There is a range of personalities among the dogs in any breed, Pyrs included, and while there is a general temperament associated with Pyrs, there are exceptions to the rule. I have seen a Pyr follow its owner around off leash without running off — once. Those dogs exist, but they are not the norm. Our Pyr, Leonidas, is. That’s why he ended up in rescue. His previous owner, who loved him, could not contain him in a too-short fence, and Leo was picked up by animal control many times for roaming until his owner was no longer able to retrieve him. If CGPR hadn’t taken him, Leonidas would have been put down. That’s a normal scenario explaining how many Pyrs end up in rescue. CGPR rehomes about 150 Pyrs each year. Most of the dogs come to rescue from shelters and were picked up as strays while roaming. Likewise, the owners who surrender dogs to us often do so because their Pyrs have repeatedly jumped short fences or went through electric fences. In some cases, these people shouldn’t have had a dog, but in others, these were good dog owners who didn’t have the means to care for a Pyr in their current living situation. It is not uncommon for a family living in a neighborhood with an HOA that prohibits fencing over four feet high to have to rehome a dog that can sail over a short fence.
People who aren’t familiar with the breed’s history often misunderstand some key aspects of their protective nature. Pyrs are guardians. That does not mean that they are interchangeable with an alarm system or a lock on a door that will stay put in one place. Rather, a working Pyr is hardwired to move around and roam in order to protect its territory and the things it considers its own within those boundaries. For this reason, the normal behavior expected of this breed is to want to take walk-abouts; they are designed to guard their flock by policing or patrolling. I have gotten used to seeing Leonidas walk the boundaries of our fence and pee along it each time we let him out. He’s doing his job no less than if he never left my side. It is unusual for them to want to always stay physically close to one human, although certainly some Pyrs do that. We have policies in place that respect the history of the breed and the purpose which it has so long served, however.
Fences that keep Pyrs in also keep out other animals and people. Pyrs get put down (or almost do, if it weren’t for rescues) for perceived aggression because they attacked something that came into their territory. We get calls from animal control officers who seized a Pyr for biting, in particular, another dog or cat. In nearly all of these situations, the owners had failed to create a safe boundary around their Pyr with a fence. The same protective nature we admire in these dogs prompts some Pyrs to react when strange animals or people approach. It is unfair to blame a Pyr for biting in these situations, and yet this is what happens. Tie-outs and electric fences only increase the likelihood of such incidents because they tend to aggravate Pyrs and don’t prevent others from coming near the dog.
For this reason, some animal control offers and kennel workers perceive Pyrs to be an aggressive (as opposed to a protective) breed. Those of us who regularly pull Pyrs from shelters for CGPR have interacted with staff who are shocked to see us fearlessly and lovingly greeting these dogs, including putting collars on them and loading them into our cars protected only by calm tones of voice and treats. I’ll never forget the first time I met a kennel worker who thought Pyrs were vicious. My love of the breed surprised her as much as her fear confused me.
As a breed-specific rescue, it is our job to help educate others, especially animal control staff, about the temperament of Pyrs. Occasionally, a Pyr is aggressive, and we volunteers always are watching for that when interacting with new dogs. In those cases, we make the sad call to humanely euthanize a dog that is a danger to humans. Thankfully, this is very rare. Sadly, a good Pyr who reacted with its mouth in a bad situation that wasn’t its fault is not, and we are lucky that many of the people who work in our state’s shelters recognize this about Pyrs and other guardian breeds. Otherwise, these dogs wouldn’t get second chances. Although not targeted nearly as often as other breeds, like pit bulls, Great Pyrs have been included in breed specific legislation, or “breed bans,” and some home insurance companies charge higher premiums to those who own breeds deemed “vicious.” It the duty of responsible Pyr owners to prevent the context for dog bites. Fencing is one of the best ways to do that. We who understand their temperament and love Pyrs are their best advocates.
