The Great Pyrenees Temperament

From the Standard of the Breed:

"Temperament: Character and temperament are of utmost importance. In nature, the Great Pyrenees is confident, gentle, and affectionate. While territorial and protective of his flock or family when necessary, his general demeanor is one of quiet composure, both patient and tolerant. He is strong willed, independent and somewhat reserved, yet attentive, fearless and loyal to his charges both human and animal.

"Although the Great Pyrenees may appear reserved in the show ring, any sign of excessive shyness, nervousness, or aggression to humans is unacceptable and must be considered an extremely serious fault."

The GPCA Standards Committee put careful thought into the above paragraphs. However, unlike the rest of the Standard, they don’t lend themselves to pictorial representation in the Illustrated Standard. So let’s take each sentence apart and see what kind of word picture it makes.

Character and temperament are of utmost importance.
This tells us that, without the proper character and temperament, we have just another white dog. The various livestock guardian dogs developed in limited geographic areas to suit specific cultures; the Great Pyrenees developed in the mountains of France, living closely with both humans and sheep. They were further modified in the latter half of the last century by their relationship with exhibitors and pet owners who had no sheep for them to guard.
In nature, the Great Pyrenees is confident, gentle, and affectionate.
Confident – characterized by assurance; self-reliant; marked by a strong, fearless, and bold belief in oneself and one's capacities.1 Anyone – human or canine - who is confident is neither aggressive nor shy. There is no need to be a bully, nor is there reason to be afraid of new or familiar situations.
Gentle - having a pleasant easygoing nature; tractable, docile, easily managed. 1 Watching a well-bred Pyr with young children or livestock beautifully illustrates their gentleness.
Affectionate – loving, having a tender attachment. 1 Although not “Velcro” dogs, needing to be glued to your side, a Pyr can often be found resting with some part touching her human.

While territorial and protective of his flock or family when necessary…..
A Pyr considers his “territory” to be as far as he can see, so the territory his owners want him to claim has to be surrounded by good fencing. When taken outside the fence, his territory has to be limited by a leash. When his territory encompassed the slopes of the Pyrenees Mountains, this was not so essential, but in urbanized America, where even the National Forests have leash laws, fencing and leashes allow the dogs to understand the limitations put on that territory.

Protective – to shield from exposure, injury, or destruction; to guard. 1 The key phrase of the sentence is “when necessary”. A good Pyr only uses as much force as is needed in a given situation. When protecting its livestock, the first line of protection is the scent marks left around the perimeter of its yard or field. The next line of defense is barking – an announcement that someone big is on duty and trespassing might be hazardous. When not directed and controlled at a young age (6-9 months) barking can become a habit born of boredom and is a leading reason for Pyrs being given away as adults.

If, despite scent marking and barking, an intruder enters a Pyr’s territory, the next line of defense is to chase it away. At this point, human intervention is necessary to teach the young Pyr what really constitutes an intruder. The human teaches by example which “intruders” are welcome, which are accepted conditionally and which are not welcome. This includes two- and four-footed visitors. The combination of correct temperament and early training produces a dog that understands the proper degree of protectiveness, and uses it when necessary.

… his general demeanor is one of quiet composure, both patient and tolerant
Composure - calmness, coolness, imperturbability - a calmness or repose especially of mind, bearing, or appearance. 1
Pyr and child People often speak of it as “laid back”. Although sometimes active as puppies, the adult Pyr loves nothing so much as a good nap – with one eye open. A well-bred Pyr is amazingly tolerant of small things – children, lambs or kids, small dogs and even quiet cats. It’s not uncommon to see a child or a lamb asleep on the flank of a Pyr – sometimes child and Pyr don’t even belong to each other.

