Thursday, October 31, 2013

Living with a Pyrenean Shepherd

First of all, I do not pretend to be an expert of Pyrenean Shepherd ownership.  After all, I only own one Pyrenean Shepherd, and so of course, I cannot determine that they are all exactly like mine.  However, I receive many inquiries about what it is like to live with a Pyr Shep, and due to their success in the agility ring, there is undoubtably some interest in the matter.  I feel that it is time for me to weigh in on the topic. . . as limited as my knowledge may be. Beyond owning Andreu, my Pyr Shep, I also talk to many other Pyr Shep owners and fanciers around the world regularly, and research as much as I can about the breed. I also have extensive knowledge, as a trainer, in regards to raising puppies to be well-mannered members of society.

 Pyr Sheps are not for everyone (undoubtably the first statement you will read in any commentary about them), but for certain people they are an absolutely wonderful match. 

**A VERY important note to make is that the points made here are generalizations. Every dog is unique, and breeding plays a major role in the genetic predisposition of a dog. My intention is to suggest some likely possibilities, but of course none of these are hard-and-fast rules. Specifically with Pyrenean Shepherds there is a great variety not only in appearance (rough face, smooth face, demi-long variations, and the body types that differ within the coat varieties, as well as many color options), but also in personality. 
Because the Pyrenean Shepherd was developed within different valleys and areas of the Pyrenees Mountians, each breeding pool had their own specifications. This is also why the Pyrenean Shepherd has the lengthiest standard in the AKC. There is so much variety within the breed that it is actually quite difficult to generalize much of anything. . .they are all different, so please take this post as only a general guideline of possibilities.

The "good":

-They are energetic; this gives the owner the opportunity to do A LOT with them! They can excel in many dog sports because of this, and love to be an active member of the family. They are great for jogging, hiking, playing frisbee, obedience, tricks, agility, tracking, nosework, herding, etc., and love to be on the go as much as possible. Andreu LOVES to run in agility competitions, and adores showing off in trick shows!

-They are smart; they pick up on new things quickly, and are extremely good at figuring things out. In general this can make them a joy to train, especially when it comes to tricks and dog sports! They love learning new things and love to work. Often they will figure out how to do something before you can figure out how to train them to do it. Andreu is so quick to learn new things that teaching him is a breeze and it takes him a remarkably short period of time to master them.  I have never had a dog that is so easy to potty train, and Andreu is an intact male! It was very easy to teach him that he could only potty and/or mark outside.

-They are quick and agile; this element has brought them much success in the agility ring. They make tight turns, run fast, and jump high. This comes from the fact that they were bred to herd sheep on the mountainous and rocky terrain of the Pyrenean mountains. Because of this, they are light bodied and have an amazingly quick movement about them. They don't do anything slowly. Andreu's ability to navigate obstacles constantly amazes and entertains me.

-They are alert and loyal; although they are small (15-32 pounds in general) one of the tasks they were bred to do was to alert the shepherd to any possible dangers; a wild animal hunting the sheep, a burglar stealing livestock, or any other unusual characters who may potentially be dangerous. Because the shepherd and dog would often be out to pasture for long periods, it was essential that the Pyr Shep keep a watchful eye even as the shepherd slept. Being loyal and alert often causes them to be wary of strangers, which makes them good guard dogs, as they will often not just allow strangers to come into the house without warning. They become very bonded to their family (and often one person specifically), and will protect them fiercely. Andreu will always let me know if there is something strange going on, and although he loves meeting new people, performing tricks for them, or playing ball with them, his focus is always still on me.

The "bad":

-They are energetic; this also means that they must have a lot of excersie to satisfy their energy level. They need to have a physical outlet every day to deal with their energy, and if they don't get it they are likely to get aggravated and take out that pent up energy in negative ways. For example, ripping apart your furniture or belongings.

