The Maremma Sheepdog

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I love all dogs, but these dogs, these dogs own my heart. Maximus was my first Livestock Guardian dog. I did a lot of research before adding an LGD to my farm. Prior to Max, I had Llamas as guards and Llamas can be great guards for sheep and goats, but only against strange dogs or sometimes coyotes. Mine guarded themselves and not the other animals and I’ve had 7 Llamas.

I did not however pick Max because he was a Maremma – I was actually told by his owner he was a Great Pyrenees, and I also broke a couple golden rules – although at the time I didn’t realize I was breaking them. Max was almost 4 months old when I got him and he had been living in a house – well a garage, but not on a farm, and he’d never been around livestock at all. Ideally any LGD breed should be born or at least exposed to livestock as early as possible.

Once we went to the Vet and discovered he was a Maremma, and most likely purebred or nearly, because he has no Pyrenees in him for sure, it didn’t mean much to me at the time, except that most of my research had been done on Great Pyrs. All of the livestock guardian breeds, Pyrs, Maremmas, Anatolian’s, Akbash, etc, do instinctively want to guard, just as a Husky instinctively wants to run, and a Border Collie wants to herd. But they do have their differences, and not just in appearances.

Max was fine with the animals right away thankfully but he did things I was told no Pyrenees should ever do – he herded the animals. Other LGD owners told me, an LGD should never herd – never.

The other thing he did that surprised me was bark at birds and planes. He was very aware of threats from the air and not just the ground. He also didn’t bark all the time – just when there was an actual threat. For example, when dogs across the lake are barking he never responds because he knows they are far away. He barks ONLY when there is a threat, someone arriving, or something happening. I just thought he was an exceptional dog – and he is… not all dogs are created equal, even of the same breed. I always say breed does come into play absolutely, and then so does the individual personality of the dog. But I have since learned a lot of these things – including herding – herding to safety, and the being aware of threats from the air, are Maremma traits.

I trained Max on basic commands, walking on a leash (in case I needed him on leash), how to sit, stay, to respect the gates, and fences. But that was it. Everything else was already there, all the foundation work and the urge to guard whatever he considered his herd, including me, was as natural to him as breathing.

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When it came time to get another LGD so he wouldn’t be alone, and so he could train a younger dog, I got a purebred Great Pyrenees, Flavious, who was 8 weeks old and born in a sheep pen with the sheep. I brought him home, and he went straight to school learning from Max. Max gladly took him under his wing (paw?) and started teaching him the ropes. Flavious was fine with all of the stock right away and he just followed Max’s lead on everything.

I quickly learned some things about Great Pyrenees that I did not like as much as the Maremma’s… sorry Great Pyr people, I still love them too! But Great Pyr’s are more prone to barking. Constantly. At nothing. At least Flavious is, like I said, not all dogs are equal of the same breed. He barks a lot for no reason and once he starts barking he doesn’t stop. I live in the bush so this isn’t an issue for me, but still. He also barks at us non stop when we are working around the house or splitting wood, or making any noise at all. He doesn’t notice any threat from the air – but that’s normal… and his coat needs a lot of care, obviously he mats very easy and hates being groomed so it’s tough to manage. He’s also more prone to infection and injury and Flavious is a bit of a coward. He adores the livestock and Max, and me, and he has been brave upon occasion, but only with Max by his side.

Having said that, The Great Pyrenees is not usually a cowardly dog. Flavious has been a bit of wuss since he was a pup. Which is OK. He watches the livestock, he’s a gentle giant, and a goofball, and I love him regardless.

But back to the Maremma. Their coat is very easy to manage and groom. Speaking just from my experience, Max has at almost 11 years old never been sick once or had an injury he didn’t heal from. Of course proper love and care helps with that too.

He will not let any stranger even touch the livestock unless I approve it. He will attack anyone who does not belong here – Maremma’s do bite strangers quite frequently, and a lot of them end up getting a bad rap because of it, when they are only doing their job. If I invite someone into my pasture with me and tell Max it’s allowed, he will stand next to me and there is zero concern from me that he will not listen to me or hurt the new person, as long as the person does as I say – no reaching towards Max, no sudden movements, let the livestock come to you, do not go to them. Max listens to me and not once, not once has he ever broken my trust of him. You can leave a gate open to any of the pastures which he is in, and he will not cross it until told.

One year, one of my ewes was having a lamb in the barnyard, and it was turned around and the head was stuck. Max came to the gate closest to the house and got me, barking straight at me. He lead me straight up to the barnyard and got there before me, went straight to Lila (the ewe) and was trying to pull the lamb out himself. He was not attacking, he was licking, and whimpering, and terribly distressed. I was able to reach in, get the lamb turned around, and pulled out. The only problem was, Max wanted to clean and care for the lamb, and I had to remind him that was Lila’s job first! He adores the babies of any kind and when it’s lambing and kidding time he does tend to focus on watching the babies the most. He knows they need it, and he loves playing with them. They always bond to him quite quickly, especially the bottle babies.

Like Pyr’s, Maremma’s thrive in winter, they love the colder weather and the snow. As long as they have a good shelter with lots of bedding for storms, they are in their element during the winter months. Nothing lives that enters that barnyard that does not belong. And he can tell the difference between our stock, and something else. For example, one of my rabbits got loose once from the barn and Max did not kill it… but a wild rabbit in the barnyard, he’d take out. Even though a rabbit is not a threat, it doesn’t live there, and Max has a zero tolerance policy.

The most important thing with any LGD is leadership. They should respect your standing as the leader of the pack. That’s the key.

I have also found with Maremma’s – that they are more likely to work in partnership with you. Great Pyrenees work in a pair or by themselves but they are much more loners – Flavious loves cuddles and attention but he’s a terrible listener, and he does his own thing. Max, I consider a partner. He works with me, he’s like my right hand man. And he always – always, listens. I honestly do not think I’ve had a better dog when it comes to working as a team.

