Hike / Trail

Guard dogs in the Alps: how to behave if you meet a big white sheep dog when hiking

The Alps are renowned as a hiking haven, with thousands of hikers coming to the Alps year round to conquer peaks, or to just get out in the Alpine air.

When hiking in the Alps it is not unusual to encounter herds of sheep high in the hills. These herds are protected by large white sheep dogs known as ‘Pastou’. Though the dogs are not trained to attack there have been cases of hikers being bitten, which can thoroughly spoil your day out. These cases are almost always due to the hiker not knowing how to behave around the dog and his herd.

In this post we will give you a few pointers on what to do if you do come across a Pastou on the hill, so that you can enjoy your holiday without a worry!

So why are they there?

The use of Pastou as protection for livestock was reintroduced after the return of bears, lynxes and wolves to the French Alps. The dogs are born and raised amongst the herd they protect and they form strong social bonds with them. They are there primarily as a deterrent, to scare off the large predators in the area. When they sense danger they will place themselves between the flock and the intruder and bark. If the intruder fails to heed the warning the dog might be provoked to attack.

Best practice to avoid confrontation while hiking

Alpine guard dog watching over his flock in the French Alps

As mentioned above, the Pastou will defend the flock at the arrival of an intruder. The flock can easily be disturbed by you, whether you are hiking alone, with a dog of your own, mountain biking, etc. The dog will instantly be on alert when you arrive and will come up to sniff you to identify you. He will normally return to the flock, however he may try to intimidate you. To avoid an unpleasant experience follow these simple best practices:

Don’t panic

  • If you come across a herd while hiking, make a wide detour around where the animals are grazing or resting.
  • Be aware of how you act when near a flock. Even if the dog is acting in a friendly manner, what you might think is harmless behavior (taking photographs, trying to feed or pet the dog, sheep or lambs) can easily be misinterpreted as an attack.  
  • If you end up face to face with a Pastou, act camly and passively to reassure him that you are not a threat. Do not run away, shout or throw anything at him.
  • If the dog does try to intimidate you, turn slowly around and walk away. And if he follows you remain calm and ignore him, he will follow you until he feels you are a safe distance from his flock.
  • Do not let your children approach the Pastou or flock. The dogs often look large and cuddly so children could easily want to stroke them.
  • If hiking with your dog, keep them on a lead at all times. If your dog is off lead and reaches the flock before you do they are much more likely to cause the Pastou to become defensive. Keep your dog on it’s lead to avoid any aggressive behavior from the Pastou.
  • If you are on a bike it is recommended to dismount before passing the herd as this is less disturbing.
  • The presence of flocks and Pastou is usually well signposted. Keep an eye out for the signs and the flocks!

Informative signpost about Pastou or guard dogs

Respect is the aim of the game

Remember also that even though it can be a nuisance to have to alter your course because of a Pastou, it is also unpleasant for the herd every time a hiker approaches.

The aim of this article is not to make you paranoid about meeting a ‘Pastou’ when hiking. Remember that the majority of accidents happen because the people involved do not know what to do. We want you to be able to enjoy your holiday in the Alps to the full and being in the know helps you do so!

For more information on this subject contact the local tourism office. You can pick up information leaflets there with all of the above information so you can take it on your walk with you.

Visit our blog for more posts on how to turn your holiday into a truly exceptional experience.

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