When Jon and I first considered getting a dog, C was a newborn. That may seem like an odd time to consider getting a puppy, but we were looking for a dog that we could raise from the very beginning with our children (hence, the desire for a puppy instead of a grown dog), a dog who would come to see our children as his “job” when it came to watchfulness and protection. For that reason, we decided that getting a pup when C was a baby and when the rest of the children were young made perfect sense.
We knew wanted a large dog because as much as I love ALL breeds of dogs (I’d also love to have a Yorkshire Terrier someday in addition to my big dog), we wanted a cuddly, bear-sized friend who would also stand as an imposing watch dog if the situation arose.
Basically, we wanted a dog like “Nana” from Peter Pan.
I know that many, many people have fantastic experiences with shelter dogs or mixed breed dogs, but for better or for worse, we wanted a purebred dog with a temperament that we could (mostly) predict.
Jon had actually never had a dog in his entire life, except for our crazy Jack Russell Terrier mix, Fiat, who belonged to Henry, so he knew nothing about breeds and was open to considering a variety of options. We first considered a German Shepherd Dog, But as gorgeous as GSDs are, after doing our research, we decided that we didn’t want a herding breed , but a more laid back breed.
Next we looked at Newfoundlands, and this breed was a very compelling possibility. After all, the original “Nana” actually WAS a Newfie. This breed had many of the qualities we were looking for, including a large size, sweetness with children, watchdog capabilities, and a generally calm personality. However, Newfs have a strong desire to be in the water as much as possible and we had a strong desire for a dog who did NOT want to be in the water as much as possible, due to mud and mess. Also, Newfs are major droolers and this was something we hoped to avoid
Next we looked at Saint Bernards, but what we found in our research on this breed was that no matter how carefully you chose your breeder and puppy, you could end up with some notable variability in temperament, including the potential for unwanted aggression. Saint Bernards also required more exercise than we were hoping to have to give, and once again, they were big droolers.
I was urging Jon toward a Great Pyrenees dog all along because I’d owned an amazingly wonderful Great Pyrenees for five years before my divorce but we had had to find him a new home (heartbreaking) when the kids and I moved into a small apartment. So I was pushing for a Pyr all along. But Jon wasn’t sure. He read that they shed and bark a lot (both true) and that if they aren’t raised properly, they could be shy with people. These things really are all true but I knew that almost all dogs shed and were raised wrong (like chained up in the yard outdoors), many are likely to end up shy around people, so I kept nudging us toward a Pyr, which I consider the most beautiful of all breeds.
As we kept searching for a very large, very calm, watchful breed who didn’t seek out the water or drool excessively. I kept whispering “Pyr, Pyr, Pyr” in Jon’s ear.
Then we saw the movie Finding Neverland starring Johnny Depp on DVD and we learned that the dog who played Nana in the film was actually a Great Pyrenees. We both found the dog absolutely beautiful, so Jon began doing his research, but this time, he too was looking carefully at Great Pyrenees dogs.
Great Pyrenees are one of the most ancient breeds and were a favorite of the French court, They are generally laid back dogs who require less exercise than one might expect for such a large breed and they usually eschew the water. They have absolutely no no herding instinct (one misconception about Pyrs is that they are herding dogs when they are actually guarding dogs.) Pyrs make GREAT watchdogs or even guard dogs. They will spring into action when their flock needs guarding but otherwise seem like they are just kind of lying around, but they are actually always keeping a very careful eye on everything going on around them.
As the American Kennel Club breed standard about Great Pyrenees reads, “Character and temperament are of utmost importance. In nature, the Great Pyrenees is confident, gentle, and affectionate. While territorial and protective of his flock or family when necessary, his general demeanor is one of quiet composure, both patient and tolerant. He is strong willed, independent and somewhat reserved, yet attentive, fearless and loyal to his charges both human and animal.
