Its origins lost in the mists, the Pyrenean Shepherd has resided in the Pyrenees Mountains of Southern France since time immemorial. Myths abound that the breed is descended from native Pyrenean bears and foxes; and that this was the original dog of the Cro-Magnon people who painted the mountain cave at Lascaux 25,000 years ago.
What we can know is that bones of small dogs abound in Neolithic sub-fossil deposits, and that sheep and goat herding were so well developed in the Pyrenees that by 6000 BC the ecology of the region had been transformed by overgrazing.
Throughout the centuries, transhumance herding has been the mainstay of the economy of the High Pyrenees, and this ancient lifestyle persists even into the twenty-first century. Many Pyr Sheps of excellent type (but with no registered ancestors) still herd sheep every day in the Pyrenees Mountains.
Medieval accounts of life in the Pyrenees mention the dogs as constant companions. Wherever the shepherd went, his little dog went too.
Beginning in the Early Modern period, depictions can be found in engravings, lithographs, and paintings. Especially noteworthy are Buffon's Histoire Naturelle ("chien de berger de petite race"), Dartiguenave's Costumes des Pyrénées, and Descamps' "Le retour du berger". It is well-known among residents of the High Pyrenees that when the Virgin Mary appeared to the young shepherdess Bernadette Soubirous in the grotto at Lourdes in 1858, Bernadette had her little Pyrenean Shepherd by her side.
Representations of the breed dating to the eighteenth century display the same ear crop that is still used today, and tails that are either bobbed short or left long and carried in the correct low position.
An important factor in developing and maintaining breed type across the centuries was that the pastoral industry relied on two breeds. The Great Pyrenees guarded the flocks against predation by bears, wolves, lynxes and foxes, whereas the Pyrenean Shepherd was used solely for herding and not for protection.
This allowed selection to concentrate on maintaining a high degree of herding instinct, soundness and type. As the dogs did not need to defend themselves, small size was valued. Smaller dogs are quicker and more sure-footed on the windy crags. They also need less alimentation, allowing the shepherd to keep more individual dogs, and thus a larger population of sheep --some for subsistence and some for market.
Thus, the population of Pyrenean Shepherds has been consistently high across the centuries, augmenting the power of selective breeding to decrease genetic defects and maintain breed type and working ability. This also led to the stabilization of two varieties which assort independently when interbred.
The Rough-Faced variety has a long or demi-long coat and some long hairs on the face (though not so profuse as to hide the eyes). The Smooth-Faced variety is less abundantly furnished and has short hair on the face.
Members of the breed first distinguished themselves outside the Pyrenees Mountains by dint of their service during WWI. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Pyrenean Shepherds gave their lives for the cause. They were used as couriers, as search and rescue dogs finding injured soldiers after battles, and to accompany guards on their rounds. J. Dhers, officer in charge of war dogs, remarked the day after final victory that it was his "duty to proclaim" that, the Pyrenean Shepherd was "the most intelligent, the most cunning, the most able, and the fastest" among all the breeds used.
After the war, the Réunion des Amateurs de Chiens Pyrénéens (RACP) was founded to preserve both the Great Pyrenees and the Pyrenean Shepherd, and this remains the French parent club today. The Pyrenean Shepherd breed (both varieties) was granted full recognition in France in 1926. This led to increased participation in both shows and herding trials.
The effort was led by Bernard Senac-Lagrange, vice-president of the French Kennel Club (SCC) and a native of the High Pyrenees. RACP has had only 4 presidents, Senac-Lagrange, Charles Duconte, Guy Mansencal, and Alain Pécoult. Leadership of the club has been conservative in a thus-far highly sucessful effort to preserve type.
Today Pyrenean Shepherds are shown in FCI countries in Group 1 (sheep and cattle dogs), and are fully recognized by the Canadian Kennel Club in Group 7 (Herding Group). In the USA, the Pyrenean Shepherd Club of America was founded in 1987, and maintains an enthusiastic membership who participate in conformation, obedience, herding, tracking, flyball, agility, and other sports.
Buffon, Georges, Histoire Naturelle, Quadrupedes Vivipares "Le chien de
berger de petite race" Paris (1746-1786)
Casteran, Martine, Le Berger des Pyrénées, Vecchi, Paris (1989)
Coly, Jacques, Le Berger des Pyrénées, P.B. Editions, Versailles (1998)
Duconte, Charles, and J. A. Sabouraud, Les Chiens Pyrénéens, Crépin-Leblond,
LeRoy-Ladurie, Emmanuel, Montaillou: Village Occitane de 1294 a 1324,
Gallimard, Paris (1975)
Megnin, Paul, Nos Chiens, Baillière et Fils, Paris (1909)
Megnin, Pierre, Le Chien, Toulet (1893)
Megnin, Pierre, Le Chien et ses Races L'Eleveur, Vincennes (1897)
Megnin, Pierre, Les Races de Chiens, L'Eleveur, Vincennes (1899)
Senac-Lagrange, Bernard, Les Chiens Pyrénéens (1927)
Guy Mansencal, president of the RACP from 1986-2000, and well-known breeder under the affix l'Estaubé. He watched over the club and the breed as the Pyrenean Shepherd grew in popularity outside France. He has worked tirelessly in the cause of maintaining traditional type and temperament. He is shown here in 1986 with PSCA/SKC/Can CH Urrugne de l'Estaubé, the first Pyrenean Shepherd champion in North America, and winner of Best in Show
The village of Lourdes in the High Pyrenees, dominated by the Chateau-Fort. Formerly a castle enclave, today the chateau is a museum with a substantial collection relating to the history of the Pyrenean dog breeds.
Typical scene of a Pyrenean Shepherd herding sheep in the High Pyrenees. The photo was taken recently, but the scenario is thousands of years old. In transhumance herding, flocks start the year in the foothills. As the summer wears on, shepherds seek greener pastures higher and higher in the mountains. In the Autumn, the sheep are again brought down to the lowlands to overwinter.
Nineteenth-century lithograph of a peasant family in the Pyrenees
Detail of a nineteenth-century engraving of a tavern in the Pyrenees.
The protection of the Great Pyrenees guardian dog meant that the Pyrenean Shepherd could be quite small. Thus people could afford to keep several of the herding dogs, enabling them to tend larger flocks of sheep.
The Smooth-Faced variety of Pyrenean Shepherd is fully interbred with the Rough-Faced variety. Pups of both varieties occur in the same litters.
The Rough-Faced variety of Pyrenean Shepherd often has a longer coat on the body which may form cords, but the face should not be too heavily coated. The intelligent, almond-shaped eyes must be readily visible.
Bernard Senac-Lagrange, first president of the Réunion des Amateurs de Chiens Pyrénéens. Breeding under the affix Lucvielle, he produced the first Pyrenean Shepherd conformation champion, Bérouyette de Lucvielle (below). She was also one of France's first herding champions and a top winner at all-breed herding trials.