The Pyrenees is thought to have appeared in Europe between 1800 and 1000 B.C. The breed probably originated in Central Asia or Siberia and then migrated to Europe with the Aryans. It is widely accepted that the Great Pyrenees descends from mastiff-type dogs whose fossilized remains have been found along the Baltic and North Sea coasts, in the oldest strata known to contain evidence of domestic dogs. The Pyrenees is closely related to the Italian Maremma Sheepdog and the Hungarian Kuvasz.
The Great Pyrenees’ ancestors lived with peasant shepherds for several thousand years in the high, cold, isolated Pyrenees Mountains that separate France and Spain. These dogs developed their inherent devotion, keen intelligence and fidelity when living on the lonely mountain pastures of its homeland. The Pyrenees guarded the flocks from wolves, bear and other predators that roamed the slopes in large numbers. They developed masterful senses of vision, hearing and smell. Their dense armor of fur, along with the spiked iron collars provided by their owners, made them practically invulnerable to attack. Great Pyrenees were highly prized by shepherds as both working dogs and companions.
Dogs closely resembling today’s Pyrenees are shown in artwork from the Middle Ages. Historians have described Pyrenees being used as guard dogs during the early 1400s, where they accompanied jailers on daily rounds. They were common on chateaux in southern France, kept in large numbers as property sentinels. The Great Pyrenees eventually became a pet of royalty in the 1600s, and continued to gain in prominence and popularity. It was dubbed the Royal Dog of France by Dauphin Louis XIV in the 17th century, which did not diminish its popularity with shepherds. In the mid-1660s, the first permanent settlement of Basque fishermen was established on Newfoundland Island. French settlers brought their dogs with them to the Canadian Maritime Provinces, where they were crossbred with black English Retrievers brought by the English settlers, producing the foundation for the modern Newfoundland and Landseer breeds.
The popularity of Great Pyrenees in France waned for a time during the 19th century, when wild predators in the high mountains started disappearing. Fortunately, many dogs were exported from France to other continental European countries. During the 20th century, dedicated sportsmen and farmers began breeding them selectively in increasing numbers, and today the breed is well-established in its native country and elsewhere.
The Great Pyrenees gained widespread prominence after it was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1933, although the first pair came to the United States with General Lafayette in 1824, as gifts for his friend, J. S. Skinner. During World War I, they were used to smuggle contraband over the French-Spanish border via routes that were inaccessible to men. The Great Pyrenees today is among the top half of annual AKC registrations. It is used for sled work in winter, pack and guide work in all seasons and cart-pulling for multiple purposes. The breed is well-represented in the show ring and continues to assist farmers with their flocks in France. Pyrenees are wonderful guardians of people, animals and property, but they are perhaps most cherished as fabulous, furry companions.
The average life span of the Great Pyrenees is 10 to 12 years. Breed health concerns may include bloat (gastric dilatation and volvulus), tricuspid valve dysplasia, degenerative myelopathy, congenital deafness, elbow and hip dysplasia, shoulder osteochondrosis, factor XI deficiency, osteosarcoma, entropion, ectropion, progressive retinal atrophy and assorted skin problems.