The Great Pyrenees: Everything You Need to Know

With the patience of a saint, the strength of a small bear, and a massive white coat, the Great Pyrenees is the ultimate livestock guardian breed.

Dec 13, 2023By Chelsea Pinkham
the great pyrenees everything you need to know

At a short glance, you just might mistake a Great Pyrenees for a giant marshmallow. These enormous dogs, with their kind eyes and fluffy, soft coats, are known for their patience with farm animals.

A well-tempered Pyrenees might be spotted allowing baby goats to use him as a playground or chickens to search for snacks in his endless white fluff. But this dog’s lovable, patient demeanor soon fades when met with an intruder. These powerful guardians are willing to risk their lives to protect their herd or flock.

Great Pyrenees Thrive on Instinct-Based Work

pyrenees standing guard
Image credit: Canva

The scent or sound of a nearby predator will send the Great Pyrenees into battle mode-–ready to fend off his territory with both his body and deep, powerful bark. This isn’t a trained behavior, nor is it the same as reactive or aggressive behavior found in non-guardian breeds. A well-bred Great Pyrenees is born with a deeply rooted instinct to protect their home, as well as the other animals who live there.

Livestock guardian breeds are light sleepers, ready to leap into action at the distant snap of a twig. Patrolling boundaries comes naturally to the Great Pyrenees, who will often stroll fence lines when not resting near the animals they protect. Fascinatingly enough, pairs of Great Pyrenees will sometimes fluctuate between napping and patrolling the property––working in shifts.

pyrenees and sheep on the move
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With an instinct to patrol comes an instinct to roam, and this can be a serious danger on large, unfenced properties. These dogs were bred to follow and protect herds and flocks of roaming animals over great distances. Roaming is in their blood!

Great Pyrenees Have Gentle, Watchful Temperaments

pyrenees protects nubian goats
Image credit: Berryhill Nubians

Great Pyrenees are known for their expectational patience with other animals, making them a gentle giant dog breed. When not responding to a threat, these dogs can often be found napping peacefully, surrounded by the animals they work so hard to protect. Animals often realize quickly that these dogs mean no harm and will accept the guardians into their herd or flock. These dogs generally have a high tolerance for being climbed on, head-butted, pecked, used as a playground, and all other “workplace hazards” that come with the job.

Great Pyrenees should lack prey drive entirely, and a strong guardian dog is one who abstains from chasing farmed animals. The goal of many working Pyrenees breeders is to produce puppies who lack an innate drive to chase or roughhouse with farm animals.

Like Any Dog, They Need Training

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Image Credit: BDA Farm

Of course, every dog is an individual, and some dogs may need guidance in learning what is and isn’t appropriate when interacting with other animals. Oftentimes, an experienced older guardian dog can serve as the best teacher for a young puppy.

Great Pyrenees can bond as deeply with their human family members as they do with other animals. They tend to be highly affectionate dogs, craving the attention of their caregivers. But Great Pyrenees are as wary of human strangers as they are of animal intruders. If entering the dog’s territory unaccompanied by a known human friend, a new face could be in for an aggressive greeting.

Great Pyrenees Have a Long, Storied History

pyrenees mountains guardian
Image credit: Great Pyrenees Club of America

Like many livestock guardian breeds, the Great Pyrenees is something of an ancient dog breed. Across several continents and through thousands of years, these great white canines have been fulfilling one duty: protection.

In the United States, and under the American Kennel Club, these giants are known as Great Pyrenees. But in Europe, they’re referred to as Pyrenean Mountain Dogs. This is a homage to Southwestern Europe’s Pyrenees Mountains, where the dogs have carried out their livestock-protecting duty for at least hundreds of years. There, these working-class dogs were the loyal companions of shepherding families. “Great Dogs of the Mountains,” as they were often called, were ready to give their lives to defend the flocks.

Unafraid of wolves, bears, and other predators, these noble dogs knew the cold, windswept, jagged mountains as home. Not only was their work indispensable, but they were also beloved companions. Great Pyrenees were seen as members of the family as much as they were working animals, and these incredible dogs were happy to take on both roles.

These Blue-Blooded Breeds Lived With Royalty

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After being deemed the Royal Dog of France in 1675, the Great Pyrenees were sought out by royalty in addition to shepherding families. It turns out that these fierce protectors would guard a castle as readily as a flock of sheep! Their supreme senses of hearing and smell gave them an ability that exceeded any human guard.

Long before guarding the mountains of Europe, the Great Pyrenees is thought to originate from a group of guardian-type breeds across Asia Minor. These origins can be traced back roughly 10,000 years. This was before horses, chickens, and possibly even cats- even existed as domesticated animals! When and where exactly the breed as we know it emerged is still a debated topic.

Great Pyrenees are a breed as rich in history as they are in long, silken, white fur. For thousands of years, they’ve poured themselves into protecting us humans and the animals we keep. As one of the most well-known livestock guardian breeds in North America, that is likely to continue.

Herding Dog vs. Guarding Dogs: the Difference

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Being livestock guardian dogs, Great Pyrenees are often mistaken for herding dogs. Similarly, herding dogs, like Border Collies and German Shepherds, often have their roles mistaken as protectors of the farm or flock.

