Many of the inquiries I receive come from prospective owners actively researching the different breeds of livestock guardian dogs. Some have already purchased a pup and are struggling with play chasing or mouthing the livestock. A handful have already suffered a significant loss from predators, and are desperately looking for an older trained dog. This has inspired me to put together a page of FAQs for those who are gathering information about the Maremma Sheepdog. I will attempt to address behavior, instinct, potential health issues, bonding and training process, as well as my own principals and ethics about the pups that I raise. Please bear in mind that the following comments are related to my own personal experience with the Maremma Sheepdog, and other breeders may not agree with my philosophy. I always try to encourage people to seek out other resources and gather as much information as possible before making the commitment to purchase a pup. If you have further questions, or would like to discuss the possibility of purchasing a pup from Stoneybrook, please contact me by email, and I will be happy to assist you in any way I can. Colleen Williams, CVT
1.) How does the Maremma differ from other LGD breeds?
This is a question I get asked all the time. I have no formal experience with other breeds of livestock guardian dogs, so I’m not sure it is fair for me to make a comparison. One thing that I believe sets the Maremma apart from other LGD breeds is they do tend to stick close to their flock. Rarely will a Maremma wander outside of its territory. The one exception would be to chase off an intruder, which is usually followed by a quick retreat back to the flock. Maremma often spend much of their day in leisure, lying in the shade or near the loafing shed with the other animals. They do become much more active in the evenings, as most predators are nocturnal and do much of their hunting at night. The other trait that makes them unique is they tend to bark only when necessary. I have heard many complaints about LGDs barking all night long. There very well may be a good reason for this, and the owner may be unaware of the cause. I have not witnessed what I would consider nuisance or boredom barking with the Maremma. They do tend to become creatures of habit and familiarity, so if they hear, smell or see something they perceive as a threat, they will send out a pretty convincing warning signal. This will carry on until the intruder leaves, or the dog is convinced it needs to take further action. It may resort to charging at the offender if barking does not suffice. Otherwise, they are generally pretty quiet in nature.
2.) Is the Maremma a good choice for us?
Maremma will fit well in most situations, provided you can dedicate the time to raising it properly. Like any other breed, the Maremma needs guidance and supervision, especially throughout the adolescent stage. Maremma are naturally protective, untrusting of strangers and independent thinking in nature. They can be very affectionate with family members, yet wary of anyone they are not familiar with.
3.) At what age does a Maremma mature?
Intellectually, I would say 12-15 months is a general rule of thumb. A well bred Maremma should exhibit a very low prey drive and mature much sooner than this. If you have an 18 month old Maremma that is still play chasing and harassing the stock, you may want to consider an alternate job for the dog, agility perhaps. Physically, Maremma will continue to grow until slightly over two years of age. This is one of the reasons I feel it is important not to breed until after the age of two. Structurally they are still growing; the growth plates have not completely fused before this age.
4.) Does the Maremma make a good pet?
This is a highly controversial question among people who own and raise Maremmas. Currently the MSCA, Maremma Sheepdog Club of America, does not endorse the use of the Maremma Sheepdog as a pet. The Maremma has also been sheltered from the show ring, for fear this may lead to over breeding, resulting in a much higher number of dogs being relinquished to shelters. We currently have a very small number of Maremma in rescue across the U.S., most of which are unregistered or sold into companion homes. This is one of the reasons is it important to purchase from a reputable breeder. Other countries, including Italy where the breed originated, own and raise the Maremma as a dual purpose breed. They are not only utilized for livestock protection, but also serve as companion dogs and compete in the show ring.
My personal thoughts are, yes Maremma can make a great companion in the right setting and with the proper socialization. I also think it is wise to research this breed to determine if it is indeed the right dog for your family. Although they closely resemble the English Golden in appearance, their personality is quite different than that of the typical retriever. Maremma are very aloof in nature, they are much more inclined to have a mind of their own. This independent nature is one of the qualities that makes them an ideal flock guardian. Maremma are naturally affectionate, and will readily bond with family members and livestock both. However, they tend to be somewhat wary of strangers, so it is important to introduce them to anyone who will be visiting your farm on a regular basis.
