Recently a reader named Jennifer had some detailed questions about Great Pyrenees dogs, like our Lydia. She wanted to know if this breed would be a good fit for her family. While I don’t pretend to know everything about the breed, I might be able to offer some suggestions.
Jennifer is married with three children (ages 10, 8, and 4). She lives on a half-acre unfenced lot, with neighbors on two sides, also on half-acre lots.
A brief history. Great Pyrenees were bred as livestock guardians in the Pyrenees Mountains which straddle France and Spain. They are magnificent dogs but vicious fighters. That’s their job, after all: to fight off (or kill) whatever threatens their flock. This can include coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, bears, and other such threats. Usually livestock guardians are paired up (often male and female) because they work well cooperatively.
Kids. I can state unequivocally that Pyrenees make wonderful family dogs. Rather than guarding sheep or goats, these dogs will guard their family, which becomes their “flock.” A Pyrenees would literally guard children with his or her life. They’re wonderfully playful, affectionate, and tolerant. Lydia makes us start every day with a smile because of her enthusiastic greetings for all family members whenever we get up.
Chewing. If Lydia is any example, Pyrs don’t chew. Even as a puppy, our shoes and socks and other items normally residing on the floor were safe. Pyrenees are “visual” dogs as opposed to “mouth” dogs (like labs), so their inclination to chew is far less.
Prior pet experience. Jennifer has no prior canine experience. Her husband has had Golden Retrievers in the past. In this instance, I’m not sure a Pyr would be a good fit. Not only are they enormous (especially the males, which can top 150 lbs.) but they are extremely strong-willed. A Golden Retriever is a wonderful dog for obedience; they learn and obey commands very readily. Pyrs are intelligent and bred to be independent thinkers. They have to be – often they’re alone guarding their flock, and must make snap decisions on their own about whether to chase off vs. kill an intruder among their herd. A Pyr will rarely come when called. This is not necessarily a fault of the breed. They’re not bred for docile obedience. They’re bred to be ruler of the fields.
Getting a Pyr to obey can be tough, but they don’t “disobey” out of vindictiveness or mean-spiritedness. It’s just their nature to be independent, not submissive. Nonetheless, they can be a handful if you have no prior experience with strong-willed dogs. Before getting Lydia, I had an Alaskan Malamute and a Pyrenees/Irish Wolfhound cross, in addition to Labrador Retrievers. In other words, I had experience with large strong-willed dogs and felt equal to the task of handling a Pyrenees.
Size. I just happen to like big dogs. A Pyr could easily double a Golden Retriever in weight and even height (especially the males). Not everyone is prepared to handle a dog that can outweigh them. Pyrs don’t throw their weight around in terms of being aggressive with family members; but if you’re trying to break up a dog fight, you’d better have the strength to do so.
Aggression. Pyrs can be territorial and aggressive with other dogs in the house. Lydia conflicts with Major, our lab/hound mix, while indoors; however they get along fine out in the yard (neutral territory). I don’t know if this is true of all Pyrs, but Lydia is definitely the Numero Uno canine in our house. If you plan to keep a Pyr as an indoor dog, don’t have another dog or you’ll have constant misery and dog fights.
Room and Roaming. How much room does a Pyr need? Not a whole lot… sort of. Jennifer has a half-acre lot, and this is more than fine... IF the property is fenced.
Pyrs can and will roam. Once again, this is their nature. It’s what they do – beat the boundaries, patrol their territory, guard their flock. To a Pyr, “territory” doesn’t necessarily mean the legal boundaries of your property. “Territory” means whatever the Pyr wants it to mean. And believe me, if a Pyr wants to go somewhere, he will. An electric fence will NOT stop him. Neither will a barbed wire fence. Better fence your land with field fence with sturdy poles, or other solid means of keeping him within your boundaries.
Jennifer suggested she could keep a Pyr on a leash while walking it outside to answer the call of nature. In a word, NO. Pyrs are not indoor dogs. At best, they are indoor/outdoor dogs. But a Pyr’s instinct is to guard its flock (family), and it knows the only way to do that is to get outside by any means possible and bark at whatever is making noise/passing by/sneezing in the distance.
Barking. Never ever ever underestimate how much and how loud a Pyrenees will bark. They will bark at the drop of a hat. They will bark if they hear a strange noise. They will bark and bark and bark, AND YOU CAN’T STOP THEM.
Pyrs bark because this is their fist line of defense against any threat to their flock. They’d rather chase something away by barking than attacking. So they bark and bark and bark.
This, more than anything else, will probably prevent someone from getting a Pyr – namely, neighbors. There’s only so much barking close neighbors will want to put up with. You can’t stop a Pyr from barking, it’s in their nature.
