Pyrenean Mastiffs as Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs)
Pyrenean Mastiffs have been bred as livestock guardians for centuries if not millennia. This is an important point, because no dog should be used as a livestock guardian who is not one of a small number of breeds bred specifically to do this job. 95% of a LGD’s ability lies in their genetic instincts, not their training. Even a dog who is a mixture of a livestock guardian breed and some other breed should not be left alone with livestock. Dogs are predators by nature, and it takes centuries of careful breeding to remove that trait.
Types of LGDs
LGDs generally fall into two categories. One type is raised with the livestock and with minimal human contact. They are given enough basic training so that they can be taken to the vet and so that they respond to commands when needed, but even training is kept to a minimum. This type of dog can guard large numbers of livestock out on the range with no humans present. This type may kill anything that approaches the livestock, including animals such as deer, and one cannot assume they will be harmless if a stranger approaches.
The other type must also be raised with the livestock they will guard, but as long as they spend an appreciable amount of time with their charges, they can also spend time with humans, in other places around the farm, and even off the farm, without any ill effects. (Note: Particularly during the initial socialization period, most of the human-dog interaction should take place near the livestock. But especially after the first year, it is fine to bring them into the house for a few hours a day especially when it hot out and the predator load is low.) They are usually used on small farms in fenced enclosures rather than out on the range, and they are unlikely to kill animals they do not perceive as threats to their livestock. When well socialized, this type is friendly with strangers and wonderful with small children.
The majority of LGDs fall into the first category, but Pyrenean Mastiffs fall into the second. For this reason, owners should be careful about which resources they use to learn about LGD training. Great Pyrenees also fall into this second category, so a good rule of thumb is to look for resources on training Great Pyrenees rather than LGDs in general. One example is:
Chooseing a Puppy
Not every puppy in a litter will make a good guardian, and you will need your breeder’s help in making a good choice. It is helpful if one or both parents is a working livestock guardian whose traits can be observed. Here is what we look for in a LGD puppy.
We are looking for a pup who…
Has a medium to low activity level
Has a low chase drive/isn’t particularly interesting in chasing thrown objects
Is neither shy or fearful nor extremely outgoing or aggressive
Is accepting of new things and sudden noises
Has been exposed to livestock from a young age
Other good signs would be if the majority of the time the pup…
Backs up or lies down when a stranger extends a hand (as opposed to jumping at it or showing fear)
Is curious but somewhat cautious around animals outside of its usual pack such as cats or unfamiliar dogs
Sometimes sleeps away from the other pups
You will absolutely want to learn more about training than we can offer here, but here are some basics:
Ideally, pups should be trained with an experienced adult dog of the opposite sex. It is wise to purchase a new pup every 4-5 years so that you are never without a guardian and so that older dogs can help train younger ones.
All good things should happen near the livestock – feeding, grooming, etc.
Keep the new puppy in a pen next to the livestock in the beginning. Take him or her out on a leash multiple times during the day to interact with the livestock under your supervision, meet other farm animals, and spend a little time with the family (including a little bit of supervised time in the house to get in some housebreaking training).
The best correction is a sharp “no” and if absolutely needed, a quick snap of the leash or poke in the side of the neck with a finger. These are the only types of corrections generally needed with a quality LGD puppy. Livestock dogs do not learn well with aggressive corrections and may come to equate being with the livestock with something unpleasant. If a stronger correction seems warranted, you may need to consult a professional trainer.
After a couple of weeks, as long as the pup is doing well with the livestock, allow him or her to be with the livestock off leash with your supervision. Do not allow the pup to chase livestock or interact with them beyond a little sniffing or a lick here and there. Do not allow the pup to stare at the livestock. Also, keep an eye on the livestock and make sure they aren’t bullying or threatening the puppy. LGDs should give way to the livestock. For example, if a sheep stomps the ground with a hoof or rushes at the pup to run him off, the pup should back off. It is fine (and adorable!) for the pup to curl up with the livestock to sleep.
Once the pup is no longer needing correction and is behaving well consistently, leave him or her with the livestock for increasingly long periods of time while you keep an eye (or ear) out from a distance and check in regularly. Gradually increase the amount of time the pup is left with the livestock in this way until you feel confident in his or her abilities. The amount of time this will take will be significantly longer when there is no adult dog present to help with the training.
Conduct basic obedience training in the pasture with the livestock ten minutes a day. We like the methods promoted in by the Monks of New Skete.
Pyrenean Mastiffs are one of the few breeds that work consistently well with poultry, but you should still proceed especially slowly when training them with birds.
Also, take special precautions the first time a puppy is exposed to very young animals or livestock who are giving birth.
A good training resource to get you started is:
Anyone who is seeking a livestock guardian should be aware that they work primarily through pre-emptive means. They patrol the perimeter, urinate around the perimeter, and bark if they hear any sound. Should a predator approach, they put on quite a show! Because of this, it is rare that a Pyrenean Mastiff will ever engage in a fight; not many predators look at a raging beast like that and decide that coming closer would be a good idea. However, if you live in an area with active wolves or bears, you should outfit your guardian with a wide protective collar and work your dogs in spayed/neutered pairs that are not the same sex.
But what this means is, they bark a great deal, which can be annoying. Ours tend to bark almost exclusively at night. Our small pasture is just beyond our bedroom windows, but because the dogs’ barks are so deep and because they are focused more on areas farther from the house, we haven’t found it to be a big problem, but we do use a white noise app. And if you pay attention, you’ll notice that LGDs have different barks for different situations. When you can recognize the “barking just to bark” sound, you can use corrections to limit that kind of barking – a stern “no,” throwing a can full of coins near (but not at) the dog, or squirting with a super-soaker water gun.
Why Pyrenean Mastiffs?
Pyrenean Mastiffs and Great Pyrenees are both excellent choices for small farms and for people who would like a dog who can be a farm companion as well as a livestock guardian. But there are good reasons for considering a Pyrenean Mastiff over the more common Great Pyrenees.
The opportunity to help conserve a rare breed
Generally, less barking (but still a lot of barking)
Less wandering (both breeds are best used in fenced enclosures, but the Pyrenean Mastiff is less prone to trying to escape)
Longer life span and fewer genetic issues
Better with poultry
For more on a comparison of the breeds, check out https://shangri-baa.weebly.com/why-pyrenean-mastiffs.html
Cynthia Alby, Shangri-Baa