“Champion Basquaerie Marsous, Great Pyrénées” (Edwin Megargee)
“Champion Basquaerie Marsous, Great Pyrénées” (Edwin Megargee)

By Mike McCoy, Executive Director, Kern County Museum 

Mike McCoy
Mike McCoy Executive Director, Kern County Museum

Anyone who has owned a country house or lived on a ranch or farm knows that the one essential member of the crew is a good dog. Archaeologists probing around in caves looking at the remains of early hunters always found the bones of dogs. And often the dogs are buried with their masters in a place of honor. Man and dogs have been partners in hunting and farming for millennia.

Early chronicles of California, during the mission and rancho eras, always mention dogs in their tales of daily life. These mixed breed curs had been part of Spanish armies often going into battle with the conquistadors wearing spiked collars. They easily adapted into the role of guard dogs at the missions, and some of the larger missions like Santa Barbara assigned a kennel attendant to feed, train and doctor the small posse of hounds. When the Spanish worked cattle, they also sometimes enlisted the help of dogs to round up and corral the wild Mexican longhorns.

Another vivid image of the California west was the lone Basque shepherd moving his herd of sheep through the Sierras with his dog as a working partner. The dogs would often bed down at night with the flock and fend off attacks from coyotes and cougars. These dogs were often mongrels and selected for their size and ability to endure hardships.

With the 20th century and improvements in transportation, also came more options for dog breeds for farms and ranches. Soon, western sheep and cattlemen recognized the value of the Border Collie and then later the Australian cattledog or Queensland Heeler. These working breeds were bright, loyal and bred to work cattle and sheep. They were smaller than the old Spanish curs but just as tough in a battle with a coyote or bobcat.

Border Collie in the bed of a pickup truck (Sandy Sharkey Photography)

One rancher joked that when his Border Collie wasn’t working with the sheep, the dog was helping his children with their homework. Easy to train and natural working dogs, the Border Collie was an instant hit in the west. Often Border Collies took the top prizes in herding trials and were much coveted for their tenacity and loyalty.

A new dog breed for the west began to pop up about 20 years ago to keep watch over sheep. The Great Pyrénées was an ancient breed that originated in France and also known as the Chien de Montagne des Pyrénées. Twice the size of a border collie or heeler, these great white beasts can weigh as much as 165 pounds. Legend has that these big dogs originated with Roman legions and were used as battle dogs.

Great Pyrénées were used by Basque shepherds for millennia with their thick leather collars studded with nails. With the eradication of bears and wolves in the French and Spanish mountains, the breed almost disappeared. The pups that were smuggled into Britain at the beginning of the 20th century became popular as pets and a recognized breed with dog fanciers.

Great Pyrénées finally came to America in the 1940s but as a pet. Show judges were reminded that the big heavy specimens were not good representatives of the breed. The true Great Pyrénées was lean, had a tough water-resistant coat and was built for herding.

With a new interest in gourmet cheese and lamb as a lean meat, California farms and ranches are home to the Great Pyrénées where they can be seen in their old role as protector. Wearing the traditional studded leather collar, they bed down with the sheep and are on instant alert at the intrusion of a predator.

I was on a farm recently in Northern California and saw a big white dog moving with the sheep. “He has a job to do,” said the young farmer. “He isn’t a pet and I have to keep reminding my children to let him do his job. He isn’t the friendly type.”

Our California farms and ranches will always have a cat or two in the barn and a dog in the bed of the pickup. That is the natural order of things and makes life richer for the dog and the farmer as it has for thousands of years.