Patou
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Whether you are walking or flying in the French Alps or Pyrenees, you will eventually encounter a patou. This is not some kind of appetising patisserie that you smell when flying over the local bakery in the morning, even though it sounds like it. No, it is a dog that guards sheep against threats such as wolves, wild dogs, thieves, tourists, and paragliding pilots of course.

Patou among its family.They are usually big, white and strong. They have grown up with the sheep and consider them as their own. It is hard to say whether they see themselves as sheep, or whether they consider the sheep to be dogs. It does not really matter anyway, since the outcome is the same: they developed a (very) protective behaviour towards their comrades. Anything or anyone that comes near the sheep is observed, analysed, warned if needed, and eventually attacked if this warning is not heeded.

When the wolves disappeared from the mountains, the patou largely disappeared as well. Now that wolves have come back in recent years, the patou has reappeared to help the shepherd. Patous need an aggressive attitude against wolves, otherwise they would not be helpful or stand a chance. That is why some shepherds think that their patou(s) need an aggressive attitude to anything strange. They are afraid that if patous that are friendly with humans, they are likely to be friendly with wolves as well. Which in my opinion is an insult to the noble king of canines.

I think it is more likely to be a question of balance. A patou that resembles a toy dog is no use at all against wolves, while an overly aggressive patou is a nuisance (to say the least) and in the long run will not help the shepherds. If there are too many terror patous, this will hurt tourism, and thus the local economy, and thus the shepherds. Following the rules would benefit both shepherds and walkers.

So, some patous might be nasty (or is it their owner?), but in general they are not dangerous when you are not considered a threat. Most patous just need a little time to identify you as a non-threat before you are allowed to move on. You could try and force your way, but the average human is probably no match for a patou unless adequately armed. Stay calm to be identified as a non-threat. Do not make aggressive (abrupt) movements such as waving your walking sticks in the air (or point them at the sheep, for heavens sake!). Give the patou some time to observe and analyse (sniff) you. Do not position yourself between the patou and the sheep. Go around the herd. Do not go near the sheep. You could try and get near the patou to caress or cuddle it, but that is unlikely to work (exceptions exist though) and should be avoided to prevent the patou from becoming a toy dog (see above). Try and circumvent the patou and its herd. Yes I know, this can be complicated when the sheep are scattered all over the place, but the patou(s) are there to help you identify the herd's boundaries.

Most patous I have encountered are nice, hard working (during the night that is) and good looking dogs. If a patou gets aggressive, it simply means that you are just too close to the herd according to the patou's liking. Just back-off and find another way around the herd (and the patou). Because patous are likely to encounter more tourists than wolves or wild dogs, most of them are well adapted to meeting unknown humans. Beware though during the night! There are all kinds of dark and threatening activities going on at night, and patous are very well aware of that. A shepherd once told me that it was near to impossible for him to get to his herd at night because the patou would not allow it.

Although it does not seem obvious at first sight, patous are known by insiders to have a keen sense of aerological conditions. Of course I observe the (big) birds to guide me when flying, but I will also have an ear ready for a bark from below.

On several occasions I have encountered patous that would tell me to stay away from places that were either more dangerous or less optimal than alternatives nearby. I remember landing on a mountain pass once, about 100 m short of passing it. I field-packed my glider to walk the last metres in order to take off from the other side, when I was stopped by a patou. This was not the pretty, friendly looking white one, but rather the mean looking weathered wolf-like type that stays outside night and day, and never sees a hairdresser in his life. The kind you do not mess with. He had a bit of an angry look over him and showed no intend of letting me pass to the other side of the pass. So, heeding my own advice above, I walked 100 m back instead of forward. Cursing the patou, I packed my glider and walked up 300 m.

After finding my way through the trees and bushes, I finally arrived at the foot of a 200 m vertical cliff: the mountain top. The patch of grass that I had seen from below, was indeed the size of my glider. It allowed a decent take-off, considering the circumstances.

While continuing my flight, I noticed that the patou had actually warned me for the lee on the other side of the mountain pass. The expected uphill breeze there was less strong than expected, so instead of convergence there was turbulence. The altitude I had gained by walking up allowed me to to fly over the lee area and rejoin the thermal activity on the other side. The first thermal was just a few hundred metres further than I had counted on, but I would have missed it completely if I had insisted on my original flight plan. (Did you notice the elegant way in which I avoided the words rotor, crash, and tree landing?!) Thanks to the patou, I finished the last ten kilometres in 20 minutes flying, instead of five hours walking.

On another occasion I was flying a ridge, when a patou warned me not to continue. I was expecting to soar my way along it up to a big mountain, so I was a bit surprised by its advice. I heeded its warning anyway and the proposed detour worked excellent. Later on, when the patou was not there, I tried my original flight plan. It turned out that I had overlooked a small but powerful lee side at the foot of that big mountain, caused by a cliff just a bit further down the valley. Being low, the patou could clearly judge the height of that cliff as being aerologically important. Being high, I underestimated its height and thus its influence. The higher you are, the flatter the earth.

So, once again, a patou proposed flight plan turned out to be much better than mine. Of course, this no longer surprises me at all. I would not even be surprised if it turned out that a patou would be able to read my mind. Currently I am studying the patou language. Considering its importance for free flight, I expect to master it much better than the French language.

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2009-11-14