Cherished Guardian of Spain
The Pyrenean Mastiff is a noble and rustic breed traditionally used as a livestock and property guardian that derives from the region of Aragon, Spain.
Otto, pictured here in 1978, was one of the initial 100 Pyrenean Mastiffs singled out for the breed's recovery. Photo: Rafael Malo Alcrudo.
There is evidence of large dogs of mastiff type in the areas that were known to have been part of migration patterns. Since we know the traditional practices of the shepherds, we can deduce that Pyrenean Mastiffs have been in that region for three to four millennia, defending their charges from wolves and bears. Due to the inherent nomadic nature of the breed’s occupation, little is known prior to that time. Dogs traveled often with their charges and farmers as they moved about the region looking for better pastures.
It is generally accepted that the Pyrenean Mastiff is descended from Molosser dogs brought from Sumeria and Assyria to Spain by the Phoenicians some 3,000 years ago. Due to the remoteness of the various areas of the Pyrenees Mountains and the remainder of what is now known as Spain, the original Molosser dogs developed independently by region into several livestock guardian dogs. The breeds most closely related are the Pyrenean Mastiff, the Spanish Mastiff and the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, which is also known as the Great Pyrenees.
Thor, 1976. Unlike Otto, Thor was used for breeding to help re-establish the breed. His son Dorondon is pictured below. Photo: Rafael Malo Alcrudo.
With the help of the Dog Genome Project, run by Elaine Ostrander’s laboratory at the National Institute of Health, we were able to see how the split of the Great Pyrenees and Pyrenean Mastiff relates to other breeds in Europe. The Pyrenean Mastiff has relationships with more mountain-type breeds such as the Leonberger and Saint Bernard, while the Great Pyrenees has more relationships to Italian flock guardians like the Maremma.
Dorondon De La Tajadera Del Tio Roy, born in 1979. Photo: Rafael Malo Alcrudo.
Unfortunately, in the 1930s and ’40s, the disappearance of the wolves and bears from the Pyrenees Mountains, the new reliance on railways to transport sheep, the Spanish Civil War followed by World War II and a scarcity of food almost led to the total loss of the Mastiffs of Aragon (now called the Pyrenean Mastiff). After the Spanish Civil War, the struggling economy also worsened the situation, making it difficult for people to maintain such large dogs. This left very few lines available and resulted in higher levels of inbreeding. With a decrease in predation and different transport methods for the sheep, there was no need for a livestock guardian breed in the region, though some continued to use Pyrenean Mastiffs as property/estate guardians, while very few had them as companions.
In the 1970s, Rafael Malo Alcrudo, along with a group of breeders, began the difficult work of recovering the Pyrenean Mastiff. After searching the region to find examples of the breed, 100 potential dogs were found. These were then narrowed down to the top 30 dogs to represent the foundation of the modern Pyrenean Mastiff. In 1977, the Club del Mastin del Pirineo (CMPE) was founded and dedicated to the Pyrenean Mastiff within Spain. The breed began to gain popularity and spread throughout Europe, especially in Finland.
Enzertan de la Tajadera del Tio Roy, owned by Milena Mura.
Eventually, the Pyrenean Mastiff arrived in the United States in 1996 and began to gain traction in the late 2010s. Today, the Pyrenean Mastiff is known for its even-tempered demeanor and ability to be a livestock guardian, property guardian and family companion.
A great Pyrenean Mastiff is a dog that conveys a distinct impression of power and strength. Looking at one you can see that they are capable of being a fierce guardian and carry themselves with confidence and pride. However, when looking closely at the eyes they are gentle, calm, noble and intelligent. They should be friendly and gentle with people who are no threat to them, their charges or their family. They are good-natured dogs aware of their strength and only fierce protectors when necessary.