CGPR has been around since 1992 and has placed over two thousand dogs. CGPR experiences a very low rate of returns, and that’s because the rules that we put in place generally work. While in rescue and foster homes, the president and volunteers interact with the dogs in order to learn who pushes boundaries, correct problem behaviors, and ensure that dogs are placed successfully with humans who can care for them properly. We make the decisions we do because we love these dogs. Sometimes, they need a high fence and, preferably, a privacy fence that prevents the dog from even seeing the temptation on the other side or getting any traction if it does. For this reason, otherwise good potential owners will be told “no” and encouraged to consider another Pyr, and that dog will remain in rescue until the right home is found. We have never put down a dog for jumping, but we’ve waited to place many a dog until the right home became available. It is better than the alternative. It is heartbreaking for both loving dog owners and for the dogs when an adoption fails and the Pyr comes back to rescue. When we know a dog is a jumper or climber, we place them with a family with a tall fence, and when a dog we didn’t suspect of being an escape artist is returned, we do our best to get it right the second time. To not do so would be negligent and cruel.
Every now and again, there might be a dog that Shannon, the current president, thinks does not need a fence. She’ll make that call. The majority of Pyrs who come into rescue do fit the normal temperament of the breed, however.
Unfortunately, that means we sometimes say “no” to really nice people. It isn’t personal. Some people try to argue. They say their relationship with their Pyr will be different and that they will train their Pyr to never roam or jump. I smile. This is akin to expectant parents declaring their son or daughter will never test their boundaries, disobey, or leave home. I’m sure that child exists, but, as a professional educator, I have never met him or her!
I also know these people don’t intend to be insulting, but what kind of relationships, pray tell, do they think we volunteers have with our Pyrs? One of the privileges of volunteering for a dog rescue is being able to bear witness to the loving, amazing, almost-can’t-find-words-for-it bonds that the Pyrs we’ve rescued have with the humans who’ve adopted them. A Pyr can sleep in a person’s bed, snuggle with them on the sofa, and obviously love them to the moon and back – and still want to take walk-abouts precisely because it is a Pyr.
That’s our Leonidas. In a dangerous situation, Leonidas would give his life to protect us, and Leonidas darted out of our yard twice before we reinforced those weak spots — not because he hated us but because he wants to guard his neighborhood, the place we walk each day and that he marks. All of us who volunteer with rescue have stories about our dogs’ escapes. We search frantically until we find the Pyrs, sometimes nearby in chicken coops but often miles away. All of these dogs are loved by and love their owners. Many of these dogs have had years of training. Some are even therapy dogs. It doesn’t matter. First for foremost, they are Pyrs.
Some people who know and like Leonidas are disappointed when we tell them they can’t adopt through CGPR without a fence and, no, we don’t have the ability to make an exception to the fence rule and wouldn’t even if we could. People who don’t know a lot about the breed will be impressed by a well-trained Pyr, but they don’t know the work that went into that dog (and still does) unless those of us who are responsible Pyr owners tell them. We emphasize to people who like Leonidas that our well-trained, mature Pyr, who is very bonded with us and often (not always) listens to our commands, is not what they’ll get from a young Pyr straight out of rescue. Dogs are work, and even after putting in a lot of it, we don’t fool ourselves that Leonidas wouldn’t still jump a fence in a heartbeat. We know this because even though our yard is as now secure as Fort Knox, we caught him trying to escape from a vacation house last summer. Leonidas loves his beach get-aways. He lives for cookouts, ice cream, snacks, and constant petting. His instinct to roam has nothing to do with how much he loves his family or his accommodations, however. He’s a Pyr.
I hope this article clarifies why our fence policies are securely in place (pun intended). I marvel at the Pyr who is the exception to the rule I’ve described here. I know fences are expensive because we saved to put up our six foot fence, and yet I think the cost well worth the return in what I get from my dogs. I understand why Martha says “no” to families without a fence, and why, like home visits and vet checks and spaying/neutering the dogs, in the course of our rescue work, these things are not negotiable.