History of the Pyrenean Mastiff

The breed background history of our Brandy.

Our Brandy!

In yesterday’s post I wrote about how we determined that our Brandy was a Pyrenean Mastiff (Spanish Mastin del Pirineo). In that search, into both the breeder and the history of the breed, we came across the website of De La Tierra Kennels located in Quartz Hill, California who are Pyrenean Mastiff breeders. As they state on their website:

Tierra Alta were the first kennel to introduce the Mastin del Pirineo to the U.S.A. Our kennels have produced excellent show potential pups bred from the finest imported and now domestic stock available – Tajadera del Tio Roy, Castillo de Ali, Do Limoeiro, De Domus, El Bellotero, Rocaforte, Larresalkoak, Del Paso del Oso, Moralet, Wela Brillante, Springstrand, Iirismaan, Bondadoso and Farma Stekot, Murtoi’s, Del Mostin and Can Cabot. Our foundation mostines are imports directly from Spain, Italy, Finland and the Czech Republic. Our kennels have also exported to Canada, Europe and Mexico. Our kennel has the broadest bloodlines for the PM in the U.S.A. and the largest number of Pyrenean Mastiffs in the country.

and two paragraphs later:

A Moment In History!

Breeder of Pyrenean Mastiffs since 1996: Tierra Alta kennels were proud to announce the arrival of the first Pyrenean Mastiff litter born in the U.S.A. October 1st, 1997

It was then quickly discovered that there is a breed association for Pyrenean Mastiffs and almost as quickly revealed that the breed association shares the same telephone number as the breeders. Nonetheless, I’m going to republish the history of the breed as it is presented on the website of the PMCA Pyrenean Mastiff Club of America.


Mastin de los Pirineos – Pyrenean Mastif

image12Statue of the Molossus Belonging to Olympias, daughter of the Molossian King Pyrrhus

Edited By Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald – “The Book Of The Dog


In the Middle Ages, the Christians in the north and the Moslems in the south of the Iberian peninsula were fighting against each other for the control of the land that would one day become known as Espana. In the Christian kingdoms, the business of wool and lambs was the livelihood of the people. At that time existed two hegemonic kingdoms in the yet unborn Spain, Castilla and Aragon. In these kingdoms, each having a very different way of life, were born two breeds of dogs.

In the wide and flat Castilla, the Mastin Espanol (Spanish Mastiff); in the heterogeneous and abrupt Aragon, the Mastin del Pirineo (Pyrenean Mastiff). The system of “trashumancia” in Castilla was completely homogeneous. The big herds had a lot of very detailed rules imposed by the “Honrado Concejo de la Mesta”. These rules included the way to treat the dogs, which was important, since these dogs defended the flocks from many risky situations across many thousands of miles. These big and valiant dogs are the breed we know today as the Spanish Mastiff.

In the kingdom of Aragon, the “Honrado Concejo de la Mesta” had no authority, and the herding rules differed from one valley to the next. The Pyreneans were home to many wolves and bears, and here another magnificent protector, the Pyrenean Mastiff or “Mostin”(from the old aragonish language) was employed.

As the centuries passed these systems continued. The river Ebro remained the border between these two excellent molosser breeds up until our day.

The Spanish Mastiff and Pyrenean Mastiff are both molossoid breeds. The Spanish Mastiff has a shorter coat, slightly bigger head and a little more skin on the throat. The Pyrenean Mastiff has a longer coat and his color is always white with an obligatory mask around the eyes and on the ears. In both cases, the texture of the coat is hard, not soft or wooly. In both breeds the head is important, the structure powerful, a wide chest and round ribs. The expression of the Spanish Mastiff is much “sweeter” than that of the expressive face of the Pyrenean Mastiff.

These two magnificent canine giants have conquered the hearts of many. They are both breeds of excellent temperament and indescribable charm. These Mastiff dogs do not require extensive care. They are healthy breeds that require to spend their days with someone who will be more of a friend and companion than just an “owner’. They are proud, strong and sure of themselves and a great piece of the history of Spain.


The dog we know as the Pyrenean Mastiff belongs to the breed of very big molosus dogs. These dogs were the guardians of the Aragonien sheep herds protecting them from predators such as the wolf and bear. The Mastiff from Navarra and Cataluna are included in the Pyrenean Mastiff of today. They were also used to protect houses, farms and castles.

In their work of protecting the herd they were assisted by the shepherd dog today known as Gos d’Atura Catala. In order to protect themselves while working the Pyrenean Mastiff used to wear a special collar called a “carlanca” generally made of iron with sharp protruding spikes. The collar was an extraordinary help in case of an attack from wolves or bears.