Although I do not make it a practice to sell to non working homes, I have made exceptions to this rule if the person previously owned a Maremma, or had prior experience with a similar breed of livestock guardian dog. All inquiries are considered on an individual basis. Under no circumstances will I assume the sale of any pup before fully investigating the buyer’s intentions and ability to provide a suitable home.
5.) Is the Maremma breed recognized by AKC?
No. There is currently only one registry in the U.S. for this breed, the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America, or MSCA. The goal of the MSCA is to maintain the integrity of the Maremma Sheepdog as a working breed. The Maremma can also be double registered under the United Kennel Club, or UKC.
6.) Is there a difference between male or female in terms of working ability?
I really don’t see a huge difference in disposition between male vs. female. The one exception is an intact male will be more likely to wander, especially if they detect a female in heat. My suggestion is you spay or neuter unless it is your intention to breed. This not only helps to eliminate health problems down the road, such as testicular cancer, mammary tumors, pyometra, (uterine infection similar to endometriosis in people), and the complications of unwanted litters. It also helps enforce bonding with the livestock as they will be more likely to keep their mind on the task at hand.
Personality traits are largely influenced by genetics in addition to environmental factors. Some pups are naturally more outgoing than others and some will mature earlier than their counterparts. There can be a vast difference in temperament between pups of the same litter, as well as from the different lines.
7.) At what age is it best to spay or neuter?
Most Veterinarians will recommend you spay or neuter by 8 months of age. I tend to be in agreement with this, however there is some thought that neutering a dog before it has reached full maturity may play a role in later developing health problems. We know that the bones, especially in larger breeds such as the Maremma, are not completely done growing until approximately two years of age. When we spay or neuter, this alters not only the level of testosterone and estrogen, but also the growth hormone, GnRH. This in turn, inadvertently affects the rate of growth and development of the long bones. Early altering may be a contributing factor to the increasing prevalence of Cruciate Ligament injuries, more commonly known as a torn ACL. In the past, cruciate ligament injuries were commonly found in older and often obese dogs. Now it is not uncommon to find a young dog under one year of age with a torn ACL. Coincidence? Perhaps. There also may be a common factor relating to incontinence in the female spayed at a very young age. Many young spayed females develop incontinence problems early in life. The real question is; do I risk an unwanted pregnancy and the possible compilations that go along with it? Do I risk my male wandering off in search of a mate, possibly getting hit by a car or even shot? In the ideal world, one would wait until the dog is two years of age to alter, but in most situations this is not practical, nor is it safe.
8.) What health issues have you seen in the Maremma?
We haven’t seen the multitude of health issues in the Maremma as we have seen in some of the other breeds. This may be partly due to the lack of screening that has been performed. Some breeders are opposed to doing OFA’s for reasons of inconvenience, cost or the belief that testing will not eradicate the problem. I am not in agreement with this mindset, but currently there are no restrictions enforced by the MSCA other than the Code of Ethics, which is completely voluntary to sign. A few of the health problems I have learned about in the breed are entropion, (where the lower eyelid rolls in, causing irritation to the cornea), mild overbites, and of course Hip Dysplasia. There is also some evidence of umbilical hernias, which are not a health threat in itself.
9.) What are the advantages in raising two pups together?
This question has raised a lot of controversy among livestock guard dog owners. Personally I am opposed to raising two pups together, but I can see definite advantages and disadvantages to both. Two pups raised together are more likely to keep each other occupied and less likely to get too playful or rowdy with the livestock. The other benefit is predator control; two dogs are far more intimidating to an intruder. Typically, one will tend to hang back with the flock while the other one races out in pursuit of the predator. It is quite amazing to watch this kind of teamwork between two LGDs. Two dogs are absolutely essential if your predator issue involves timber wolves or mountain lions. Even a pack of coyotes or the neighborhood dog can be a challenge for one guard dog. Coyotes are very keen in their hunting practices. The other thing to keep in mind is the size of the area that your dog will be expected to guard. One dog should be able to cover a 40 acre parcel with no problem, but should not be expected to patrol 400 acres entirely by himself. And it depends on your type of set up. If you have several different pens confining livestock and you employ only one Maremma, then you need to be sure the dog has access to all pens. This can sometimes be done by constructing a swing gate between the pens, or installing a round 30 gallon barrel between in the fence. However in my experience any place a LGD can escape, a goat will quickly learn to employ. So you have to be very creative and tactful if is goats you are trying to restrain.
