by Gisele Zilberman Excerpted from "The International Great Pyrenees Review"

As I mentioned previously, it is in France that both breeds, the Pyrenean Mountain Dog and the Pyrenean Shepherd have lived side by side for centuries, working as a perfect team with the shepherd. To find the one without the other is like having a missing link in the pastoral pattern of the Pyrenees.

The shepherd and his dogs form a three-cornered team, as he gives orders to the little sheepdogs, each one eager to obey with all the quick intelligence and initiative it possesses, every move watched closely by the big mountain dog who only interferes if a situation crops up where the sheepdogs need help then he is ready to rush to the rescue.

I have found the study of this three-cornered partnership particularly interesting for three reasons:

1. The shepherd cannot carry out his work of keeping the flock without the dogs.

2. Without the orders and directions given them by their master, the sheepdogs are incapable of achieving all their tasks: driving the sheep where the shepherds require them to go, stopping ewes from straying to dangerous slopes where the lamps might fall down a ravine, carefully keeping on the precipice side of a dangerous part in order that the flock is in no danger of accidents even finding lambs in blinding mists when the bleating of the mothers is the only guide to their whereabouts.

3. The big Mountain Dog, in turn, watches over them all. The sheepdogs know quite well their big companion is there, ready to protect them from any attack: they only need to call and he will respond with a rapidity which is all the more surprising when one considers his great size. Should wolves, bears, or foxes approach the flock, Patou will be ready to fight to the death to drive them away.

What lesson is there here, for us humans: each partner ready to play his part, one never interfering with the other, but ready to come into play when needed?

While on one of my mountain climbs I had an experience that clearly demonstrates the responsibility in Pyrenean Shepherds. My second story happened in this setting.

The “Massif du Balaious” is noted for marvelous mountain climbs but is also a refuge for mountaineers on the way up or down the peaks. Glaciers, snows and bilberry bushes are marvelous attractions for the brown bears of the Pyrenees. Whether they ever attacked shepherds or mountaineers is doubtful, but this was a place where it was prudent to be careful if coming across their footprints.

This had been the case not far from the Larribit Refuge where I arrived one day, very tired after a strenuous climb and feeling rather sick following a meal from what had evidently been bad tinned meat.

Straw mattresses on the floor of the refuge are always here for passing mountaineers and I was glad to lie on one, as I felt feverish. Suddenly I heard the far-off sound of bells: it was a flock of sheep descending the slopes, as I realized when I heard the shepherds’ voices and he barking of dogs.

An hour later the whole flock was grazing around the refuge and three shepherds entered the hut in which I was resting. Though the opening I could see their dogs – nine of them – red tongues lolling with unkempt gray black and white and tawny coats.

After a chat with the shepherds they made me some hot tea, well sugared and laced with alcohol and lent me a sheepskin vest to cover myself. They also told me there was a bear in he vicinity and they were, that evening, going down to the village for a salt lick but would leave their dogs in charge of the sheep. They would return early the next morning but they told me they would assign three of the dogs to stay with me n the hut throughout the night (three remained with the sheep).

Then they left after giving orders to the little Sheepdogs, and at that time, I could never see a dog without wanting to pet it. But I did not know anything about these Sheepdogs and was surprised to see them draw back as I put out my hand to stroke them. They were not growling, but as far as they were concerned, I was their charge, their task for the night and they had arranged themselves as follows: one in front of the door which could not shut properly, one in between this one and myself, and the third continued to run around me for the five or six hours he was on duty, just as if I had been some sheep he had been ordered to guard, sniffing me as he want past, not quite sure of what he had there!

Their pledge to man was obviously to the shepherds, not to me! If I moved they looked around towards the door, then approached me took stock of the situation, then decided all was well and settled down to wait for the masters.

I did not manage to fall asleep but watched the three of them with wonder at their organization and conscientious behavior. Twice during he night a noise was heard outside - in the twinkling of an eye, the dogs were barking furiously, one stayed right next to me, one went outside, running and barking all around the hut, and the third ran backwards and forwards between the other two. In the morning the dog which had been running all night around me disappeared; the other two had remained at their posts as if this was the accustomed procedure.

An hour later, or thereabouts, I heard voices and only then did the other two start to bark, but they stayed where they were. The shepherds were arriving back with three of the others and the salt. In this short space of time they had covered incredible distances, staffs in hand, dogs at their heels. As they appeared in the entrance the two remaining dogs ran to greet them, their task finished.

My return to the valley is of no interest apart from the fact that I decided from that day to own and breed these dogs. Since then, how many times have I had occasion to admire this intelligence, adaptable to any circumstances, signaled in the Standard, but perfectly illustrated in this first encounter with the “Bergers des Pyrenees”.

My third story is about a Pyrenean Sheepdog in Dordogne: a lesson on initiative and imagination.

A year after having sold a little bitch, whose parents were sheep-trial champions, I had a visit from her owner; a farmer on his way to the Brive market, who had come out of his way to bring me a photo of Urielle. There she was, in colour, on a chair in the middle of the farmyard, a little Queen!

He had one day left his flock of sheep in an open field with only Urielle to look after them while he went back to the farm to fetch some tools – he was away for a few hours. He arrived back to find an empty field: no sheep and no dog! In a nearby vineyard a neighbor had seen the following scene, which he descried with much laughter

“It was incredible! Soon after you left a young bull belonging to Monsieur Laplagne came into the field. Your bitch saw him arrive, and as you were not there, she decided to round up the sheep and guide them home as you generally do in the evenings. When I saw them I did not know you were not there, but everything was in order there was no need to worry, and the flock was going towards your farm.”

Urielle’s master continued the story: “I went straight home and could not believe my eyes. Urielle had indeed driven all the sheep into their fold and was sitting in front of the gate as she obviously could not shut it. She was worried when she saw me but when I called her to me to pet her, she jumped around, delighted."

I was glad Urielle’s owner was understanding. A man less versed in sheeplore might have scolded her for having brought the sheep home without an order to do so; this would have resulted in a loss of confidence between two partners.
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