Whatever type of “flock” Pyrs are raised with, whether that’s goats, sheep, alpacas or small humans, Pyrs bond with that flock and become both protective and, yet again, watchful of that flock. We also learned that Pyrs generally live longer than just about any other giant breed of dog.
A well-bred Great Pyrenees is a dignified, patient, calm dog who, as you can see, when raised properly, has a high ability to put up with a whole lot from the flock it guards.
For all of these reasons, Great Pyrenees are perhaps the most popular Livestock Guardian Dogs, “LGD” meaning that when they’re raised outdoors in the field or the barn with their animals and with minimal interaction with humans, you end up with a very protective dog who always has his eye on the environment around him to make sure all is well with “his” herd.
What we found out was that the same way that Great Pyrenees will put up from a lot from his animal herd, while still protecting them, he also will put up from a lot from his human herd while still protecting them as well.
After a few conversations with Great Pyrenees owners, we decided that the breed was right for us. In choosing a puppy, we decided to go with a male, because there’s a significant size difference between male and female Pyrs and we wanted a bigger dog (Our male Pyr now weighs 152 pounds). We also decided to obtain our puppy from a working line of dogs rather than a show line in order to try to raise a dog who would really grow attached to and watchful over our kids.)
Here’s a Great Pyrenees actually guarding his goats from a BEAR.
Finally it was time for us to go pick up our Great Pyrenees puppy from a working breeder in a county near ours. Since we were the first to choose our pup, we got the pick of the litter and we chose the largest male.He was also the friendliest and most outgoing of the litter of TEN PUPPIES!! (Can you imagine gestating and giving birth to TEN Great Pyrenees puppies?)
While we were at the breeder’s house, and we were nearby outside, we had baby C strapped into her carseat and the door to our minivan open. All of a sudden I saw the father of the litter of puppies jump into the open door of the minivan. I FREAKED OUT. “NO! NO! ” I began yelling as I ran toward the open door. But before I had even taken a few feet, this HUMONGOUS white dog had put his paw in C’s lap and was licking her hand. I couldn’t believe it. He was soooo gentle. The owner came over and took the dog by the collar and pulled him out of the car and just said, “he likes babies.”
Soon enough we were on the way home with our new puppy, whom we’d already named “Leo” after my first Pyr, and our bigger kids were so incredibly excited when we got home with our adorable seven week old Pyr pup as evening fell.
Suffice it to say that we all fell in love with Leo immediately. I mean, who wouldn’t fall in love with this face?
It would be easy to make the rest of this story difficult. I mean, Great Pyrenees sound kind of too good to be true, right? But in the 10.5 years since that evening when we first brought him home, Leo has turned out to be the most amazingly wonderful dog that we ever could have hoped for.
Yes, he sheds ….. A WHOLE BUNCH. If tufts of white fur drifting everywhere and lots of vacuuming and sweeping would make you crazy, this is not the breed for you. And yes, Great Pyrenees tend to be a barky breed – and they have a deep, booming bark that carries. So training away the unnecessary barking, while still allowing your Pyr to retain the okay to bark at watchdog-ey sorts of things is really important. This took some work in his first year but he eventually did learn when it was appropriate to bark (strange man at the front door) and when he needed to knock it off (because we would tell him to knock it off.) Leo was crate trained from day one, something I recommend doing with any puppy of any size, and he was always raised indoors with us, not just left out in the yard because of his size.
I think that’s the main reason that so many Great Pyrenees dogs end up in rescue is because people either don’t raise their Pyrs as true Livestock Guardian Dogs, with an animal flock to guard or the dogs aren’t raised indoors with a human family to take care of. Instead, uneducated Pyr owners just leave their dogs out in a fenced yard with no people around much and no other animals to guard, meaning that these very large Pyrs just bark, dig and are generally not very fun dogs to have around. The booming barking in particular of a Pyr left primarily out in a yard or worse, tied up, will lead to complaints from neighbors and will drive owners nuts. No, Pyrs need a job to do – either guarding an animal flock or a human flock.