Dominance. Since Pyrs are strong-willed, dominant animals, their owners must be stronger willed and more dominant. Don’t mistake “dominant” with “mean” because they’re not the same thing. But with Pyrs, you have to let them know who’s the boss.
Acutely aware of this, when Lydia was a puppy we made a point of doing belly rolls with her – gently pushing her down on her back with her belly exposed, then making a lot of cheerful fuss over her. Clearly it was no hardship to coo and fuss over a puppy, but it taught her an important lesson. In canine language, having a belly exposed is a position of submission because it means he’s vulnerable. Canines instinctively understand this and reserve belly rolls only around dominant animals (namely, us).
We still do belly rolls with her. It's fun, she loves the attention, and it reinforces our status as dominant members of her flock.
Once or twice during her “teen” stage, Lydia growled at us (not the girls, but at Don or me). Let me tell you, she caught holy hell for that! We made a huge stink on the rare times she growled: grabbing her by the collar, forcing her on the floor onto her back (belly up), yelling in her face. We had to do this even though we wanted to laugh at her stricken expression. We kept her on the floor (submissive) for at least a minute, which sounds short but is actually a long time. We didn’t yell that whole time, we just glared and kept our hand at her throat. This is dog language and she GOT THE MESSAGE. She has never challenged us once she grew out of her snarky teenage phase.
We did this because we're experienced in handling large and independent dogs. If you're only experience is with gentle and obedient Golden Retrievers, get ready for a change in personality!
Walks. Don't let a Pyrenees off-lead if you're not on your fenced property! Remember, you’ll never be able to keep a Pyr under perfect voice command, so if a Pyr decides to take off chasing a deer or squirrel, the dog will quickly disappear. (We always keep a collar with ID tag on Lydia for this very reason!)
We have one of those 20-foot retractable leads which works very well. I attended doggie obedience class with Lydia when she was half-grown (about six months old) and she learned to walk very nicely on a lead, but God help me if she ever got OFF the leash.
Fur. Pyrenees are, needless to say, long-haired. They shed in the spring and fall, and need brushing once in awhile. Personally I like brushing Lydia and she doesn’t mind it either (except, oddly, on her back legs under her tail – yanks too much hair, I guess). It’s best to get a Pyr used to being brushed as a puppy. She’s a bit less tolerant of brushing in the spring when she’s shedding her winter fur, probably because the brush pulls out too much hair at a time and it must sting or something. But you’ll have to expect a lot of white hair on the floor.
Guardianship. Pyrenees are a breed that needs their flock (family) around them as much as possible. Their duty, their function, their purpose in life is to guard their family. If both parents work and the children are in school – in other words, if the "flock" is away from home for most of the day – then a Pyrenees most assuredly is NOT the breed for you. They will feel like miserable failures because they haven’t been able to keep their “flock” under their personal guardianship. I don’t know how much Jennifer’s family is at home, but this is an issue which must be considered.
A Pyrenees is a good match for us because we’re almost always at home – we homeschool and we work at home, so Lydia’s “flock” is always under her guardianship, which makes for a happy Pyr.
But woe betide when someone’s missing! Last year I took my annual week-long business trip to Portland, and my family reported that Lydia when into a decline in my absence. When I got home, she was all over me – it was literally like I’d come back from the dead and she was ecstatic with relief. She does this whenever any one of us is missing for any length of time. Again, that’s just a Pyrenees nature!
Dewclaws. Just as a matter of interest, Pyrs have huge dewclaws on their back legs. You know how sometimes mutts are born with lots of “extra” claws back there? Vets often offer to remove them. Well, such excessive claws are normal for Pyrs and should not be removed – they are an integral part of a Pyrenees' fighting arsenal.
Anyway, in conclusion from Jennifer’s email, I would say that a Great Pyrenees is not the breed for them, for two reasons: close neighbors, and no fencing. I wish I could offer better advice, but there are Great Pyrenees rescues all over the place because families couldn’t handle the size, the roaming, and the barking of these magnificent dogs.
Jennifer may want to try another large breed such as a Newfoundland. From the Newfies I’ve met, they seem to be a quieter breed (less barking), they’re a touch larger than Pyrenees (they’re working dogs), and they may not be as subject to roaming (but don’t hold me to this, I’m not as familiar with the breed). I do know that Newfoundlands are family-friendly dogs and excellent with children.
I hope Jennifer and her family aren’t too disappointed with this recommendation, but I feel it’s necessary to be very honest about the advantages and disadvantages of Pyrenees in order to prevent a mismatch.