10.) What drawbacks are there in raising two pups together?
As far as raising two pups together, I try to discourage new owners from doing so, unless they raise the pups in separate pens and with separate stock. My reasoning is that I desire the pups to bond with the livestock rather than each other. When your puppy first arrives, he or she will be lonesome and looking for something or someone to attach to. This gives you perfect opportunity to begin the imprinting process with your livestock. Having spent the first 8-10 weeks of life with it’s siblings and mother, and suddenly being displaced from all familiar surroundings, this helps build a strong foundation for attachment. Some LGD owners will dispute this point, insisting that two pups will wrestle and play with each other rather than the stock. Although there may be some truth to this statement, if you have two pups tag teaming and chasing stock you double your disaster.
11.) Pup vs. older dog?
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. A pup will indeed require more supervision than an adult. A pup will quickly bond with any type of livestock it is reared with. Therefore you will have the opportunity to train and bond it specifically to fit your needs. However, you must devote the time, energy, and necessary corrections to help mold the learning experience. As with any other breed, puppies are puppies. They can and will get rowdy with the livestock at times. This is how they would naturally interact with their littermates and other members of their “pack” so to speak. It is your job to supervise this interactive play and step in if necessary. This is only possible if you are present when things get out of hand. To try and correct a puppy for undesirable behavior after the fact, is a waste of time and creates a loss of trust. So my suggestion to folks has always been; keep the pup confined near the stock, allowing nose to nose contact, but do not allow it to roam freely among the animals unless you are right there to intervene. Another tool that I have employed over the years is to confine the pup with older animals that will not tolerate play chasing or play biting. This is probably the most effective method of training. It is consistent, governed by the same rules applied by elders of a pack, and you don’t have to be there 24/7 to monitor the situation. The tricky part is finding animals that are compatible. They must tolerate some, but not all, playful behavior and not physically injure the pup. I have found buck goats, older ewes and even rams to be very effective mentors.
The biggest disadvantage in getting an adult livestock guard dog, is quite frankly, they don’t exist. And if they do, the price including cost of transportation will likely scare you off. Once in a great while you might find a trained LGD which has been displaced from it’s former home. This is a rare situation. Many LGDs that find their way into rescue have not been reared with livestock, but rather raised in companion setting. Some can be successfully transitioned onto livestock, but you have a lot of work ahead of you. Even a trained LGD may take a little longer to bond with you, your livestock and your situation. However, it can be done with a little patience and good judgment. You must keep the dog confined until you are comfortable he has had the opportunity to familiarize himself with your animals and your boundaries. Many LGDs raised in a working environment are “people shy” so this may take some time for the dog to fully trust you, but generally these make the best guardians because the are more inclined to stay with the stock.
12.) Should we keep our puppy in the house with us for the first few days, or put it out with the stock soon as it arrives?
Although it is tempting, and downright difficult, I do not recommend bringing the pup into the house for any length of time if your goal is to teach it to guard the livestock. When your pup first arrives, chances are, it is feeling lonely and vulnerable. This is the optimal time to introduce and bond it with your livestock. This leaves a very strong first impression!
13.) Do Maremma need a special training to be able to perform their duties?
Maremma have an overwhelming instinct to guard and protect. A well bred Maremma will need very little “training” so to speak. Offer a little guidance and direction, their natural intuition will do the rest. Maremma view their flock much like pack members, so it becomes second nature for them to become protective of their herdmates. Maremma can be used to guard poultry, horses, goats, sheep, alpacas, cattle, pretty much any form of livestock. Some people even purchase a Maremma to protect smaller pets from predators such as hawks, owl or coyote.
14.) Do Maremmas dig? Do they like to roam? What type of fencing is needed?
Maremma are more likely to escape under the fence than they are to leap over it. They are not likely to dig out of boredom as some dogs will, but typically have a purpose in mind. One reason Maremma will dig is to cool themselves in the summertime, the other is usually to escape. If they do happen to escape, Maremma typically do not wander far from their territory but stay within familiar surroundings. However, it is important to teach her to respect her boundaries early in life. What seems to work well for me is a smaller pen (approximately 2 acres) completely fenced with woven wire. I place one strand of hot wire about 8-10 inches above the ground along the perimeter of this pen also. This helps discourage unwanted digging out and teaches the pup to respect the fence. It also deters my goats from standing on the fence, pulling it down, and prevents them from grazing too close to the fence or sticking their head through the wire. For anyone who has experience with Boer goats, you know how incredibly fun it is to pull them out of the fence!
