Pyrenean Mountain dogs in history

Article written by Boel Jonasson for the Swedish club magazine Patou 2001. Based upon "Le Chien de Montagne des Pyrenees" by Benoit Cockenpot and an exposition at Chateau de Mauvezin in April 2001.

The oldest record of the Pyrenean Mountain dogs is from 1350. These dogs guarded the castles of Foix, Orthez and Carcassonne in the Pyrenees. These castles were at that time owned by Gaston Phoebus, who is also known as the Prince of the Pyrenees. The dogs were then used in the same way as Molosser type of dogs, i.e. for guard tours around the fortifications, military operations or as prison guards. This use was also geographically restricted to the Pyrenees.

Here around the castle walls of Carcassonne, the Pyrenean Mountain dogs patrolled in the 14th century.

In his book "Livre de Chasse", book of chase, Gaston Phoebus describes these dogs. He uses the word Matin, which ment big, strong dog. All French experts agree that this is a description of the Pyrenean Mountain dog. The description is: "Matin is a sort of dog that everybody has seen. Matins has for work and instinct to guard the animals and the owner's house. And they have the good qualities to defend and guard of all their power what belongs to the owner, but they have a terrible size. They chase away all wild animals, but they pursue them only out of their territory and then returns, because it is not their instinct to complete the chase."

The description "terrible size" shall be put in its right context, said by a hunter who compare with the harrier type of dogs they used for hunting.

Here is a page of the Book of Chase. The dog in the right-hand bottom corner is a Pyrenean Mountain dog with Blaireau colour. The illustrations in the book is in bright and shiny colours, and text and decorations of the pages are in several colours as well.

Gaston Phoebus owned at this time about 1500 dogs, and he performed a lot of breeding to find the perfect dogs for every purpose. The aim of the breeding was not always to maintain the pure breed. An example was: By crossing Matin with fast dogs you sometimes get good dogs. By crossing Matin with bulldogs you sometimes get good dogs for hunting boar, bear and wolf." In this way they got more persistent qualities for chasing.

Here you see hunters at a bear hunt with their dogs and a wolf in a trap. We have taken these photos with permission at the Chateau de Mauvezin, another of Gaston Phoebus castles. There was an exhibition about Livre de Chasse, the Book of Chase.

These were experiments, but Gaston Phoebus realised the value of the qualities of the Pyrenean Mountain dog for guarding, and he helped the farmers to breed the pure breed they already had.

Gaston Phoebus ends the chapter on Matin by the following statement: "They are good dogs as they perform their tasks very well, but they do not obey unconditionally, and they are not of much use for hunting.". This sounds as a description of the modern pyr, almost 700 years later, doesn't it?

Here you can see veterinarians taking care of the dogs from Gaston Phoebus breeding. In the book the work of the veterinarians is thoroughly described, as well as any other aspect of hunting and dogs. This is the oldest known documentation of the diseases of dogs. The dog in the middle and the one in the left-hand bottom corner are both Pyrenean Mountain dogs with arrouye (orange) colour. The smaller dog at the bottom of the painting, the one that is raising his head, is probably a Pyr puppy.

Due to their inability to submission and for hunting the Pyrenean Mountain dogs remained the companion of the flocks and the shepherds for another couple of hundred years.

Then at last, in the end of the 17th century the Pyrenean Mountain dog made its entry into the big world. 1675 one of the sons of Louis XIV, the count of Maine, lived for a while with a noble family of Barèges. He was 6 years old at that time, and he became very good friends with a 8 month old Pyrenean. He was so fond of the dog that he brought it back with him to Versailles.

Two years later the Marquis de Louvois who was minister of war with Louis XIV, also got a Pyrenean. Thanks to this, the Pyrenean Mountain dog was for a while the favourite pet of an aristocracy who followed every wink of fashion. As they did at Versailles, so did the rest. The Pyrenean Mountain dog started a new career as a pet, far away from their flocks and mountains.

There are very few remains of these castle dogs. At the end of the 18th century, after the French revolution, pet dogs were regarded as something that belonged to the aristocracy, as a disease carrier and as a rival for the food. In some districts pet dogs were prohibited, unless you had an accepted reason for keeping the dog. A lot of these pet dogs for the aristocracy were put to death soon after the revolution.

The real propagation of the Pyrenean Mountain dog coincided with the Romanticism in the 19th century. Then they spread all over northern Europe, and today they are all over the world.