Nature & Mountains

What to do if you meet a Patou sheepdog in the mountains

Bred to guard and protect sheep, the Patou sheepdog is easily recognised by its heavy build and thick white coat.

You are certain to come across one if you are walking in the mountains in the summer – you’ll find them around flocks of sheep or goats grazing in the mountains.

Although they are very affectionate to their masters, they are wary of strangers who come too close to their herd. Any stranger who approaches the flock is seen as a threat, and that’s when the Patou can become dangerous.

So what should you do if you come across a Patou in the mountains? Here’s a guide to how to behave.

How to recognise a Patou

Here are a few of the Patou’s main characteristics, to help you get to know the breed better:

🐕 Also known as: Pyrenean mountain dog

🗺️ Origin: France 

⚖️ Weight: 50-59kg for females, 56-64kg for males

📏 Size: 65-75cm (to the withers) for females and 80cm for males

📅 Life expectancy: 10 to 12 years 

🐾 Characteristics: long, thick white hair which enables it to withstand extreme weather conditions

A Patou, recognisable by its thick white hair, guards a flock of sheep
The Patou is a sheepdog with an imposing size © Office de tourisme Toumalet – Pic du Midi

How is a sheepdog trained?

This independent and strong-willed dog has to be educated and trained from an early age if it is to become a successful sheepdog. A Patou destined to guard flocks will not be trained in the same way as a family pet.

To become a herding dog, the Patou is raised as a pup with sheep and goats, allowing it to form a close bond with the animals. It might even believe it is one of them. With time, the Patou will think of the herd as its family and will do anything to protect them.

These dogs are very intelligent and will quickly learn the rules they are given.

Now let’s look at how you should behave if you come across a Patou in the mountains.

1. Avoid the flock

If you come across a flock of sheep or goats on your outing, try to go around them where possible. If you are far enough away, the dog should not approach you. It may bark to warn you off and encourage you to stay away, but it should not come up to you.

2. Stay calm

However, if barking is not enough to dissuade any potential attackers, you will have to be extra careful. The dog will then try to come between the threat and the herd and will be ready to attack if you don’t turn back.

If the dog does approach you, the best thing to do is to stop and let it come to you. Don’t run, stay calm, face it and give it time to smell and identify you. You should avoid sudden movements, shouting, or any other behaviour that could be interpreted as a threat.

If you can, put an object of some sort (a hat, backpack, jacket, etc) between you and the dog. This will put some distance between you while he checks you out.

It’s also a good idea to let it know you are coming by warning it calmly of your presence. You could do this by speaking quietly, or even a yawn! To dogs, yawning is considered a sign of appeasement.

These gestures should show the dog that you are not a threat to the animals. You can then gradually move away from the herd.

© Parc du Massif des Bauges

3. Avoid any behaviour that the Patou could find confrontational

Don’t give the Patou any reason to think that you are there to confront it. Avoid looking the dog in the eye and do not threaten it with a stick or any other object. It could take these gestures as signs of domination or aggression.

4. Don’t touch the animals 

It’s tempting, we know, to approach the flock and stroke the lambs. But this could put you in danger. Remember, the herding dog is there to protect the flocks. If you get too close, it will see this as an act of aggression towards the animals it is protecting.

Be even more careful if you have children with you. Make sure they know about Patous, and know not to stroke the dog or the animals. The Patou is not a pet – it should not be stroked.

A Patou rests in the snow with its flock of sheep
The Patou watches over its flocks day and night, to prevent attacks from intruders © Federica Giusti

5. Do not restrain your dog

If you are walking with a dog, your first instinct might be to pick it up when a sheepdog approaches. This is not the right thing to do. If contact is made with the Patou, our advice is to let it run free. However, if you have time, put it on a lead and go around the herd.

6. Advice for cyclists

If you are on a bike, the advice is much the same as it is for walkers. The only difference is that if you come across a herding dog, you might be tempted to speed up to get away from it. That’s not a good idea! It might encourage the Patou to chase you.

Our advice is to slow down or even stop and get off your bike, before following the advice given above for walkers.

If you are hiking in the Alps this summer, and you come across a sheepdog, you now know how to behave. This video shows what you should and shouldn’t do. It’s a good idea to watch it with your children so that they also know how to behave in this situation. (Apply auto-translated subtitles for English).

Jean-Marc Landry, an expert in herd protection dogs, offers his advice on how to deal with them.

If, after taking all the right precautions, you still encounter a problem with a sheepdog, get an incident form from the local Mairie, tourist office, guide office or mountain centre, fill it in and hand it back. This form was designed by Direction Départmentale des Territoires to improve relations between those using mountain pastures and sheepdogs.

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