15.) Should we take our Maremma out of his territory to play, or go for a walk?
I would not recommend doing this. This will only encourage him or her to seek attention from you outside of her designated area and may lead to her leaving the stock in order to satisfy this need. I always warn new owners not to offer any positive reinforcement outside of the pasture or established territory. For example, if you expect her to stay with the sheep, you never feed, pet or play with her outside of this area. If the dog should try to follow you to the house, immediately turn around, stomp your feet, wave your arms and literally growl, “get back to your sheep!” You must make it uncomfortable for her to leave the stock, or this will lead to the desire to escape for human interaction and affection.
16.) Some people feel you should not socialize a LGD, what are your thoughts on this?
Yes, I feel they should be handled in the proper setting and at the very least, taught to walk on a leash. This makes it much easier to handle the dog if it needs to be moved from one pasture to another, brought in for annual vaccines, grooming, etc. Our pups are observed and handled on a daily basis. The children often assist with the evening chores and of course cannot resist playing with the little fur-balls. I do encourage this interaction because I want our pups to be comfortable around humans, and not view them as a threat. This may not be ideal in all situations, but it works well for me. In today’s world, it is much easier to win a lawsuit than the lottery, and I personally cannot afford the liability. My extent of handling of the pups is pretty much limited to feeding, administering vaccines, deworming, etc. I try not to over socialize our Maremmas, but don’t want them to be so fearful of humans that I cannot easily get them into the car for routine check ups and things of that nature.
17.) How long have you been raising the Maremma?
We were introduced to the Maremma breed purely by accident. In 1998, I purchased a small a herd of ewes from a gentleman who was getting out of the sheep business. He no longer had a need for his Maremma, so she came with the flock as well. I was completely sold after seeing how bonded she was to her sheep. As far as she was concerned, she was not a dog, but a member of the flock. Snow lived with her sheep for 13 years before she was laid to rest.
18.) Where are you located? What is the cost of your pups?
We are located in north central Minnesota. I currently charge $1200 for a potential breeding candidate, or $800 with a spay / neuter contract. I also offer a one year health guarantee ensuring the pup is free from any health problems or congenital defect that would render it unable to perform it’s duties as a livestock guardian. This does include the guarantee against early hip dysplasia, which is known to show up as young as four months of age. As much as we try to raise sound, healthy pups, there is no assurance that Mother Nature will not throw a wrench into our plans from time to time. I believe a livestock guardian dog is a substantial investment for most people, financially and emotionally. My ultimate goal is to make this a successful long term experience, not only for the owner, but also for the dog.
19.) What does it cost to ship a puppy?
Although it varies a bit among different carriers, it generally runs between $250 and $300 to fly a pup anywhere within the U.S. I charge $50 in addition to the airfare to cover the cost of the kennel. There are other alternatives to flying including ground transport, for those who are not comfortable with the idea of flying a pup. This is a good option if temperature restrictions could potentially prohibit or delay the flight. Also, if you have to travel 3 hours to the airport and take the day off work to pick up your puppy, then ground transport may be the better option for you. The drawbacks to hiring a pet taxi service is: the pup is in transit much longer and the fee is usually a bit higher, ranging from $400-$450.
20.) If I want to reserve a pup, what is the procedure?
I typically take up to 6 deposits for an upcoming litter. If you are ready to move forward with your decision to purchase a livestock guardian dog, then I recommend placing a deposit of $200 and taking some time to fill out my questionnaire. This will help me to better understand your specific needs and make the best choice possible for your situation. Typically this deposit is non refundable, except in the case where I cannot honor your request, due to unforeseen circumstances. In this event, I will promptly refund your deposit or place you at the top of the list for next litter, whichever you choose.
If you’d rather be placed on our prospective waiting list, please drop me an e-mail telling me a little bit about yourself and your situation. I will then contact you prior to planning the next litter.