He is strong willed, independent and somewhat reserved…
longdown Strong-willed: a more commonly used word is “stubborn”. If you are looking for a dog for obedience competition, you don’t want a Pyr. Many a Pyr owner has been humiliated in the obedience ring when his “perfect at home” Pyr decides not to come on the recall, to go over the high jump in only one direction or to lag six feet behind while heeling. However, obedience training is absolutely necessary if only to prove which of you is the more stubborn. It also builds a common language for the two of you, teaching him that he must grant you some degree of control if he wants to go on ride, walks, and have house privileges.
The character of independence is vital for a working dog that spends hours or days alone with the livestock – it allows him to make his own decisions based on his experience and best judgment, and not wait for a human to tell him what to do. He also frequently exhibits an independence of a need for a particular human. It is extremely rare for anyone to describe their Pyr as “a one-man-dog”. Rescue personnel describe Pyrs as “easy to re-home” – they rarely “mourn” their former owners.
Once past puppy hood, Pyrs are usually somewhat reserved around visitors. They may choose to greet a visitor on their terms, when they are ready to. This is not to be mistaken for shyness, but is rather a lack of attention-seeking behavior. Once introduced, a Pyr will never forget a person; that doesn’t mean that person is automatically welcomed, however. Each visitor seems to be subject to an internal checklist before that happens. Out in public, the well-bred Pyr will permit petting by strangers, but never solicits it.

… yet attentive, fearless and loyal.
Attentive - concentrating one's attention on something; observant; aware.1 This does not mean attention-seeking. In fact, a Pyr is just the opposite of that. Watch a Pyr that is working with livestock. As he concentrates on something in the sky, you become aware of hawks riding a thermal; his attention then focuses on a distant hill and you can barely see the dog trotting there. His warning bark comes sometime before you, with your human-limited senses, are aware of what he is alerting to. Pyrs are very aware of their surroundings and can go from seemingly-asleep to full-charge in only seconds.

Fearless – brave, bold, courageous, confident. When I think of this characteristic, I think about the Pyr who gave her life to successfully protect “her” child from a bear. (That fearlessness sometimes gets them into trouble when they try to face down a moving automobile.)
Loyal to his charges both human and animal – “He feels responsible for you and your family and your properties. He is a serious dog. He is your friend and not your slave.” 2 This characteristic, combined with the two above, makes for a dog that is very protective of his territory and everything that is in it. On a farm or ranch, this protectiveness is welcomed and channeled into a superlative livestock guardian dog. In the urban environment, the degree of protectiveness must be tempered by early socialization and obedience training.

Although the Great Pyrenees may appear reserved in the show ring, any sign of excessive shyness, nervousness, or aggression to humans is unacceptable and must be considered an extremely serious fault.
The Pyr with a correct temperament has long been at a disadvantage in the Group or Jr. Showmanship ring. He is not a flashy dog, often unwilling to alert to such commonplace things as bait and squeaky toys. He sees little reason to stand still while a stranger runs hands over his most private parts (dew-claws included) and sees no reason to trot at full speed when there is nothing to chase. Given some training, the average well-bred Pyr will eventually cooperate, standing without emotion while examined, and trotting only a little slower than asked.

However, the Pyr that refuses to allow itself to be touched, that pulls back when approached, or growls at the person attempting to touch him is absolutely incorrect as a Pyr. Attempting to excuse such behavior with “It’s her first time in the ring” or “At home he guards sheep so is expected to be aggressive” is completely irresponsible. For every show dog, there is a “first time in the ring” and, while puppy playfulness is somewhat acceptable, fearfulness is not. As for the sheep guardian excuse, many a responsible breeder of such dual-purpose dogs has taken working dogs into the ring with no one the wiser as to their every-day job. Such dogs have even gone on to their Championships, intelligent enough to understand the difference between “on-territory” and “off-territory” and to act appropriately.

Pyr gaiting
Respondents to the GPCA Health Survey 3 overwhelmingly report their Pyrs’ temperament as “confident”, with modifiers of “reserved” or “protective”. The Pyrenean temperament isn’t for everyone. Those who need a dog observant of their every wish, attentive to their every need, would be better off with another breed. Those who want to play “My Dog Is Bigger Than Your Dog” will be disappointed to find many breeds larger and/or more aggressive than Pyrs. But for those for whom the Pyr temperament is a good match, beware the axiom: “Nobody can have just one.”

Reference:
1. [Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary and Thesaurus]
2. [Birte Brejl in http://www.dutchpyr.com/greatpyrenees/temper.html]
3. [GPCA Health Committee Report March 1999]

Return to Library Return to Library