Pyrenean Shepherd - Showsight

A Dozen Questions On Judging THE PYRENEAN SHEPHERD By Patricia Princehouse I ts origins lost in the mists of time, the Pyrenean Shepherd has abided for thousands of years in near isolation in the Pyrenees Mountains, what is today known as the border of

southwest France and northern Spain— a remote region that contains the highest mountain in France, and Europe’s south- ern-most glaciers. Th ey shared their lives with the Great Pyrenees—whose presence as a large predator control dog allowed the little Pyr Shep to specialize for herding alone, including the small size needed to scramble quickly over the rocky landscape. Th e Pyr Shep is a very lean, light-boned, highly athletic dog, whose nature makes them extremely (even excessively) devoted to their owners, often to the exclusion of all other people. To understand the form and function of this heterogeneous breed, one must realize that they had a heterogeneous job. While most herding breeds are farm dogs (and the Pyr Shep can do fine on farms) their primary use was in the true wilder- ness—far from farms, roads, enclosed pas- tures or crops. Th e terrain varies widely. It is rocky, very uneven and with small grassy valleys divided by sharp cli ff s and expanses of glacial rubble with a few strips of grass among the rocks. Th e dogs lived day to day as semi-nomads with the human shep- herd—who himself camped every night in the open or in casket-like wood boxes car- ried from place to place by sturdy donkeys or in small stone huts or caves that were occasionally available. In the valleys, the very large flocks spread out over the rocky landscape to take advantage of the mea- ger grass. Th e sure-footed mountain sheep were moved from valley to valley as graz- ing ran out. Th is form of herding is known as transhumance. Th is unusual job called for an extremely nimble dog that was nearly cat-like. And

with anatomy that allowed them to per- form di ff erent jobs at di ff erent points in the season and over widely varying terrain. Th e Pyrenees are a fairly small region and the breed is quite inbred. And yet the shepherds valued great phenotypic diversity—partly because no peasant can a ff ord to keep any more dogs than strictly needed and greater inbreeding in local areas tended to set slightly di ff erent styles, and partly because local conditions vary greatly so that dogs of rather di ff er- ent morphology were useful in di ff erent conditions. Th us, the unusual genetic complement that produces the discrete varieties in the same litter was preserved by the mountain shepherds. Th e squarer, more upstanding Smooth-Faced pups in the litter might often be chosen by folks working most in the lower valleys while their Rough-Faced littermates would sometimes be favored by those working in the higher mountains. Th e longest-haired Rough-Faced dogs were especially val- ued in the highest mountain areas since their longer backs and well-arched loins allowed quick bursts of speed and excel-

lent scrambling ability over talus slopes and their heavier coats helped them resist the cold nights. Th ese dogs’ coats tended to form thick quasi cords called “matelotes” or “cadenettes” that shed the cold rain. Yet, they were not too hot in warmer seasons because each spring they would tear o ff all their matelotes by vigorously rolling and rubbing against rocks and trees until the thick mats were scraped o ff . Th e demi-long Rough-Faced dogs didn’t need to go to such lengths! And the demi-longs frequently have the best coat texture—called “goat-haired” by the shepherds. One could say that the breed taken in its entirety is adapted to controlled heterogeneity. But in all cases what each individual needed above all was extreme athleticism, intense drive and profound heart. Th eir athleticism is so pronounced that, although only recently introduced to competitive agility, it has allowed the breed to dominate the midi competi- tion at the World Agility Champion- ships. With less than a dozen Pyr Sheps among hundreds of competitors in this

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