As part of our summer series on local breeds in Occitania, 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 darlings!” The swinging doors of the farmhouse open and three Pyrenean mountain dogs rush into the yard. Three long-haired white rockets coming to sniff out a journalist… This stranger, came to visit the Néouvielle farm, in Moumoulous, a small village near Tarbes. In a voice mixing tenderness and firmness, Nadine Laffitte slowly directs them towards the adjacent meadows. Béarnaise living in the Hautes-Pyrénées, this 62-year-old farmer has always grown up with dogs. They who once guarded the sheep of his grandparents 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 kept all her life. In 40 years, she has raised several hundred patous, these local breed dogs, present since time immemorial in the Pyrenees. The noble animal is already mentioned by the Count of Foix Gaston Phoebus in the XIVe century and was very popular at the court of Louis XIV.
“Currently, I only have 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 in which I lost an eye.” It must be said that raising Pyrenees mountains, a powerful and independent dog, weighing 50 to 64 kg, with a very strong personality and very protective, is a demanding activity. “They need a firm, but fair education,” notes the breeder.
650 breed puppies born in 2021
“The first few weeks, you also have to be extra vigilant because, without wanting to, mothers can crush their puppies”, explains Nadine Laffitte. But these little balls of hair quickly become autonomous, from three weeks. Most leave breeding after nine weeks. Sold in France or abroad, a dog brings in 1,400 to 1,600 € respectively. Historically, breeding has moved to other regions, but there are still around fifteen breeders in the Pyrenees, producing 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 been evolving between 450 and 650, specifies Jean-Bernard Moings, vice-president of the SCC and president of the shepherd and guard dog 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.” This count, however, represents only 30 to 40% of the number of puppies strongly resembling the Pyrenees mountain, 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
The breed standards, defined in 1923, are however extremely precise. The mucous membranes must be perfectly black: the nose, the lips and the inside of the mouth. Head shape and size, body proportions also matter. Just like the gaze which must be almond shaped, soft and dreamy. The dog must also have extra toes above 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 firm and faithful guardian in France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.
A popularity linked to the success of the book and the series “Belle et Sébastien” (1965) and more recent films, released between 2013 and 2017. “But it hurt the race, deplores Nadine Laffite. By her character, this dog cannot be entrusted to everyone and the breed must remain confidential.” Exhibitions and competitions are also regularly organized to showcase the dog’s pedigree and elegance. Ouness, raised here in Néouvielle, has also won the 2022 European Championship.
Tensions between patous and hikers
In recent decades, the patou has increasingly found its original vocation 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 in the mountain pastures is, in fact, a condition for being compensated in the event of attacks.
Depending on the fate that awaits him, family guardian or herdsman, the education of the dog will be different. If the first is socialized quickly with humans, on the markets for example, the “patou” is raised only with the sheep, in the sheepfold, to become impregnated with them and to be accepted by the herd. “So they are a bit asocial, that’s why there are so many problems with walkers…”, notes the breeder. Incidents between aggressive dogs and frightened tourists are indeed recurrent in the region in summer. The public authorities, the rural and tourist world are trying, somehow, to increase awareness campaigns to improve this cohabitation which remains thorny.