-They are smart; this also means that they are very good at finding their way around rules and boundaries. If you are not 100% consistent, they will notice the moments that you do not enforce the rules and they will often take advantage. For example, you may have a rule that your Pyr Shep is not supposed to be on the couch, but on a rare occasion you want to cuddle, and will allow them some couch time (although they are not notoriously very into cuddling). A Pyr Shep will interpret this as an inconsistent rule that they can take advantage of; do you seem like you are in a cuddly mood? A Pyr Shep will take that as an invite to sneak up onto the couch without you noticing, or they will sneak up when you aren't looking, because obviously that is when they are "allowed" to be there. Smart does not always mean more obedient or easier to train, in fact it can often mean the opposite, as they are smart enough to know when they can get away with "breaking the rules".  It is important to note that a dog rarely thinks of this as "breaking" the rules, but instead thinks that there are different sets of rules for different situations. The potential downfall to having a smart dog is that they can easily read you, and will figure out how to work in what they want with what you are willing to enforce. This means you must always be on your toes in order to set clear boundaries (not an easy task with a quick dog).

-They are quick and agile; this also means that they are going to be faster than you....always. If they try to jump up to see what's on your kitchen counter and you go to stop them, they will be on to the back of the sofa, then the coffee table, then your bedroom before you have a chance to do much of anything. You are not likely to ever catch a Pyr Shep; if they decide to dodge you, they already have, long before you can react to it. Sight hounds may be fast when they start running, but Pyr Sheps are quick right in front of you. They don't have to run a distance to get their speed, they will be able to out maneuver you in a small room and you won't have a chance. 

-They are alert and loyal; this also means that it is important to do a lot of socialization early on in order to set a Pyr Shep up for success, and to help them understand that strangers are not neccessarily threatening. Some Pyr Sheps who are undersocialized (and this applies to many other breeds as well) can possibly become wary, defensive, and reactive dogs who feel that people they don't know are a threat. Many Pyr Sheps can be very social, even with little early socilaization, but being a sensitive breed, it is a better plan to prep a dog for success by socializing early, and training positively. Some can develop a tendency to bark at strangers or animals that they don't know, and this can quickly become a problem when taking the dog out in public, or having guests come into your home.  If a dog becomes fearful of people or other dogs, this behavior can escalate and become a serious problem. Their natural tendency to be alert can lead to barking; if they hear something, don't understand something, or are afraid of something, they may bark, and their bark can be quite loud so that they can alert you to the potential danger.  That being said, many Pyr Sheps are actually very quiet, so it is not necessarily expected for the breed to be vocal, but it is important to understand that it's a possibility. 
*It is important to note that the vocalizations of Pyr Sheps are sometimes related to whether or not they grow up with/live with other dogs who bark. They learn quickly, and other dogs can be very influential to whether they learn to vocalize heavily or not.

A note about the combination of "smart" and "alert."

-This combo is invaluable in many respects; it offers a dog who has quick problem solving capabilities, takes in their environment and understands it, and can easily adapt their knowledge to deal with the situation. Pyr Sheps are very good at dealing with situations without having to be trained how to do so. Whereas many other dog breeds need to specifically be trained how to understand and deal with something, a Pyr Shep will often figure it out on their own, which becomes a very useful tactic in many situations. They don't wait to be told how to handle something, they just do it. For example, in an agility sequence, if something is not working out correctly, most dogs will repeat the sequence in the same way until you give them a clearly different cue. A Pyr Shep will often try different things once you start repeating, in order to search for what it is that you want. If I repeat a sequence in training (or competition for that matter) Andreu will rarely try the same thing twice, but instead attempts different ways to complete it. This shows an amazing intelligence and concept of "thinking independently" in order to please me and fiure out what it is that I want.  This same concept overflows into many elements of life. A Pyr Shep is more likely to come up with new and unique ideas rather than repeating the same thing. This can be extremely useful in teaching new things, because when encouraged, they come up with endless possibilities of what they will try. However, this also means that they will easily become bored with repetition, and will work to find more creative ways to do things.
The other aspect of "smart" x "alert", is that during most Pyr Sheps mental growth they will often become aware of many things in their environment that other dogs would never notice. For example, Andreu went through a new "awareness" period about every 2 months within his first 15 months of life. These included awareness of noises, different visual stimuli, things overhead, etc. His initial reaction was often fear with these new stimuli, as he did not understand them. In his "sound phase" he would flee whenever a new, potentially scary (usually loud), sound was introduced. With positive reinforcement, and non-confrontational exposure to those sounds (no flooding!), he easily overcame these cautious reactions. Once he understood what they were, and how they worked, he was perfectly fine with them. For example, a slamming door would make him very uncomfortable, but if he saw the door slamming he was able to understand the source of the sound, and gradually generalized that even if he only heard it, he understood what it was and that it was not something to be concerned about.

