Why use Maremma Sheepdogs?

Every year, thousands of agricultural animals are killed by predatory species, such as foxes, dingoes, feral dogs, wild cats and birds of prey. In addition to this, hundreds of thousands of other animals suffer unnecessary stress caused by the presence of predatory animals. The loss will eat into your profit, and the stress which the animals face could reduce the quality of their produce. Risk management for domesticated livestock is therefore big business, and if you keep any livestock you should carefully consider the risk management strategies that you use. One strategy that you may want to consider to minimise your losses is investing in a Livestock Guardian Dog.

Maremma Sheepdogs are one breed of Livestock Guardian Dog which are particularly popular in the Free Range Poultry Industry because of their quick learning and their abilities to protect the animals that they are watching over. Having a Livestock Guardian Dog to watch over your chickens will give you peace of mind as you will know that between it and your TransCoop, your chickens are being well looked after.  This can also help to reduce the stress levels of your birds if they have not yet entered their enclosure by dusk, and it can help to reduce your stress levels as you will not have be on the lookout for predators as much.

Introduction

Maremma Sheepdogs were originally bred and used by Italian shepherds in the Maremma region. The success of dogs in this region and the surrounding regions meant that Maremmas began to gain a global following as livestock guardian dogs. Their size and disposition makes them perfect for protecting livestock because they are large enough that they are not intimidated by predatory animals, but they are not so large that they worry the livestock. Their thick but rough coat is perfect for the outdoors.

These dogs are one of the oldest known recorded distinct dog breeds. Whereas other breeds have died out or been “created” in the last five hundred years, the traits of Maremmas have continued to be honed over this period. Maremmas have actually been used as livestock guardian dogs for centuries. Writings from the first century AD describe how the white coats of these dogs helped shepherds to easily distinguish them from the wolves that they were working against. Early writing from Europe also suggests that their thick, shaggy coats would give them a “lion-like aspect” which would make them seem even more formidable in the face of predators. It is estimated that farms in Australia which use Maremma dogs as livestock guardian animals see a 35% reduction in stock lost to predators. This is one of the reasons why these dogs are becoming more widely used in the agricultural sector.

A typical Maremma dog will live for about 12 years, so most working dogs will be able to guard livestock for about 8 years after their training has been completed. They are known for their independence and intelligence. Whilst they may not be the strongest fighters, they are often able to avoid confrontation by outsmarting potential predators. The breed is not normally the aggressors, but will use their voices as a tool to help to keep an area safe. Their nature means that they will bark and investigate if they see or sense something that they are unfamiliar with. This should mean that they respond quickly to any threats to your livestock. Their barks can help to warn your poultry of potential issues.

Maremmas sheepdogs are not recommended as family pets. The temperament which has led to them being recognised as excellent livestock guardians actually excludes them from being considered as a purely social animal. Once used in a working capacity, these dogs tend to distrust anyone who is not their master, and would therefore be unsuitable for a busy family home. Petting or playing with the dogs in a social way will actually reduce their ability to care for your flock, and therefore it is not recommended that you allow your dogs to be around children. After 2000 years of breeding them purely for livestock guardian purposes, a sense of duty is firmly embedded in these dogs, and they are likely to get bored and restless in a family home where “working” tasks do not regularly present themselves.

Obtaining a Maremma Sheepdog

If you decide that you want to get a Maremmas Sheepdog to watch over your poultry and your TransCoop, then you will need to go about obtaining one and then training it so that it is suitable for your needs. In terms of finding you new dog, you have a few different options available to you. If you want a working dog, then buying one from a pet shop is not recommended. Because pet shops “produce” so many animals per year, they do not have time to give each animal adequate care and attention during the puppy’s formative months. Not only will they not be able to give you accurate information about each dog, but the dog will be more likely to develop an unpleasant temperament because of this. The same can be said about any other type of “puppy mill” or “puppy farm” where a bitch is kept purely for breeding purposes. These places see their animals only as a way of making money, rather than as living creatures. Bitches tend to be bred far more regularly than is healthy, and this is likely to have a serious effect on her health. An unhealthy mother is highly likely to produce unhealthy puppies, so buying one of these puppies could be a huge risk.

Look for a seller who is operating from an agricultural setting, rather than selling out of a house in the middle of a town. These sellers are most likely to have bred from dogs that have had a history of working with livestock. Don’t trust any seller who says that breeding is for the sake of the bitch, because this is an excuse which is not medically sound. Either of these signs should be red flags that you are buying from a puppy mill.

When you go to view the litter, you should ask questions about the mother and the father. Although the father might be out working, the mother should still be with the puppies. If the mother is not with the puppies (or within a short distance of them) then this should raise alarm bells, as they should be kept close together until the puppies are purchased. Any puppy should stay with its mother until it is at least 7 weeks old, although many people will show their litters before this point. During this period it is the breeders responsibility to make sure that proper health precautions are taken to reduce the risk of future illness and proper socialisation techniques should be followed to ensure that they develop the most desirable temperament traits of the Maremma. Without these opportunities to socialise the dog, the dog may not be suitable for a livestock guardian role.

