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Choosing a guard dog.

The maremma originated in Italy, where it has been used for many centuries as a guardian of flocks of sheep and goats. It was first imported into the US. for that purpose in the 1970's.

The Maremma is a large white or cream colored dog, usually weighing between 70 and 100 pounds and standing25 to 30 inches tall. It is described as being majestic, lively, sturdy, distinguished, intelligent, and courageous without being aggressive. Known also for its ability to bond closely to sheep and goats, with whom it assumes a protective parental attitude, it demonstrates an aloof awareness as leader of its adopted family, while at the same time readily accepting a secondary role to its bonded humans. It accepts the leadership of humans but not their mastery and, while being a good friend to man, will not willingly be his slave.

Born with exactly the right qualities for livestock guarding, the Maremma is not recommended for use as a pet. The independence necessary for solitary guarding of a flock makes it somewhat unwilling to take orders. All of its behavioral characteristics that make. it an excellent guardian tend to become stronger as it matures. It already knows all the "do's" of guardianship and will develop them on its own in an appropriate guarding situation.

Much of the current interest in livestock guarding dogs seems to center around the Great Pyrenees. Less information is available concerning the half dozen or so other breeds commonly used for guarding livestock.

There is good reason for this. The Pyrenees is perhaps the most widely available dog of this type. Its wide availability does not necessarily make it the best performer. It could be a case of, "When all you've got is lemons, make lemonade." Before offending anyone who loves the Great Pyrenees, let me rush to say that there are many Great Pyrenees doing superlative jobs of guarding livestock. The Pyr is such a wonderfully dispositioned dog that people become quite attached to it -- I know, we have one. However, herein lies the problem.

For 200 years, the Pyrenees, originally bred to guard livestock, has also been bred as a pet and show dog. This began in 1775 when Mme. de Maintenon brought one into the court of Louis XIV and the Pyrenees became the favorite of French nobility. The qualities that make a good guard dog are not necessarily those that make it a good pet and show dog. Those qualities aren't even desirable in pets and showdogs. In their book The Complete Great Pyrenees authors Paul D. Strang and James M. Giffin state that "fanciers interested in our Pyrenees' show qualities tend to forget his past as a guard dog."

Therefore, since the time of Louis XIV the Great Pyrenees has been subjected to breeding programs to breed out characteristics deemed undesirable and to breed in desirable ones... "desirability" being determined by the effect of certain traits upon the performance of the dog as a show or pet animal. In the process, some strains of the Great Pyrenees have been rendered worthless as livestock guarding dogs.

You may ask, "Should I get a Great Pyrenees to guard my livestock?" It all depends. However, regardless of what other criteria you employ in choosing a dog, the single most important factor to consider is, "Does it come from a long line of working parents?" I don't mean parents that live on a farm where livestock are present. I don't mean parents who will follow the farmer into the pasture and be at home with the livestock or even parents who occasionally go into the pasture and lie among the sheep or goats. I mean parents who actually live with, sleep with, roam with the animals they are supposed to protect.

Certainly, many Great Pyrenees fit into this category. However, the great popularity of the dog as a show dog or pet has flooded the market with dogs who are not from working lines. Many of their livestock guarding instincts have withered or have been deliberately bred out of them. If you cannot be sure of the ancestry of a Great Pyrenees, some of the other breeds may be less risky choices. There are Anatolian Shepherds, Kuvaz, Akbash, Komondor, Shar Planinetz and my favorite, the Maremma. Even among these breeds you must be careful -- some of them are recognized by the AKC and are being bred for show as well as guarding.

We got our first Maremma six years ago. We have a herd of about 40 goats who provide milk for our cheesemaking operation. During the early years, we lost several mature goats and many kids to predation by feral dogs. Coyotes have moved into our area and are a real menace. Our pasture is all woodland in very rough terrain. We are surrounded by hundreds of acres of more woodland. Our goats can and do wander so far that we have no idea where they are. During the six years since acquiring Marco, we have not had a single incident of any kind from dogs or coyotes.

Marco lives with the goats. He goes wherever they go. For example, he is terrified of thunder. He prefers to hide in a comer of the barn during thunderstorms. Nevertheless, he will stay in the pasture with the goats even when it's thundering.

We have a female Great Pyrenees in the yard (a pet). Even when she is in heat, Marco will stay with the goats. He does come occasionally to check on his paramour, but if the goats leave for the pasture, he abandons his romantic intents. I don't think guard dogs come any better than this.

Research tends to bear this out. The Livestock Guard Dog Project at Hampshire College has done the most extensive research on this subject. They had hundreds of dogs of several breeds in the field, all over the country in every kind of situation for several years. The Maremma scored the highest as a livestock guard dog. Tentative findings also indicate that the Shar Planinetz/ Maremma cross may do even better.

Whichever dog you choose, do not do things that will make it happy to see you. Don't pet it, don't talk to it more than necessary. Remember, even to dogs, people make more interesting companions than goats or sheep.

Don't be afraid of the dog. They are not dangerous, aggressive dogs. They do not attack: they defend. We've never been afraid for our son, who was four when we got Marco, to go into the pasture alone. He goes on long walks with the dogs and the goats. Do not, however, trust them alone with strangers.

For more information:

For more information, contact the Livestock Guard Dog Association, Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts 01002; the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America, 1818 W. Bippley, Lake Odessa, Michigan 48849, and breed clubs of the several breeds. The Oregon Ag extension service also has a number of helpful publications. We may, from time to time, have pups.
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Title Annotation:sheep guard dog
Author:Kafer, Peter; Kafer, Claudia
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:1166
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