Sheepdogs, shepherds, collies, livestock guardians…what is the difference, and why does it matter? To the average person, these breed groups all play roles that seem awfully similar. After all, both groups directly aid farmers, both groups work with farmed animals, and both play a crucial role on farms and ranches. However, understanding the difference between herding and guarding breeds is essential to setting these dogs up for success.

Herding dogs are an entire breed group encompassing a variety of dogs. From the tiny but mighty Corgi to the colossal, shaggy Old English Sheepdog, these dogs use assertive body pressure and a deeply rooted instinct to move animals where the herder has ordered them to go. It makes sense that the tenacious Belgian Malinois, now primarily used for police and military work, was originally a herding breed.

Herding Dog and Guardians Have Different Relationships

aussie running meets boston terrier
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Firstly, herding dogs have a directly antagonistic relationship with the animals they herd. Their use of body pressure triggers the animals’ flight response, so the herding dog is a source of fear. When an off-duty herding dog moves through a group of animals, the animals will often create space quickly. The herd or flock might have learned the hard way that the herding dog means business and is not afraid to use teeth.

Oppositely, the livestock guardian dog has a mutually beneficial partnership with the animals he or she protects. The Great Pyrenees provides protection, and often, the animals provide companionship. Part of why these benevolent dogs are willing to protect animals so ferociously is the fact that they quickly bond with other species. Livestock guardian dogs do not command respect from farmed animals–– in fact, they often tolerate a great deal of pushed boundaries.

pyrenees protecting sheep
Image Credit: Canva

Additionally, herding dogs work cooperatively with their human handlers. Herding breeds are fine-tuned to remain highly aware of their human guardian, responding rapidly to vocal cues from afar. This is why herding breed dogs need a great deal of direction and guidance from their caregivers, whether or not they are working dogs. This intrinsic motivation to listen to and to please humans is known as “biddability” in the dog world, and it’s often mistaken for intelligence. Without a doubt, herding breeds are incredibly intelligent, but their biddability is not what makes them so.

Great Pyrenees Have “Great” Personalities

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Great Pyrenees are often deemed “stubborn” dogs, but a more accurate description would be “independent.” It’s not in the nature of livestock guardian breeds to take direction from humans, as their work stems solely from instinct. These brainy canines must be skilled enough to make quick decisions on their own, without a human handler to help them. This doesn’t mean they lack intelligence- the opposite is true.

Caregivers of non-working livestock guardian breeds must bear this in mind when attempting to train. Of course, any dog can be trained to perform easy tricks, but breeds like the Great Pyrenees require high-value rewards (such as extremely tasty treats) to pique their interest. You won’t find one running an agility course or competing in obedience solely for praise!

Great Pyrenees Often Find Themselves in Shelters

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Sadly, many Great Pyrenees and other guardian breeds find themselves getting rehomed by their owners. Some are even banned breeds from housing complexes because of their size and inclination to bark at night. Just because one has a large property with animals to protect doesn’t mean they are fit to care for a livestock guardian dog.

The dogs’ booming barks often carry over long distances, and tireless complaints from neighbors can lead to animal control removing a Great Pyrenees from its home. Remember, these vigilant dogs can consider just about anything to be a threat. A lack of sturdy fencing could mean daily off-property adventures for the dog, creating a dangerous situation.

Bringing a Dog Home Requires Research and Commitment

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Great Pyrenees mixes are also incredibly common in shelters and rescue groups. Often, these dogs are created by accident. Being prone to roaming, these dogs will often wander off private properties and find other dogs to mate with. Mixed breed puppies may lack the guardian instinct, or worse, display prey drive around farmed animals. This leads to many puppies, to no fault of their own, being unwanted. The demand for Great Pyrenees mixes as companion animals is incredibly low.

Just like any other breed, taking on a Great Pyrenees requires research, knowledge, and time. Prospective caregivers should consider fencing, proximity of neighbors, and safety logistics before considering adding one of these dogs to their family. Working dogs should come with the same sense of responsibility as companion dogs. Routine veterinary care, quality food, and careful attention should not be denied to working dogs.

pyrenees portrait
Image Credit: Canva

What will happen with a puppy who doesn’t meet expectations should also be considered. If a dog isn’t a good fit because of prey drive or other behavioral needs, are you willing to keep him or her as a companion dog for the rest of his or her life, knowing the challenges that this breed can present? If not, will the breeder or rescue group take the dog back to find a more suitable home? Select ethical dog breeders and reputable rescue groups will accept a returned dog. These questions should be asked before bringing a puppy home.

Chelsea Pinkham
By Chelsea Pinkham

Chelsea is an animal advocate, rescuer, and aspiring rewards-based dog trainer. She is a Fear Free Certified Pet Professional with over a decade of animal experience. Chelsea has worked at animal shelters, sanctuaries and with many private dog training clients. She immerses herself in canine behavior education as she pursues her CPDT-KA dog training certification. In her spare time, she trains dozens of fun tricks for her and her partner’s rescued adventure cat, Iggy!