On the job

I love this breed.

So damn much.

When Shep came into my life in 2004, I had never heard of a Maremma sheepdog. When my friend who connected us told me the breed name over the phone, I heard “Miramichi dog.” For those not in the know, the Miramichi is a region of northeast New Brunswick and not anywhere you really want to visit.

Nor was I familiar with a breed that came from that area. The Labrador retriever? Yes. A Newfoundland? Yep. Even a Nova Scotia Duck Toller? Sure thing.

Turns out, this big white dog wasn’t a Miramichi dog. He was a Maremma sheepdog.

Canadian accents, be damned.

A guardian for all

The Maremma sheepdog is, by genetics, a livestock guardian dog. A rancher can rely on the Maremma to guard his sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and more from predators such as wolves, bears and coyotes.

Its protective nature has intrigued me for more than 10 years, since I started researching Shep’s breed.

Shep, my co-pilot and soulmate, guarded me from approaching strangers. He placed his body at a perpendicular angle to any person or dog that was stranger to us or that he didn’t naturally trust.

My friend called it “T-barring.”

Shep was two years old when our paths joined, and he was well on his way to knowing his duties. But he’s gone now, and we’re raising our little girl, Bella — now two and a half years old.

She doesn’t seem to be growing naturally into her guardian instincts, except for the barking.

Oh, the barking.

The Maremma is known for making its voice heard, much to Our American’s — and our next-door neighbour’s — chagrin.

Bella is timid and even skittish around strangers. I hope that she will find her confidence soon but, if she never does, I’ll be her guardian.

The guardian dog

Maremmas are, by their nature, suspicious of strange and new people.

(Bella has that part down pat. It’s her running and hiding that is concerning. Not from children. I think she gets that from me.)

They are on constant watch, ever aware, ever watchful of their surroundings and their flocks. We — me and My American — are Bella’s flock. In that way, she is a working dog.

She barks like a hot damn, protecting us from:

  • The UPS guy who kindly delivers our Amazon purchases
  • The kids riding up and down the street on their bikes
  • Neighbours walking their dogs pat our house
  • The next-door neighbour’s cat
  • The occasional errant leaf or Safeway bag floating in the wind

The working Maremma, like Se, is wary and alert.

She keeps her distance from humans and ensures she is between them and her goats.

Homesteading in Washington State

Se is one of two Maremmas and two Anatolian shepherds on the job at a homestead near Inchelium, Wash.

 

She belongs to Kaila and Rebecca, sisters who, along with their families, are giving up the big city life and roughing it in the woods. They have cattle, goats, chickens, a husband each, and — between the two of them — five young children.

They intend to feed their own family, plus donate a side of cattle and a hoard of vegetables to a family in the area. Their goal is to build homes on the property and generate enough food to feed 20,000.

livestock guardian dog

I found them on Facebook, in a worldwide group for Maremma owners.

There was yet another scrap between working dog people and companion dog people. You see, some — not all — working dog people believe Maremma sheepdogs should only be working dogs.

The Maremma Sheepdog Club of America does not recommend the breed as a companion animal.

I don’t either. Unless you’ve done the research to understand it, its guardian traits, its penchant for incessant barking, its shedding and its aloof stubbornness that keeps the dog from coming when called — a trait that can be both endearing for its independence and hair-pullingly, eye-crossingly, ground-poundingly frustrating.

The working-dog-only group shuns Maremma mamas like me who let their dogs sleep on the couch or next to them in the bed. They believe we are “breeding out” the dog’s natural instincts.

They discount the adaptability and intelligence of the dog, and they ignore the very reality that we — My American and I — are Bella’s flock to guard. She may be a couch dog but she is — at least when she isn’t chasing the neighbor’s cat or barking furiously at flying leaves — guarding us … from the UPS guy.

Kaila and Rebecca not only know this; they appreciate it.

And amid the Facebook post, I realized that as much as I love the breed, I can never truly appreciate it until I understand its working instincts. I wrote a post in the group that said I want the opportunity to photograph Maremmas at work.

Kaila responded first. And right away.

I was bound for Inchelium the next weekend.

A Maremma mama and a mama Maremma

They recently embarked on a road trip to deliver a litter of puppies, each to its respective home. Some will be working dogs, others will be companions.

Maremma sheepdog puppies

They all went to loving homes, according to Kaila.

They are the puppies of Lily, a mama Maremma who, I believe, recognized me as a Maremma mama right away. A friendly young gal, she trotted toward me, nuzzled her snout into my hand and demanded my attention with what Maremma mamas and papas know as The Maremma Paw.

maremma sheepdog

When I met her, she was weaning her litter.

The puppies approached her, looking for milk. She growled and pounced away from them.

But don’t be the stranger — no matter how good a Maremma mama she senses her to be — get too close to those puppies. Shooting with my 10-24mm, I wanted to get close to the puppies.

Almost every time, she jumped in between and interrupted my shot.

Which is why this shot is horribly out of focus:

maremma sheepdog handshake

I couldn’t help but laugh.

And then Rebecca must have caught her napping, piling all the puppies into a box and dragging them over to the goat pen so I could see them in a livestock environment.

Where Se ruled the roost.

Gorgeous, lithe Se. A prototypical Maremma, built for speed and intensity.

livestock guardian dog

While the puppies gauged their surroundings, Lily realized they were missing and dashed toward the pen, a panicked look in her eyes. She couldn’t get in at first and impatiently pawed at the gate.

Se, whose name is Hebrew for “fortress,” was ever watchful, skirting the humans in her pen and occasionally giving them the squinty Maremma sideeye.

Then it was time to go, time to get out of the hot August sun and time to get home to my own Maremma, Princess Bella Bossy Pants, the couch dog.

With promises to return for more experiences with Maremmas at work.

2 replies
  1. Carol Gunn
    Carol Gunn says:

    What a great write up of the Maremma of today’s world. Yes they are adaptable as are most dogs. I would love to be able to visit too, but live in New Zealand. A wonderful read.

    Reply
  2. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I loved reading this, its so nice to find someone who understands that the Maremma can be a working dog with a flock of humans and that it doesn’t have to be a working dog on a farm. I got my Sampson in 2008 after doing extensive research on the breed. My husband worked away and I was home alone with three small children all of the time. I had some anxiety issues and I was looking for a guardian dog but didn’t want to get a breed that would make other people nervous. We had to put Sampson to sleep 5 days ago due to prostate cancer and I am beyond devastated. He was so much more than just a guardian dog, he was my faithful companion right to the very end. His depth of intelligence made his interaction with us so different from any other pet I have ever had. The way he stared into my eyes and the love he displayed to our immediate family and extended family made me believe he understood so much more than we knew. He knew right from the start that I was his job and he definitely acted like a working dog even though he was not on a farm with animals. I could never imagine having another breed of dog and I believe I will grieve his loss the rest of my life.

    Reply

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