The time eventually came when the herds worst predators disappeared from the Pyreneas. This was around 1930 to 1940. The question of what to do with such a big dog with a large appetite was pondered by the farmers. Due to the lack of interest in this big dog it gradually began to disappear. This could have been disastrous for the breed had it not have been for a few big dog lovers who adopted the task of the breeds survival.

It was hard to feed such a big dog during the period just after the Spanish Civil War but it was obviously one that was accomplished. The great-great-grandchildren of these dogs are the seeds that have been used to revive the breed today. The Pyrenean Mastiff is part of the common origin of the molosus or molususlupoides to guard the livestock. It was distributed within different breeds in the southern part of Europe from Turkey to Portugal and from Caucaso to Sierra Morena.

In the Spanish breed the molosus factor dominates the lupoide one and its structure with a big skull, strong bones and round ribs makes it difficult to rest. The Pyrenean Mastiff is a rectangular dog, thick, big head and wide breast. The ears should be implanted over the eyes line and not too big. The eyes should be intelligent and dark. Overall the Pyrenean Mastiff shall show his power and his strength. The base color of the coat should always be white. The eyes and ears should always be colored. The hair should be long and thick. The Pyrenean Mastiff character is noble, tame with the children and with the people who get along well with the dog, but implacable with those who dare to challenge him.

Often people who are unfamiliar with the breed may say that these dogs are very big and very stupid. Those who refer to the breed in this context are usually more familiar with the barking-attacking anyone or anything without any reason type of dog. The Pyrenean Mastiff is and was a very calm dog possibly due to the fact that his function depended on that. It is a very self reliant dog and barks very little. However if necessary it can be extremely aggressive although it only comes to this point if there really is no other way out. The Pyrenean Mastiff is quiet, good and equilibrated in practically all circumstances. The Pyrenean Mastiff is a dog happy to put on a collar and walk patiently by the side of his owner.

“To each his own” as the saying is known. However in the case of the Pyrenean Mastiff there are some helpful points to look for in the breed: More importance should be placed on the massivity than the size, and to the head rather than the tail. A deeper breast than the elbows rather than shorter and poor. Preferably a too aggressive dog to a too timid one. A deep face profile to a “wolf- thin” profile. A dog with open toes, but extremely strong bones rather than one with perfect toes and too light in the bones or too flat of a breast and ribs. It is more important to seek maybe some incorrect teeth in a powerful and big head rather than some perfect teeth in a “wolfie” head. The ultimate dog is strong, rustic, powerful and full of typicity rather than an “elegant” or “harmonic” or “changed” one.

As previously noted ten to twelve years after the Spanish Civil War the breed was less abundant. With the onset of the seventies, lover of the Spanish dog breeds began to research dogs in the mountains and in the rest of Aragon for the dog that perhaps could belong to the beloved Spanish breed, the old and great molossus from Aragon. The Club del Mastin del Pirineo de Espana (Spanish Pyrenean Mastiff Club) was founded in 1977. It is an association where all breeders, owners and lovers of the breed united to become the most important club dedicated to a Spanish breed. Some years after their beginning the only *monographic book about the Pyrenean Mastiff was written by the club. The international history of the Pyrenean Mastiff is only beginning. Today there are about 4000 Pyrenean Mastiffs in their homeland of Spain.


Origin: Spain.

The Pyrenean mastiff is a native of the southern slopes of the Pyrenees mountains. The mastiff was developed in the region of the Pyrenean Mountains that stretches from Aragon to Navarra. The breed was once known as the Navarra mastiff. The breed was at one time almost extinct but has gained new interest in recent years. It is still rare despite this. It is also known as the Mastiff of Navarre and the Mastin d’Aragon.

The Pyrenean mastiff should not be confused with its French counterpart, the Great Pyrenees.

The Phoenecian traders acquired mastiffs in Assyria and Sumeria. These dogs were sold in Spain where they were to be bred as working dogs and their heritage can be traced back to the great Asiatic mastiffs.

Description: It is a strong, powerful and tall dog of elegant beauty. Ideal height at the withers for males is 32 inches/81 cm and 29 1/2 inches/75 cm for females. Life expectancy is about 12 -14 years.

The Pyrenean mastiff has such a light step that it hardly leaves any footprints. It posesses a large, long and strong head and long muzzle with a black nose. The skull is slightly rounded, broad and convex, prominent occiput and a wide, deep muzzle. The head should be massive and broad. The neck is powerful and surrounded by loose skin and hanging double dewlaps. The face is symmetrical and the eyes are small and dark with the lower eye lid showing. The ears are pointed and pendant. Although the ears can be cropped and the tail docked, this is not recommended. The tail is carried low and has a fringe and should have a curl at the tip and although it stands up when active, is never carried over the back. The body should be rectangular, well muscled and with strong bone. The back is level, slightly hollow and more inclined toward the withers.

