JaneDogs Exploring the Wonderful World of Dogs

Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Pyrenean Mastiff and Spanish Mastiff

Spanish Mastiffs

Livestock Guardian Dogs developed to guard flocks of sheep and goats from wolves and bears. In spring and summer the pastures on the mountainside are better for grazing than in the lower countryside which surrounded the villages. So in the Pyrenean Mountain region separating France and Spain, LIvestock Guardian Dogs were developed to move flocks up the mountain range of the Great Pyrenees in the summer and bring them back to the shelter of the villages in the winter. Meawhile the Spanish Mastiff moved the flocks through trails within the remainder of Spain.

As the map shows, the mountains of the Great Pyrenees divide France from Spain. So the Pyrenean Mountain Dog is the Livestock Guardian Dog which developed on the French side of the Pyrenean Mountains, the lesser known Pryenean Mastiff developed on the Spanish side North of the Ebro River while a third separate breed, the Spanish Mastiff developed in Spain on the South side of the Ebro River.

The Pyrenean Mountain Dog

The Pyrenean Mountain Dog is the better known of these two Livestock Guardian breeds that were used in and around the Pyrenean Mountain region. It is documented that in France in 1675, the Court of Louis XIV in Versailles adopted Pyrenean Mountain Dogs not only as watch dogs, but also for their haughty looks and as a companion dog[1].

The first Livestock Guardian dogs to be brought to Australia landed in Portland in Victoria just near Warrnambool on October 30th 1843. These were Pyrenean Mountain Dogs, owned by an Irishman Samuel Pratt Winter. They were taken to his property around 80 kilometres to the north under the care of his servant, Paddy Hickey. These dogs had been purchased in the Pryenees Mountains in France after Samuel Pratt Winter visited his sister who lived there[2]

Just how many Livestock Guarding Pyrenean Mountain Dogs came to Australia is unknown. But records show these marvellous dogs were certainly bred here and for 35 years, protected early settlers in both Victoria and Tasmania against attacks from dingos and thieves. Unfortunately these original lines died out. It was not until 1939 that the next imports reached Australia. They have existed here ever since[3].

The Pryenean Mountain Dog Today

Today the Pyrenean Mountain Dog still works as a natural guard dog protecting sheep and goats as well aa a watch dog for its owners. He is a large, strong and powerful dog yet elegant and noble, standing at least 27.5 inches tall and weighing 110 pounds minimum, with bitches just a couple of inches less but still with proportionate weight.

The head of the Pyrenean is strong without being coarse or looking heavy compared with the rest of the dog. The curved skull should be as broad as it is long. There should be no obvious stop formed by heavy eyebrows. Instead there is only a slight slope between the skull and the strong muzzle and its black nose. The eyes are almond shaped and dark with close-fitting black oblique eyelids showing no haw. The ears are fairly small and triangular with rounded tips set level with the eyes and lying close to the cheeks. The strong muzzle houses a normal scissors bite, with a level bite tolerated. Sometimes the two lower central incisor teeth are set deeper than the others. The roof of the mouth and lips should be black.

The neck is fairly short with little or no dewlap. He has a powerful body of good length, with medium angles forming both the lay of shoulder and turn of stifle. The forelegs are straight with strong but not excessive bone and short, compact feet with strong nails. The elbows are as close to the chest as his free striding trot with balanced reach and drive allows. The pasterns must allow for flexibility without weakness. The broad chest reaches just below the elbows, with the sides of the ribcage slightly rounded giving the curve of the lower body a definite waist which is more pronounced in the males than the females. The loin is broad and muscular sloping to the croup, giving the topline the impression of gracefully curving smoothly in to the tail.

The hindquarters are broad, strong and straight but the hind feet may turn out just a little. The hind legs must carry strongly made double dewclaws which are a breed characteristic and must be present. 

The tail is sufficiently long to reach the hocks, and is carried low unless the dog is excited when it can curl above the level of the back with the tip turned to one side.  The tail is thickly coated like the rest of the dog and forms a plume.

The Pyrenean Mountain Dog usually has a white double coat, the outer coat lying flat or slightly wavy forming a mane around the neck and shoulders and pantaloons at the rear is more obvious in males. Alternatively on the head ears or at the base of the tail there may be patches of badger, wolf grey, or pale shades of lemon, orange or tan. But if there are patches of colour on the body, these must be sparce. Colouring is more obvious on puppies as illustrated but this fades as the puppy matures.

The Pyrenean Mastiff

As the yellow section of the map above shows, the Pyrenean Mastiff is the Livestock Guardian Dog that developed on the Spanish side of the Pyrenean Mountains. From 1273 AD, they have accompanied flocks of merino sheep up and down the Pyrenean Mountains on the Spanish side, North of the Ebro River. Because of political divide, the regions North and South of the Ebro River a different pure breed, the Spanish Mastiff developing in the green area of the map above. These two Spaish breeds of Livestock Guardian dogs have remained separate ever since those early days.

