As part of our summer series on local breeds in Occitanie, zoom in on the Pyrenean Mountain Dog. Traditionally used as a guardian of herds against predators, it is also adopted by many individuals. Nadine Laffitte, passionate breeder for 40 years near Tarbes, tells us.
“Come on sweetie!” The swing doors of the farmhouse open and three Pyrenean mountain dogs rush into the yard. Three long-haired white rockets come to sniff out a journalist… This stranger came to visit the Néouvielle farm in Moumoulous, a small village near Tarbes. In a voice that mixes tenderness and firmness, Nadine Laffitte leads them slowly towards the adjacent meadows. Béarnaise, who lives in the Hautes-Pyrénées, this 62-year-old farmer has always grown up with dogs. Those who once guarded their grandparents’ sheep in the summer pastures against the bear, the hereditary enemy.
“I was 22 when my grandfather gave me my first mountain in the Pyrenees,” she smiles. The beginning of a passion that she held throughout her life. Over the course of 40 years, she has raised several hundred patous, these local breed dogs that have been present in the Pyrenees since time immemorial. The noble animal is already mentioned by the count of Foix Gaston Phoebus in XIVe century and was very popular at the court of Louis XIV.
“At the moment I have only one male, three old female dogs and three young female dogs, about 13-14 months old, confides the breeder. I have very few babies because I had to reduce the breeding a lot. since an accident in 2017 where I lost an eye.” It must be said that raising the Pyrenees is a demanding activity, a powerful and independent dog weighing 50 to 64 kg, with a very strong personality and very protective. “They need a firm but fair education,” notes the breeder.
650 purebred puppies born in 2021
“During the first few weeks you also have to be extra vigilant, because mothers can unwittingly crush their puppies”, explains Nadine Laffitte. But these little hairballs quickly become autonomous, from three weeks. Most leave the breeding after nine weeks. Sold in France or abroad, a dog fetches €1,400 to €1,600 respectively. Historically, breeding has moved to other regions, but there are still about fifteen breeders in the Pyrenees who produce at least two litters a year, according to the Société Centrale Canine (SCC).
“For 20 to 30 years, the annual number of births has been relatively stable and has evolved between 450 and 650, explains Jean-Bernard Moings, vice-president of the SCC and president of the Shepherd and Watchdog Commission. This corresponds to the number of puppies born and then registered in the Book of French Origins (LOF), with a confirmed pedigree and therefore suitable for reproduction.” However, this number represents only 30 to 40% of the number of puppies that closely resemble Pyrenees and are said to be “racial in appearance” but “without official papers”. This is often the case with dogs adopted by shepherds.
10 times more working dogs in 10 years
However, the breed standards, defined in 1923, are extremely precise. The mucous membranes must be completely black: the nose, the lips and the inside of the mouth. The shape and size of the head, body proportions are also important. Just like the gaze, which must be almond-shaped, soft and dreamy. The dog must also have extra toes over the hind legs, called “double dewclaws”. Once bred, some dogs will go to private homes. There is indeed a demand from families looking for a permanent and faithful guardian in France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.
A popularity linked to the success of the book and series “Belle et Sébastien” (1965) and more recent films, released between 2013 and 2017. “But it hurt the race, laments Nadine Laffite. By its character, this dog cannot be trusted to everyone , and the breed must remain confidential.” Shows and competitions are also regularly organized to showcase the dog’s lineage and elegance. Ouness, raised here in Néouvielle, has also won the EC in 2022.
Tensions between patous and walkers
In recent decades, the patou has increasingly found its original calling as a protector of herds against bears and, to a lesser extent, wolves and foxes. “There are 10 times more guard dogs than 20 years ago. Breeders who equip themselves with dogs do so at a forced pace due to the increase in predation”, analyzes Jean-Bernard Moings, vice-president of the Société Centrale Canine. The presence of a dog on the mountain meadows is actually a condition to be compensated in case of attack.
Depending on the fate that awaits him, family guardian or shepherd, the dog’s training will be different. If the first is socialized quickly with people, e.g. in the markets, the “patou” is raised only with the sheep, in the sheepfold, to be impregnated with them and to be accepted by the flock. “So they are a bit antisocial, that’s why there are so many problems with walkers…”, states the breeder. Incidents between aggressive dogs and frightened tourists are indeed recurrent in the region in the summer. The public authorities, rural areas and the world of tourism are somehow trying to increase awareness campaigns to improve this coexistence, which is still thorny.