A note on dog training and "fear phases":

Traditionally, these are called "fear phases", but I am hesitant to assign them this name, as my experience with Andreu made it clear that his intelligence, in combination with his natural alert observation, caused him to become aware of things that most other dogs (and people for that matter), would never notice. It's therefore not neccessarily a phase that is fear based, but instead a cautionary realization of what is happening, or what something is.  
Because these dogs are generally considered "wilderness herders" and often valued for their wild and natural nature, it is important to understand that a Pyr Shep has to become acclimated to a city is not at all natural to them.  This is not a bad thing by any means, it is instead a process of acclimating to the many different environments that he may encounter throughout his life. That being said, because of this awareness, I had to take much more effort in his socialization than I have had to with many other dogs. This is an important element to think about if you are considering bringing a Pyr Shep into your home. 

Many of these aspects are often described as "quirky" in descriptions of Pyr Sheps, but I have intended here to break down that vague statement a bit more as to avoid confusion.

Beyond the casual owner:

If you are serious about dog training, here is an interesting note about "fear phases".
To get technical for a moment...
I like to compare these stages to Sigmund Freud's concept of Psychosexual development, in theory of how to work through them at least. Freud believed that if a child didn't work through each phase, they would be stuck with a "fixation" from that stage until they worked through it. What we call "fear phases" in dogs can work very similarly to this theory; if the phase is not properly worked through and overcome, then a potential fear can become "stuck" in the dogs "psyche". For example, if the puppy is going through a phase where they are fearful of strangers and they are either forced to interact in a way that they see as negative, or on the opposite approach, kept away from strangers entirely, they can easily hold onto this fear into adulthood. This of course is not specific to Pyr Sheps, as many different breeds of pups go through these stages, but it is important to understand that with a "sensitive" dog, you need to work through each phase.

With patience, socialization, and positive reinforcement training, the Pyr Shep can be a wonderful companion. The effort you put in pays off; many Pyr Sheps are accomplished agility, rally, obedience, frisbee, flyball, herding, and therapy dogs, beyond being wonderful companions for their owners.
However, if you want an "easy" dog, who you can bring into your home and take little effort to train and socialize, this breed is not for you. If you are looking for a star agility dog, but want to have a dog who just jumps right in with no questions asked, a Pyr Shep is not for you. 
If you work to unlock their potential, a Pyr Shep will not disappoint, but you have to put in the same amount of work that you are asking from them.

Well, much like the breed standard, this description has become wordy and very vast in it's variety of options. . . However, I don't think there is any better way to describe the multitude of possibilities that you can encounter with a Pyr Shep. 
My advice is to find a breeder who understands all of these things, breeds for temperament AND health, and to start early with a pup, focusing on whatever it is that you have in mind to do with that dog. I will say, that it seems to be easy to "shut down" a Pyr Shep with too much punishment and harsh corrections, so letting a pup develop, and supporting them as they do, is the best way to go (and by the way, this is my recommendation for all breeds, but I can't stress it enough for Pys Sheps).

I encourage anyone who is interested in the breed to get involved with online forums devoted to the wonderful Pyr Shep, try to meet as many as possible, and contact owners and breeders before making a decision.
This being said. . . I couldn't possibly be happier with my decision to have a Pyr Shep join my family, as Andreu is the happiest, and most social dog I have ever had. He LOVES other dogs and thoroughly enjoys greeting new people (strangers he often ignores until he gets to know them, but that takes a only a few moments in general), and he is excited to work, loves to do any activity I give him, and is joyful all of the time. I couldn't imagine my life now without a Pyr Shep. I have never had a dog who is so entertaining and an all around pleasure to work with.

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