Comparing the Pyrenean Mountain Dog and Pyrenean Mastiff

Lesser known than the Pyrenean Mountain Dog (PMD), the Pyrenean Mastiff is recognized as a separate pure breed, differing from the Pyrenean Mountain Dog in the following ways:

  • Almost 3 inches taller than the PMD, the Pyrenean Mastiff is more strongly built and less elegant
  • His head is proportionately stronger with a more visible stop and pronounced occiput
  • There is a slackness of the lower lid showing a small amount of haw
  • The ears are higher set above the level of the eyes and can be carried with the top third above the level of the skull
  • The mouth can only be a normal scissors bite, with the canines larger than those of the PMD
  • The neck has a distinct double dewlap
  • There is more bone in the forelegs than the PMD
  • The body is defined as rectangular, or longer than square
  • The hocks must be vertical whereas the back feet on the PMD may turn out just a little
  • Single or double dewclaws may be present whereby the PMD must have double dewclaws
  • Cat feet are required whereby the feet of the PMD are just described as round.
  • The last third of the tail is slightly curved whereby the the last third of the PMD's tail typically turns to one side
  • In movement a pace or amble is not allowed whereby the PMD may tend to pace at slower speeds
  • The top coat more bristly in texture
  • There must always be a mask covering the head and ears the colour of which may be spread over the body in irregular patches whereby the PMD may be completely white.

The Spanish Mastiff

The first historical reference to the Livestock Guardian Dog of Spain dates back to before 100 AD and comes from a contemporary of Jesus. Basically it said the Spanish Mastiff had to be drop eared, had a body length long rather than square, a wide chest, and big legs and feet covered with thick hair. He was athletic enough to chase wolves when they flee, but heavy enough to fight them if necessary. He was alert enough to frighten either an animal or human thief, but discreet enough not to frighten the family of the Mesta or shepherd in charge of the flock. He was of one dark colour so that he was a formidable sight during the day, but did not stand out at night.

Over the next millennium, these dogs developed a little differently in different regions. By the eighteenth century, there were 5 million merino sheep circulating around Spain from the north to the south and from the east to the west in massive herds. These sheep moved along a number of trails up to 20 meters wide, twining up and down the mountains occupying 120,000 km or 1% of the country. The network was completed with many livestock landmark buildings, mills, troughs, resting places, pastures etc. The seasonal movement of flocks from one place to another, usually to better pastures is called transhumance.

So the merino sheep and wool industries became vital to Spain’s national economy. Because the wolf was such a threat to these massive herds, the traditional part these dogs played is as legendary as the Mesta or shepherds who were in charge of them. As these Mesta lived in remote places, they had to be clever in breeding the functional Spanish Mastiff.

As the sheep industry in Spain declined, so did Spanish Mastiff numbers. Many traditionalists became interested in preserving this wonderful breed whose reason for existence was so much a part of Spain’s history. So with sufficient material and dogs left, in 1980 a Breed Standard was created based on what most traditional dogs looked like. But because these are the largest of the Mastiffs, it is important that the new breeders and judges alike understand the historic function of these wonderful dogs, and select those are not too cumbersome to do job which made them so famous when the nomadic Mesta of Spain made them so famous [4].

 The Spanish Mastiff Today

Today the Spanish Mastiff is a giant breed with no size upper limit provided the the dog is of harmonious proportions and is over 31.5 inches (80 cms) for a male and 29.5 (75cms) for a bitch.

He has a balanced body with a body length that is longer than square. His massive head consists of a broad slightly rounded skull, at least as wide as it is long, with a slight stop. The skull is longer than the rectangular foreface or muzzle, with the bridge of the nose straight from the stop to the nose. The upper lip overhangs the lower lip with the skin folds extending to the corners of the eyes. The lips and membranes inside the mouth should be black and he has a normal scissors bite. The eyes are small in proportion to the head, and preferably dark hazel. The black eyelids are thick with the lower lid showing just a little haw. He has dropped ears, set just above the line of the eye, with the back one third coming forward when alert.

The neck should be of a length to give symmetry to the whole body. It should be broad and covered with a thick loose skin forming an amply developed double dewlap. The forelegs should have solid bone, be perfectly straight right down to the slightly sloping pastern and cat feet. Both the forequarters and hindquarters have moderate angulation capable carrying this large dog with an easy, strong, harmonious and powerful trot, without pacing. The hocks may have single or double dewclaws, but these may be removed. The tail is thick at the root and set as an extension of the topline. Sometimes there is a curve in a sabre fashion, especially when the dog moves or is animated, but it should never be carried over the back.

The skin over the body is thick and loose and covered with a dense, medium length smooth coat covering the entire dog. Sometimes the coat on the back itself differs from that on the flanks and ribcage. Although all colours are allowed, yellow, fawn, red, black wolf and deer colours are the most sought after as they blend best into the surroundings or the flock. To this end, brindle, parti-colours or dogs with a white collar are also acceptable.

References and Further Reading

[1] Réunion des Amateurs de Chiens Pyrénéens (RACP)

[2]Winter Cooke Papers MS 10840 and MS 10393, State Library, Melbourne.

[3] Richard Crago, President, Pyrenean Mountain Dog Club of Victoria.

[4] Ortros Group, http://mastinesibericos.es, Spain (paraphrased with permission).