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 breed with the founding of the Basquaerie 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. Without Mr. and Mrs. Crane and their interest in the breed, it is doubtful whether the great bloodlines could have survived.
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 trusted and beloved members in homes and may function as livestock guardian dogs on farms and ranches.