The Pyrenean mastiff has a thick, abundant and coarse coat that is medium long on the body but is slightly longer on the throat and neck. Coat colors most frequently seen are white with markings either golden, any shade of grey, black or badger, sand, red or marbling markings on the sides of the head and ears and the beginning of the neck. Markings may also be found on the posterior. Least prized dogs are those to have black and white markings. No matter what the markings the main body color is always white. A few large patches on the body are permissible but not in all white or tricolored dogs. The fore and hindquarters are strong with plenty of bone and muscle. The forefeet are not very large with toes that are closed and well arched. Double dewclaws on the hindlegs are typical but NOT obligatory in this breed.


Silent, friendly and intelligent

Uses: The Pyrenean mastiff is a flock guardian, hunter of wild game, personal guardian and working dog. It is an excellent sheep protector, resistant to cold weather and capable of fighting off predators such as wolves.

Every Spring, for many centuries, the shepherds of the Pyrenees would move their large flocks from the lower mountain plains to grazing areas in the high, mountain valleys. The Pyrenean mastiff aided in moving and protecting these flocks during the trip. Four or five dogs would take charge of up to a thousand sheep. The mastiff was equipped with a heavy spiked collar known as a “carlanca” in order to protect the neck during a wolf attack. The mastiff was regognized as a distinct breed in the latter part of the last century. It is a reliable, obedient and protective companion.

All along the southern third part of Europe, from Caucase to Sierra Morena and from Lisboa to Stambul, exist, and have existed during centuries past, molosoid and lupo – molosoid large breeds of dogs. These dogs are dedicated traditionally to guard the ewe herds, and have adapted both their physical and mental abilities to the different circumstances, countries, climates, etc., where their jobs have taken them.

We have known guarding breeds such as the Anatolian Karabash, the Komondor, the Ovtcharka, the Kuvasz, the Polish Tatra, the Maremma – Abruzzese, the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, the Mastin Espanol, the Rafeiro de Alentejo, the Estrela Mountain Dog and others. Among them, one of the more fascinating breeds is the Pyrenean Mastiff (Mastin de los Pirineos). This breed is one of the most primitive breeds of flock guardian dogs.

The Pyrenean Mastiff, like the Mastin Espanol (Spanish Mastiff) breed, was influenced in the past from the blood of molosser dogs coming probably to Spain through the South (Cadiz or “Gadir”) proceeding from Asia in the Phoenecian boats. This influence produced two different types of large and powerful dogs perfectly adapted for the job that would be required to do for so many centuries, protecting the lambs against the wolf and the bear.

There were two molossoid Spanish breeds, the Mastin del Pirineo and the Mastin Espanol. The first of these two lived in the north – east part of Spain and the latter in the center, in the area of Castilla and Leon. In the middle age times when both breeds became established, the lands of Aragon and Cataluna were independent and this was where the Pyrenean Mastiff was living. The Mastin del Pirineo can compare his history to that of the Pyrenean Mountain Dog because they have many breed similarities.

Imagine that the Pyreneans valleys direction was north-south and both sides belonged to the Navarra-Aragon-Cataluna crown or in essence to Spain. This situation changed in 1659, when Mazarino, the Regent of France and Philippe IV, King of Spain signed a decree through which France acquired the Northern side of the Pyreneans. From that time on, the French raised their dogs in their own direction and style, hence leading to a characteristic type that later became known as Chien de Montagne des Pyrenees (Pyrenean Mountain Dog/Great Pyrenees). In the Southern Pyrenees, the Spanish chose to remain with the traditional type dogs, working dogs that were more primitive and wide, less refined and homogeneous. During the international expansion that the official cynology has experienced in our twentieth century, both breeds have had opposite appeal.

The Pyrenean Mountain Dog (Great Pyrenees) has enjoyed great recognition due to the excellent selection efforts of the French breeders and those of other countries also. The Spanish Pyrenean Mastiff was barely surviving as a breed, still working in his traditional role as guardian of the lambs, until the middle of this century when the last wolf was killed off in the Spanish Pyreneans. In the forties and fifties Spain was in poor shape, still trying to recuperate from the effects of a civil war. A large breed such as this, that eats a lot and with no useful job to perform in its homeland became a heavier burden on the people during such hard times and with each passing year their numbers began to diminish as a pure breed. In the seventies, a new passion grew among many people who had an interest in the Spanish breed. Gradually the Pyrenean Mastiff began to make a comeback, although far from the wolves and lambs, but closer to a bigger friend, man.

