Head Qualities and Expression of the Berger des Pyrénées by OLIVIER MATZ

photo T. Ahola

ABOUT THE HEAD AND THE EXPRESSION OF THE PYRENEAN SHEPHERD

By Olivier Matz

English Translation Marie-Jose Thuot

Edited T. Walker

© 2010

 

What I am going to tell you is not new; others wrote about it long before me. However, one can ask him/herself how this essential criterion for our breed is taken into account?

 

The head is the cornerstone of the breed. It is what defines type. If one begins to neglect this element, he runs the risk of producing very “ordinary” dogs, he runs the risk of losing the breed’s type…Before looking in detail at a dog, one should be able to determine, just by a quick glance, if it is a Pyrenean Shepherd or not. What is the use of having a nice conformation with a head that is “ordinary” or not true to type? You would have a long hair dog, but of which breed? So let us look at some essential elements of the breed standard:

 

THE SKULL

 

It is moderately developed (but rather wide), flat (it is the flattest skull of all the herding breeds), with a scarcely noticeable central furrow, harmoniously rounded on the sides, showing a very slight occipital protuberance. The front section slopes gently to the muzzle. Therefore, the stop is scarcely discernible. The general shape of the head is triangular. The ratio between the skull and the muzzle is 2/3 (skull) to 1/3 (muzzle) when you look at the length of the head.

 

THE MUZZLE

 

It is straight and shorter than the skull. It tapers like a wedge. The nose is black, the lips and the palate are black or heavily marked with black. Beware of muzzles that are too long or too short.

 

THE EYES

 

They are expressive, slightly almond-shaped. Beware of round or light colored eyes. The eyes are dark brown and must not be too close. Walleyes (Ed. Note: An iris that is light or blue in color) are accepted in dogs that have arlequin (blue merle) or slate grey coats. The eye rims are black, whatever the color of the coat. It is a trait that seems to be disappearing--we used to say that Pyrenean Shepherds were “wearing mascara.”

 

THE HAIR

 

It is characterized as being” windswept.” It must be harmoniously distributed on the head and the muzzle, swept towards the back. At the front of the muzzle, there is a bit of a mustache on the sides and a bit of a beard under. On the sides as well as on the cheeks and on the skull, the hair is longer and brushed up in a windswept way from front to back. The hair must not cover the eyes. The hair must not be soft and fall forward, hiding the eyes and the expression of the dog. A proper hair stream gives the impression that the head gets wider from the base of the nose to the top of the skull. Beware of too much mustache and beard (griffon look), of bad hair stream and poor hair quality, which gives coarse and heavy heads of the PON type (Ed. Note: Polski Owczarek Nizinny or Polish Lowland Sheepdog).

 

THE EARS

 

They are moderately broad at the base, set relatively high at the top of the skull but not set too close to each other nor too far apart. They are relatively short. The upper third or half is folded over the lower part of the ear. The lower part is mobile and pricked. The upper third or half of the ear should fall forward to the front or the side, symmetrically. This is where it becomes complicated…

 

Earlier the ears were cropped, and, besides the functional aspect, cropping enhanced the appearance of the head by giving the impression that it was wider (see the section on hair) because the ears were cut on a slant. (Ed. Note: In countries where this is still allowed, often PS ears are cropped by cutting straight across the “heel” of the ear; but traditionally, in France, a second cut was made which gave the rounded effect described by Mr. Matz.)

 

There is no recipe, but here is what I have experienced: Often, puppies that have good ears at 2 months old have a tendency to have a narrower skull. So keep that in mind. Moreover, if the ears are too light, you could end up with fully pricked ears at 12 months …

 

On the other hand, even when the skull ratio is adequate, the ears are often set more laterally and they may be lower. Be careful, as it could mean that the skull is a bit round.

 

In both cases, one can utilize glue and tape, with various results depending on the growth rate (calcium rise, adult teeth coming in, etc.), experimenting with different tricks. I have no miraculous solution--only observation made over a long period of time and a follow up of the various litters--studying closely the various types of ears (thick, light, short, semi-short, their placement on the skull, the shape of the skull, the ratio skull/muzzle, etc.); and experimenting to find the right breeding by identifying the good lines. These are the answers that I can give you, but it seems to me that this is the job of a good breeder.

 

Just a note: The narrowness of the skull reveals generally a reduction, generation after generation, of the bone structure. The Pyr Shep is a light dog but it is not a “shrimp”. You can also get missing teeth (incisors). Beware of too much consanguinity!

 

THE EXPRESSION

 

Let us imagine a dog having almost all the characteristics. You get a head that is technically perfect (perfection does not exist) and good structure.

 

In the standard, one can read: “Dog displaying a maximum of nervous energy in a minimum of size and weight”. This self-explanatory sentence shows a dog ever alert and energetic, with great liveliness of movement that gives him a characteristic appearance unlike any other.

 

Foremost, the PS is a working dog, a sheepherder that performs tirelessly in the mountains, despite difficult conditions (type of work, hilly terrain, weather, long distances to cover, etc.) He is the tool of the farmer and he is often asked to take the initiative--to use his “brain”. For a long time, people and Pyr Shep lived in isolated valleys and remote villages where communication means were scarce and their lives were hard and lonely. This was the source of their fear of the “unknown”. Any small event was something extraordinary. And our little shepherd has no doubt inherited this trait of character. Living in a vacuum certainly influenced his temperament (suspicious) and his genetics (consanguinity). This trait of character was reinforced generation after generation because of the lack of outside stimuli and left its imprint on progeny. So, anything that is strange or different catches the dog’s attention and that is why he has a tendency to bark and is always alert. This dog does not stay still (perpetual motion)--he is watching, spying--he is curious about everything.

 

This nervous energy and this temperament result in a dog that will tense up (standing tall) with his neck arched, carrying his head like a watchtower. His eyes are mobile and alert; his physiognomy is very expressive and lively, showing suspiciousness, intelligence and mischievousness. He gives the impression that he is stamping his feet while staying on the same spot and it looks like he is filling the space. He absorbs everything that surrounds him with his inquiring, facetious, curious and mischievous look. Often, whining noises, almost not audible, will accompany this performance and this intelligent, at time rebellious, proud, noble and merry expression is a reflection of nature itself.

That is what defines our little shepherd’s expression. You can imagine him watching a flock, the farm, or any unusual motion. He will always have this timeless look and these various expressions. We can use any words we want, however the important thing is to perceive this magic when it happens. .

 

The world has changed and so the Pyrenean Shepherd, like the human, has had to adapt.

We are not trying to encourage breeding dogs that are not sociable. However, even if the petit berger is more sociable, he remains suspicious. While it is not a serious flaw if he is not “méfiant” or wary, [it is important] to raise and train [socialize] him, taking care to awaken his curiosity for everything that surrounds him. That is all his natural intelligence needs to express itself.

 

The expression of the Pyrenean Shepherd will always be present, but do not forget that it will only be fully realized if the head’s morphology is, in general, consistent with the breed standard.

 

If this remains an abstract notion, I encourage you to see a maximum of Bergers des Pyrénées in all kind of contexts. Then, one day, God willing, when you least expect it, you will understand and will feel it intimately.

 

Beyond the breed standard and the necessary rationalization that one has to do, there is that part of romanticism that words will never be able to convey …

 

 

Olivier Matz

2009