After Leo was about one year old, we began to see his watchdog qualities begin to develop. For example, when I would take C or G (yes, we had another baby by then) out for a walk in a stroller at the local park, and someone would approach from the other direction, Leo would emit a very, very low growl that really only I could hear, but I had no doubt that if the stranger came too close to the stroller, unless I told Leo to stand down, a command he would always obey, he would begin barking loudly at the approaching stranger.
Additionally, Leo began barking loudly and approaching the front door anytime someone came up onto the front porch. Again, all it would take would be for Jon or me to instruct Leo to stand down and he would retreat, but I had no doubt that if a stranger entered our house, and Jon or I did NOT instruct Leo to back off, the entering individual would be highly unlikely to go any further into the house than the boomingly barking, very large, white dog standing between us and the entering individual would allow him. After his first year, we also became certain that if anyone were to enter the house at night, Leo would definitely let us know.
But Leo was always friendly when known friends, neighbors or their dogs would come by. He would welcome them indoors warmly and then settle down nearby to enjoy the conversation and an occasional rub on his very large (neutered, microchipped belly).
One of the most fascinating behaviors we observed in Leo is the way he would follow all of our children, and especially our two youngest children around our fenced yard and settle nearby, obviously just keeping an eye on things. This behavior has become even more pronounced since we were lucky enough to rent a beautiful, large farm two years ago (and which we literally pray that we get to rent a few years longer – at least until C finishes her first year of middle school). The farm’s property is not fenced, but by this time, at eight years old, Leo no longer needed a fence. Our older children are now off to college and their first jobs but Leo still closely follows “his” little girls when they play outside, and settles nearby to quietly keep an eye on things. Its’s really endearing, and also quite comforting.
Leo is now10.5 years old and he’s been remarkably healthy except for a little stiffness from his age. Here are a few more photos of Leo through the last 10.5 years.
So why have I written this incredibly long, photo-friendly post about Great Pyrenees Dogs and Leo in particular. Well, it’s because at 10.5 years in our family, a period when our kids don’t even remember a time without him, Leo was diagnosed with cancer. I first noticed the tumor about 8 weeks ago – a strange tumor that was slimy and on the exterior of his skin rather than in the interior. I was frantic to get him to the vet on Monday morning. As soon as I did, and the vet got a look at it, he told me that he felt pretty comfortable that we were looking at some form of cancer. He recommended removing the tumor as soon as possible (not an inexpensive procedure) but we of course went ahead with the surgery, which required general anesthesia. The tumor was removed and then it was time to wait for the pathology report. We waited and waited and waited, and after about 8 days the news came back, Leo did have cancer. That was the bad news. The good news was that he has a type of cancer that’s slow growing and is less likely to grow new tumors than many other cancers. But my beloved dog still has cancer, and I find myself feeling his body all over for new tumors all the time.
My dog has cancer. And I think I feel another tumor.
One positive thing that came out of the cancer diagnosis is that a pain reliever given to Leo during his recovery was a drug called Rimadyl. We immediately noticed that the Rimadyl also helped with his general stiffness and now he takes it twice a day and it’s made a huge difference, He now runs with the kids and galumphs again.
Why do we bring new puppies into our lives when we know that we will outlive them, and that pain and loss will be an inevitable part of life with that puppy? It’s because we are willing to take that risk in order to have ten or twelve or fifteen years of unconditional love with the animal most bonded to humans for thousands of years now. I cannot imagine life without Leo and I know that the kids can’t either. When I think of the day that I will have to tell them that it’s time for Leo to leave us,my heart hurts.
So much of life is plunging into things that we know may eventually hurt us. Or even that we know will eventually hurt us. But ultimately, the pain is almost always worth the pleasure. I know that it has been with my dog.
I don’t know how much longer we’ll have Leo. I am hoping – perhaps fantastically – for another three or four years together, But however long we have together, it was worth every second,