Today people are beginning to once again take an interest in the Pyrenean Mastiff. If luck is on the side of this large and wonderful Spanish breed, it will this time enjoy the recognition that it rightfully deserves.

 Information provided by Rafael Malo

Story translated and edited by Karin S.Graefe


 I closed yesterday’s post with these words:

Further research on this breed has turned up some very interesting information. Come back tomorrow to read that and what we discovered when we spoke to the breeder.

Well you have had the interesting information and later I had a wonderful conversation with Karin Graefe of that breeder; De La Tierra Alta Kennels in Oakdale, California. (See footnote.)

In a web search for other PM breeders I came across Pyrenean Mastiffs de Monte Sano based in Alabama. Here’s what you read on their website home page:

6728899Pyrenean Mastiffs de Monte Sano owner, Victoria Betterton, is an active member of the Pyrenean Mastiff Club of Spain (Club Del Mastín Del Pirineo De España (C.M.P.E)) and is the US representative for the club. 

Located in Huntsville Alabama, we have done a lot of research into the Pyrenean Mastiff breed and have worked hard to bring wonderful specimens to the USA.  Our dogs are the result of the vision of breeders that are among the best in Italy and Spain.  These breeders have become good friends as these dogs are now a loving part of our family.

The Pyrenean Mastiff has recently been added to the American Kennel Club’s (AKC’s) Foundation Stock Service (FSS).  Our breeding dogs are registered with FSS as well as with both the Federación Canófila de Puerto Rico (FCPR) for Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) approved registry purposes, and the United Kennel Club (UKC) for show purposes.  All our dogs and their offspring can also be registered with all of the smaller clubs that accept FCI approved or UKC registrations such as the American Rare Breed Association (ARBA). 

I called them and it was Victoria who took the call. I explained the circumstances of Brandy coming into our lives and then sent her an email with some photographs of Brandy. This was her reply:

Hi Paul,

It could be that Brandy has Pyrenean Mastiff in him, but I doubt he is purebred. The jowls, and especially the coloring is not characteristic.  He doesn’t have near the droop in the lip of typical PMs, and he is missing way too much white, especially on the nose.  While there are PMs with darker muzzles, they always have some white or they are not considered correct for the breed.  I’d say he is definitely a mix of something and PM or GP.  If you could trace the owner by microchip, you may be able to find out.

He is a beautiful dog.  I wonder why they clipped him.  I never clip mine.  The hair protects from cold and heat both.

Best Regards, Vicki Betterton

Clearly more to find out!


Later in the afternoon I had a most delightful conversation with Karin Graefe of De la Tierra Alta Kennels in California who came up with another possible explanation of Brandy’s roots. More of that another day. But can’t resist telling you that in my call with Karin it was very quickly established that she joins me and Jean in being another Londoner as she was born in Kensington. Small world at times!

18 thoughts on “History of the Pyrenean Mastiff

  1. I was going to say the extracts were obviously translated from Spanish as there were some odd constructions, and then, I got to the bottom where it said, translated …

    It’s interesting to end up with a breed that you know little about. Until we took in puppy Snowy, we knew nothing about Podencos.


  2. Well Paul, he may not be a purebred, but I reckon your Brandy is much better looking and more cuddly looking than any of the others shown – as nice as they are…. 🙂


  3. I was wondering if Pyrenean meant from France…guess I wasn’t too far off. I really don’t much like the breed snobbery that comes out regarding purebreds sometimes -if Brandy was completely PM who cares if he didn’t have enough white in his face? Unless you plan to breed showdogs, the perfection doesn’t matter. My sister was told her Setter wasn’t up to breed standards because her tail was too straight…seriously? Anyway, I didn’t mean to rant about that, just something that has bothered me over the years of having a family with dogs (now it’s two Bassett Hound puppies, a three year old Red and White Irish Setter and a Standard Poodle). Your Brandy is a sweetheart and I look forward to reading more about your adventures together.


    1. Totally agree! With the majority of the dogs here being ex-rescues purity of breed is bottom of the pile. No, our interest in where Brandy comes from is more to do with finding out when he was born and how he ended up living just a couple of miles from us.


  4. This is an excellent post with worthwhile info if any of your followers “are dog people” or care to expand their knowledge. I like reading about a breed that I’ve only heard about or know very little. Yesterday I watched the video made by the Graefe’s while they were in Spain about 1996. That guy that she apparently got her stock from, had oodles of dogs and I was intrigued by the fact that he had several other small dogs of varying breeds running around his compound.


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