A lot of people ask me if a Maremma Sheepdog is difficult to train. I guess that depends on what type of “training” we are referring to. If we are talking about obedience training, then I can foresee some potential challenges. Maremma are an independent and self motivated breed of livestock guardian dog with a long history of selective breeding specifically for these traits. They have been bred exclusively to think for themselves and function in an independent situation.
As for training to protect livestock and their surroundings, this is an inherent trait that does not need to be taught. Rather, the owner must create an appropriate environment for the pup to become a successful guardian. Basically this involves two things: time and patience. You need to allow the pup time to mature both physically and psychologically, and two, set up a proper environment to facilitate the bonding process.
The first thing owners want to do when their new puppy arrives is cuddle and pamper it. This is natural for all of us. If this weren’t the case, I would be concerned about this person. But for the sake of success, it is imperative to set aside these emotions and place the puppy right out where it is intended to live, with the livestock. This involves establishing a safe environment for both the puppy and the livestock. Planning ahead before your puppy arrives can draw the line between success and failure. It is important to design a comfortable holding area for the puppy, where he will spend much of his time when you are not able to supervise his activity with the stock. A feedlot situation is ideal for this, as the livestock spend most of their time in a smaller confined area. The pup can be contained near the livestock, close to their feeding and watering area. If the stock are out on pasture, this becomes a bit more of a challenge, but it still can be successfully achieved.
If you are running sheep or goats on a fairly large acreage, it is wise to place a few of the older, more confident stock in the pen with your puppy. There are three key things which are extremely important to remember here. First and foremost, choose stock that will not be outgrown by the pup in a few short months. Second, choose stock that you are planning to keep, not feeder lambs or cull animals that are headed for market in a few months. And third, never use bottle lambs or orphans that have been hand raised. Although it is tempting and maybe convenient, the ignorance of these young animals can make them very vulnerable to being mauled by a young and unknowing pup.
If your operation consists of pasture raised poultry, then it requires a bit of ingenuity on your part. The holding pen will need to be near or attached to the mobile coop or chicken tractor. I spoke with a young man a few days ago who was building his dog house right into the base of his chicken coop. I thought that was a brilliant idea for the craftsman, but uncertain as to whether or not the dog would actually use the house. Maremma often like to perch in an open, elevated area to get a n optimal view of it’s surroundings.
The main thing we need to remember is, puppies are puppies, regardless of the breed. All puppies will chew, play chase and make mistakes from time to time. Our job is to create a safe and constructive environment for them and the livestock that will minimize their number of mistakes they can make until they are fully mature.
In the ideal situation, you should be able to trust your livestock guardian dog with the stock by 8-10 months of age. That being said, it is not uncommon for them to have a relapse and resort to play chasing during their adolescent period. By this time they have adopted the livestock or poultry as their siblings and will often interact with them as they would their former litter mates. I’m not sure what causes this, but have witnessed the pattern enough to know that this is definitely a precarious period of time. Usually, this behavior is self limiting and will resolve with a short probationary period back in solitary confinement, or a few audible corrections when the owner is present.
As for obedience training, it is essential and I do encourage this to a point. All livestock guardian dogs should learn to walk on leash, be comfortable getting in and out of the car, and be socialized with regular visitors to the farm. This is easily accomplished as a pup, when they reach 70-80 pounds, it becomes a bit more of a challenge. A typical frightened Maremma will lay down and roll onto it’s back, which makes it difficult for it’s master to hoist them into the car, or the veterinarian to perform a physical exam, etc.