Le Patou (Great Pyrenees)

patouDuring your walks in the mountains, you are likely to encounter large white dogs of impressive bulk. Often called "pastous" or "patous", they mix with the flock of sheep and assure its protection.

This breed, called le Montagne des Pyrénées in French and Great Pyrenees in English, is considered a part of the mountain patrimony. Used in France until the end of the 19th century, it has gradually disappeared from these mountains as the large predators -- bears, wolves and lynx -- have become rare. The natural return of wolves in the Mercantour and the reintroduction of bears in the central Pyrenees have stimulated a renewal of interest in this type of guard dog.

The term "pastou" (pronounced patou) is derived from the word "pastre", meaning shepherd in old French and designates a shepherd's dog as it was understood in times past. Unlike a herd dog, the role of the guard dog is not to drive the sheep but rather to protect them from wild animals or feral dogs. Usually walking at the head of the flock, the patou inspects the terrain before the arrival of the sheep, then establishes a zone of protection around the flock that allows him to anticipate the approach of any intruder.

The sheep are his family

patou troupeauBorn in the sheepfold, the dog is brought into contact with the sheep very early. At two months he is separated from his mother and siblings to sleep, eat and live with the sheep he will be guarding. His thick white coat and floppy ears allow him to blend in with his charges and in time he is totally accepted by them. During his first two years of life the shepherd is careful not to stroke or caress him or in any way treat him as a pet in order that he bond as closely as possible with the sheep.

Great Pyrenees are not attack dogs but protect by dissuasion. Their presence and large size alone discourages predators. The first reaction of the guard dog is to bark, to warn the stranger of his presence and alert the shepherd and the flock. At the same time, he places himself between the sheep and the intruder(s).

If the intruder ignores his warning or if the predator is agressive, the dog may then make physical contact.

If you meet a patou...

A good guard dog, watching over his flock, alerts the shepherd to any intrusion into the perimeter around the sheep. Such a large dog barking and charging down the slope at you can be quite intimidating. Remember:

-remain calm
-don't shout
-don't throw anything at him
-don't threaten him with your walking stick

The dog will take this as an agression. Stop or continue to make your way around the flock. The dog will sniff at you, recognise a human, and then sometimes accompany you for a short way to be sure of your intentions before turning back to his family of sheep.

Many thanks to these photographers

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From 2000 to the end of 2017 ariege.com was a site devoted to tourism in the department of Ariège. The site is minimally maintained now but you can get a flavour of this beautiful area of the Pyrenees.