What Makes a Pyrenean Mastiff
From the official AKC standard of the Pyrenean Mastiff:
“The Pyrenean Mastiff dog conveys the distinct impression of power and strength combined with a very large size, moderate proportions, and strong substance. The Pyrenean Mastiff stands well up on the pasterns, with strong, tight, cat feet, giving a proud appearance. The coat consists of a white base coat with piebald markings that include patching over the eyes and ears at minimum. Patches will be agouti, varying shades of sable with or without black tipping, badger, varying shades of gold, brown, black, with or without brindle. The coat should have a coarse texture that is not woolly and is medium to long, where ideal length at midline is between 2.5 inches and 3.5 inches. The Pyrenean Mastiff possesses a perceptive intelligence and a gentle, while regal, expression that exudes a strong presence. Exhibiting a harmonious movement that is emphatically strong and muscular. Despite their size, the Pyrenean Mastiff, should not give the impression of being heavy or sluggish.”
Puri Fefa de la Tajadera del Tio Roy.
I include this because I cannot think of a better way to describe an initial impression of a Pyrenean Mastiff. When looking at a Pyrenean Mastiff, it is almost a conflicted feeling of “I wouldn’t cross that dog” because of how imposing their presence is. However, you also see a gentleness in their eyes that displays a calm and regal attitude. Despite their large size they move fluidly and elegantly to the point that it is almost like they are gliding as they trot. Their appearance demands your eye’s attention and draws you in no matter where you are when you spot one.
Bertok de el Paso de Oso, owned by Antonio Donoso Gallardo.
Pachuco de Moralet and Rudolf Tschudi. Photo: Rafael Malo Alcrudo.
Some of the distinct factors that make up the Pyrenean Mastiff are their temperament, which allows them to be a wonderful companion but also a fierce guardian. They should have an effortless and harmonious movement despite their large size and mass. Their rustic physical traits allow them to continue to do the job they were originally bred to do, whether it’s working in cold mountainous regions, open pastures or protecting their families in the suburbs. In the U.S., many families are adding a Pyrenean Mastiff to their homesteads or heritage farms because they are gentle with children, affectionate with family, take their job seriously and accept friendly/neutral visitors. They are versatile livestock guardians that can be motivated to train, be in public and enjoy the attention. They are gaining interest as therapy dogs because their quiet intuitive demeanor allows them to know when to be gentle and caring in nature.
Breed History in the United States
The Pyrenean Mastiff was first imported into the United States by Karen Haywood of De la Tierra Alta Kennels in 1996. Haywood also started the Pyrenean Mastiff Club of America (PMCA) and a domestic registry for dogs she produced. The dogs that Haywood imported were Zoy Minero de la Tajadera del Tio Roy and Elena de la Tajadera del Tio Roy.
On October 1, 1997, de la Tierra Alta kennels welcomed the first Pyrenean Mastiff litter born in the United States between Bullonera de la Tajadera del Tio Roy and Zoy Minero de la Tajadera del Tio Roy. This litter produced Zaragoza de la Tierra Alta and Pilar de la Tierra Alta.
Zoy Minero de la Tajadera del Tio Roy, one of the first dogs imported to the U.S.
For almost two decades, there were hardly any breeders in the U.S., and the few who did breed only had one litter before deciding to stop. In 2014, Victoria Betterton of Monte Sano kennels submitted an application to AKC to initiate adding the Pyrenean Mastiff to the Foundation Stock Service of AKC so she could register her imported dogs. In April 2014, the Pyrenean Mastiff was officially accepted into the Foundation Stock Service program.
While the Pyrenean Mastiff Club of America was available, there was limited interaction with the public, and one of the primary goals of the club was not to allow the breed to enter AKC. However, several new breeders decided to work together to pursue AKC recognition for the breed. Pyrenean Mastiffs, however, did not really start to gain traction in the U.S. until 2018, when the Pyrenean Mastiffs USA Club (PMUSA) was formed to unite the breed community and begin working toward AKC recognition and breed education. PMUSA helped network potential owners and breeders to breeders overseas, which resulted in more than 40 imported dogs between 2018 and 2022. PMUSA had a huge push to educate the public about the Pyrenean Mastiff, which helped people learn more about the breed.