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Can you tell how much I love this boy?

Flash forward to now and the arrival of Nymeria and Ghost, our new Maremma puppies. I have wanted a Maremma pup for quite a while now, so that Max could train him/her before he’s too old. Plus at 11, and with Flavious 9 years old now, they are both still healthy and in good condition, but they could probably use a hand and growing and training takes time. In my experiences of training since starting this with other LGD’s (some rescues with behavioral issues) it takes about 2-3 years (old) before you have a really trustworthy, mature, LGD. Not that they are not guarding and working before that, they pretty much come into the world ready to guard, but they have a long… teenage phase where they can test your patience, and do tend to be more hyper, not listen as well… spend a lot of time in their rooms alone listening to loud angry music. OK, maybe that last bit is an exaggeration.

I put off adding another LGD however because finding a purebred Maremma that wasn’t mixed proved to be rather difficult, and also the timing had to be right. These dogs are not cheap to have and care for. Obviously having any dog is a big and costly responsibility, and with Maremma’s and Pyrs – they eat A LOT. and of course there is Vet bills and etc. So all that needs to be taken into consideration. I go through several 50 lb bags of dog food a month.

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LGD’s do work fine on their own, and Max did for a few years. But I believe and have seen that they do thrive in pairs preferably.

It is Max’s job to teach Nymeria and Ghost the ropes. At least that’s what I was hoping and that’s the plan. Nymeria and Ghost were from an unexpected litter but from two beautiful and purebred parents working on a Boer goat farm. They were born in the barn with the goats and never left them, so there was no issue introducing them to our stock, and of course they were only 8 weeks old so they were not big enough to hurt anyone anyway.

Max and Flav were not upset by the puppies, but not overly excited either, so there was no immediate accepting of them, like Max did with Flavious once upon a time.. they are also both kind of grumpy old men set in their ways now, they like quiet and calm. Maremma’s by nature are not hyper though – even as puppies. They are very playful sure, but also very attentive, and very observant. Many people who have met my pups comment on how calm they are. They have a calm energy and they listen very well.

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They also instinctively did some things without Max teaching them, that impressed even me. Not only did they walk their whole fence line to mark it (something Max does at least twice a day) they also were immediately respectful of it. They have several acres in their main area but they stay with the stock all day, rarely going off on their own. They immediately bonded to the sheep, whom they had never seen before and the sheep really adore them, I was surprised. The sheep act like they are lambs.

They are naturally wary of strangers, and will not approach strangers unless you are there and tell them to come.

They also automatically stop and sit down – without me teaching them this… whenever we get to the gate to enter or leave the pastures. And not right at it either, about 2 feet back. It’s quite remarkable.

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With Max & Flav, they already bring the livestock up to the barn in the evening to go in for the night.

Eventually they will stay out but they are too small still so they sleep in the barn with the livestock right now… they’d prefer not to. Maremma’s hate being inside, especially if they never have been, a house raised Maremma is obviously different. And night time is work time – when they are most alert and guarding, day time is for napping near the stock and resting.

They are eager to work, and eager to please – very eager. And they bond very strongly with their human families too. I have fallen in love with this breed for so very many reasons.

I cannot imagine not having Maremma’s on my farm now, to work with me, to watch my livestock, to cuddle with. With them working I am never worried about my animals, or something going wrong – I know the dogs will alert me and come get me.

Maremma’s really need minimal training, most of it is instinct, and ideally of course an older dog does help and will pass down some of his traits, but good breeding, and good instinct is 95% of it… and then you put in a little work on the basics, which can be done so easily because of their eagerness to please and also great love of treats, which makes training a complete breeze. And because they are calmer by nature, they listen faster and easier than a lot of other breeds when it comes time to teaching them to sit, and stay, etc.

 They are an integral part of my life, and, farm.

I adore working with them and hope I’ll be able to do more in the future, these dogs thrive in farm environments and make amazing family members and guardians.

Like certain other breeds, the Pyr being one, some Maremma’s unfortunately end up in the wrong environments, like in the city. On rare occassions that can work – like I said, not all dogs are exactly the same. But this is a breed that needs a lot of space, and a job. They are born to work and please, and be outdoors, that is their element. I’ve also seen a lot of farmers with Maremma’s or Pyr’s who just don’t properly understand the breed and their behavior, and thus think certain things, like herding, is bad behavior. I know of several situations were Maremma’s have attacked people because the farmers did not realize the dogs could never be trusted around strangers – especially when you are not home. In none of those cases was it the dogs fault, but of course they took the fall. They are absolutely not aggressive by nature, but they are guard dogs, and their job is to protect their home and stock and they will do so at whatever cost necessary. It’s just their job.

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I hope as our farm grows, so will my pack, and so will my ability to take on adult dogs that need training, or rehabilitation if I have the proper facilities.

I am so grateful to be able to share my life with these beautiful dogs.

One thought on “The Maremma Sheepdog

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  1. Wow, that was a fascinating post! it sounds like Max was one of these really lucky once in a lifetime dogs- but I bet he will be able to teach the new puppies a lot, even though it seems they are also really instinctive about their job. You picked a good time to get the new ones so they have a few years to learn and mature before they are needed to be taking more responsibility. I have been toying with the idea of LGD in the future if I get a small herd of mini goats. I’m still not sure if i will, but you have given me a lot to think about. I think the Maremmas sound like a great breed to try, but here in Tennessee I do worry about the heat with their long coats. There are some local goat farms with either Maremmas or Great Pyrs, I don’t know which they are. Lately out summers have been 90+ or even 95+ from May to even October.

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