We’ve owned our Maremma Sheepdog since he was a puppy, born 5 1/2 years ago. He has been a good dog, and a worthy investment for our family. Today he got into a rather loud and angry fight with two dogs that ignored his warnings to stay off our property. The dogs’ owner lazily biked by, calling for them above the din. I watched as they ran off, my dog nipping further at their heels. I guess I half expected a limp apology but the owner calmly agreed with me, maintaining his peddle, when I told him my dog was “just doing his job.”
Thankfully, my maremma wasn’t hurt. I gave him handfuls of treats and lots of love, “that’s a good boy.”
Raising a livestock guardian dog is not easy. It’s not like you can just bring a puppy home, and suddenly he knows your rules and what he’s supposed to guard and do. If anything, because he has a guarding instinct, you have to pay attention and take the time and care to train him further. Otherwise, he may just decide that your goat (or child or cow or whatever) is his ultimate responsibility and will fight to the death anyone that dares to approach said goat (or child or cow or whatever).
Before we picked up our dog, I took great pains to read up on the breed and chatted with the farmers raising these dogs. I even joined the yahoo group specific to his breed, and eavesdropped. Livestock guardian dogs are not for everyone. They are very possessive and like to make up their own minds. This is a great benefit when you want that guarding ability, because you’re not always around to tell him what to do. In fact, he will balk if you tell him what to do. These dogs don’t want an “owner”. They want a “partner”. And they don’t need (or want) your lovey-dovey-kissy-smoochie talk either. What they want–and will demand, if they don’t get it easily–is your respect.
Respect is a two-way street, of course. I taught my puppy to respect ME first. I used (and highly recommend) Leerburg’s dog training videos. Not everything was applicable, but I learned a great deal and used much of it. Everything my dog failed to learn (where to poop, not to jump up on people as a puppy, etc) was my fault and lack of follow through. But he learned to respect me, and to this day I can–if I wanted to–reach under his nose and take his supper dish away while he’s eating.
Any dog, especially a livestock guardian dog, needs to know where the boundaries lie. My dog had to earn the right to be off a lead, and we took many, many walks around the perimeter of his jurisdiction. We put up, and still use, an electric invisible fence, mainly because the cost of fencing for five acres was beyond our budget and then some. But, again, you can’t just put up an electric fence and go about your way. The dog needs to be trained to it.
Livestock guardian dogs need to be socialized to many people, too. They need to know that when strangers come onto the property, YOU can tell that dog that “it’s all right” and the dog will leave ’em be. Sometimes I think my dog would cheerfully greet any stranger, but I also know that he can read “something’s wrong here” very well. When he was a young dog, I made the mistake of trying to have my neighbor feed him so we could take a vacation. I made many mistakes there that led to her getting a nip (thankfully, she was understanding).
What were the mistakes? First, my young dog was still in training and still highly sensitive to wanting to guard anything. So, because he was in the barn with the goats at the time, his (wrong) understanding was that any person approaching was suspect. Second, my neighbor had his food in hand–highly unusual. And, third, she admitted she didn’t like big dogs and was a bit nervous–which of course, all led to my dog’s reading “something’s wrong here”. What *I* failed to do was read the situation from HIS eyes.
So, be prepared to spend time training your dog. If you don’t want to put in the time, then please get a breed that is much more easy-going. I don’t know what, maybe a lab or some such. Although…our lab helped to train our maremma how to chase off coyotes, black bears, and bald eagles, so maybe you can teach other breeds of dogs new tricks.
Also, you need to know that in our culture of treating dogs like….I dunno….royalty? humans with their own bill of rights?…some folks can be downright….um…clueless…about how to act around a strange dog, much less a livestock guardian. I had one person march right up to my big white dog, while he was in the goat pen, ignored his (and my) warning, and grabbed his face with both hands to give him a smoochy-smoochy-poochie kiss. Of course he snarled at that person who then went on to decry what a dangerous dog I had. Another stranger tried grabbing his collar to discipline him as he was sniffing the man’s calves and waiting for me to tell him “it’s good, shove off”. And then there is the bicyclist who didn’t seem to understand that my dog could have ripped off his own dog’s heads if he had wanted to. Thankfully, my dog doesn’t “want to” really harm anyone; even strangers (with me) are able to pat him if they are so inclined. But, sometimes, “dog lovers” are the most dangerous people to approach such a dog. You’ve got to really know your dog and decide whether he’s better off staying within the livestock pen, or if he’s safe enough to have run of the property where other people may come and go.
Again, owning a livestock guardian dog is not for everyone. Know that owning one has its challenges, but if you can train him up and give him the respect he needs while doing so, he will faithfully and loyally watch over you, your family and your livestock. And yes, he’ll even roll over for you to rub his belly. Want more information? I found this book very helpful (although at the time I was *stuck* with the last puppy available and didn’t get to compare him to his siblings as the book suggests). Find whatever breed’s association internet page, and connect with breeders and owners to ask questions of. Yahoo groups are another good place to look. Ultimately, a good breeder will interview YOU and make sure you are well prepared for this kind of dog…and take the dog back if you cannot work with him.
Have you ever considered owning a livestock guardian dog? Or do you already have one and can relate?