Elara de Estrella Escondido, a Russian Import and most-titled Pyrenean Mastiff in the U.S., owned by Karina Whittington.
However, in November 2021 the breed community took a huge hit. Conflicts and contention rose regarding topics around genetic diversity within the club that began in 2020 and ultimately led to the downfall and dissolution of PMUSA. At the end of 2021, Karen Haywood passed away, her De la Tierra Alta kennel and estate were dismantled, and PMCA was also now closed.
Ander de Estrella Polar, U.S. born, used for the PMAA club logo, owned by Pat Van Nelson and Michael Dilliplain.
The breed community wanted a new club to support and continue educating the public regarding the Pyrenean Mastiff, especially as more people became interested in the breed and the community was rapidly growing. Twelve individuals from various backgrounds, including breeders, owners and rescue advocates, joined together in December 2021 to begin working to establish a club with a stronger foundation, well-thought-out bylaws to protect the club and members, and an overall support structure that would hopefully grow with the breed. On July 31, 2022, the Pyrenean Mastiff Association of America (PMAA) officially opened its doors to membership and made itself known to AKC as the club working to gain AKC recognition. The PMAA board of directors worked with the community and AKC to meet all the requirements for Miscellaneous. We had one huge hurdle, and that was the vast majority of dogs that had come from De la Teirra Alta kennels either had the domestic PMCA registration or no registration at all despite their known lineage. Many upcoming breeders and owners who had purchased dogs from De la Tierra Alta and some other kennels in the United States approached PMAA for help in registering their dogs. PMAA decided to work with AKC FSS on establishing the Pyrenean Mastiff Association of America Registry Services. The PMAA Registry Services was officially launched in February 2023.
By May 2023, 43 Pyrenean Mastiffs of known parentage were able to get registered that otherwise may not have been able to gain registration. This was a beneficial move for the community so that we would not lose dogs in a breed that already has a small breeding population. This move was also a beneficial move for breeders in Canada who had gotten their foundation stock from De la Tierra Alta. Currently Canada does not have a Pyrenean Mastiff breed club, so they currently seek assistance and support from PMAA despite PMAA being the national breed club for the United States.
After almost exactly one year of being open to the public, it was officially announced that PMAA would be moving the breed forward to Miscellaneous with AKC as of June 26, 2024. This was a huge accomplishment for the breed community and shows how resilient the community was despite the obstacles that hit at the end of 2021.
Taran Maskin Junior Navarro. Photo: Anja Niiranen.
2022 was a record year for the Pyrenean Mastiff in North America for puppies born. In total 95 known puppies were born in the United States and Canada. Of the 95, 50 puppies were born to PMAA breeders in the United States, 20 puppies were born to club breeders in Canada, and 25 were born to non-club breeders. These 95 puppies were produced among nine breeders, which is the greatest number of breeders the Pyrenean Mastiff has had at any given time in North America. Parents or grandparents of the puppies born in the United States over the last few years have come from countries across Europe such as Spain, France, Finland, Italy, Ukraine, Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland and the United States.
We hope to see a continued spread of dogs being imported to the United States from countries across Europe. There have been three litters produced using imported frozen semen, with hopefully more to come. Due to the distance that North America is from the rest of the worldwide Pyrenean Mastiff community, imported semen is highly sought out by breeders in North America. Breeders want to promote genetic diversity and to prevent the overuse of males already within the country.
The Pyrenean Mastiff Association of America hopes to continue collaborating with breeders and other Pyrenean Mastiff clubs throughout Europe as the presence of the Pyrenean Mastiff continues to grow in North America. We plan to continue our efforts in educating and supporting owners, breeders and breed enthusiasts by making information more widely available to those who seek to learn about the breed in North America. Many are falling in love with the Pyrenean Mastiff in the United States and Canada, and we hope to do it justice in protecting and preserving this wonderful and beautiful breed.
Karina Whittington is president of the Pyrenean Mastiff Association of America.