Find out when the mother was lest bred for puppies. Pregnancy will put a strain on a dog, so there should be at least 2 years between each litter. You should ask questions about the health of the mother and father, and ask to see health certificates to show that they do not have any of the most common problems with the breed. A common problem to be aware of in Meremma dogs is hip dysplasia, and if the parents have been affected it is likely that the puppies will grow up to suffer from the same difficulties.

Although it can be more expensive, it is often better to find a puppy whose parents have lived as working dogs. This can help to show you that the dog is more likely to have what it takes to work successfully with your poultry.  You are recommended to buy a puppy from a registered litter, as their parents should have been certified by the local kennel club. You may need to search more widely than your immediate locality to in order to find a litter, as these dogs are relatively rare.

If you are buying a puppy which is under the ages of four months then you must make sure that you have enough time to dedicate to continuing their socialisation program and beginning their training schedule. As with any type of puppy, you have to look out for very subtle differences between each puppy in a litter when you are choosing Maremmas for your farm. If puppies are too timid and shy then there is a chance that they have not been socialised properly or that they have another health problem. On the other hand, puppies which are too boisterous are likely to be hard to train and may not settle with your flock as well as you would like them to. Most puppies (particularly males) will be a little bit clumsy and may have a tendency to trip over their own limbs. Do not let this worry you unless the dog is having trouble standing up altogether, as they should grow out of it soon.

At whichever age you pick up your puppy, you should make sure that you see their certificate of vaccinations. These vaccinations are most effective at a young age and should be given to puppies on a schedule.

Although it is possible to get Maremmas from rescue centres, you may have a very difficult time in re-training them to act as a livestock guardian for your chicken trailer. As mentioned previously, Maremma Sheepdogs can be fiercely loyal and may struggle to adapt to the needs of a new owner, even if their former owner was unpleasant to them.

Most people who are obtaining a dog to guard their chicken trailer will get more than one, as this is best for the welfare of the animals. A flock should have a guardian with it 24 hours per day if necessary, but a single Maremma cannot be on duty for the whole time period. If you have a larger flock then you may want to consider having 2 dogs working as a pair, or more dogs working as a pack. As a breed, these dogs are used to working well as a team. In terms of training, acquiring multi dogs at the same time can also be useful, because the dogs will learn good practice from one another. You will also be able to share your resources between each dog, which will enable to you cut down on the costs of training each individual animal.

Caring for your Maremma Sheepdog

In general, Maremma Sheepdogs are considered to be very low maintenance. Once the dogs are fully trained they are very independent. Although they are a medium/large dog breed when they are fully grown, they do not eat all that much. However, it is important to keep them on a proper nutrition schedule. Poor nutrition in younger dogs will lead to skeletal problems in older animals.

The breed is well suited to agricultural life and will be happy to sit wherever you position your TransCoop. As livestock dogs they will enjoy sitting quietly and watching your chickens, and they will normally exercise themselves whilst they are doing this. If they are not given a working role like this then they have a tendency to become bored, and this may lead to them becoming restless.

Because of their thick coats, Maremma dogs will need regular grooming, or else they may develop eczema, hot spots or matting. From an animal welfare point of view you will need to take on this responsibility or else the dog may become uncomfortable. From a business perspective, it is important because an uncomfortable dog will not be able to focus all of its attention on protecting your poultry flock. The majority of the time, all that will be required is light brushing, but particular attention will need to be paid during shedding season.

Regular washing will actually reduce the dog’s ability to shed successfully. A Maremma’s skin is covered in a lightly greasy layer which allows the dog’s coat to be largely self cleaning. Dirt and sand should just fall out because of this layer, meaning that they are ideal for use in Australia. Whilst they do need to be washed occasionally, washing your dog too often will strip away this layer meaning that they will actually end up becoming dirtier more quickly.

When your dog is out working for you, you must ensure that it has proper access to an adequate water supply. Although they can cope in hot weather conditions, they must make sure that they drink regularly. Inadequate water consumption will reduce their ability to concentrate and will can become a serious animal welfare issue.

Training Meremma Sheepdogs

When you are training a Meremma Sheepdog to be a livestock guardian dog for your chicken trailer, it is worth nothing that you must also train yourself to be accustomed to the needs of each individual dog. This will help to show your dog that there is a mutual respect between the two of you. Building this respect should mean that the dog is willing to do whatever it takes to protect your flock for you.

Starting as soon as you get the dog, you must make sure that you never feed your dog solid food in the vicinity of your poultry. This will help your dog to clearly learn that food and flock are two completely separate things. Learning this difference will mean that the dog isn’t tempted by your poultry, even if they start to feel hungry whilst they are working. The only person whoever feeds the dog should be the person who is taking on the role of “master”. Do not let children or visitors feed the dog, as this can dilute the dog’s loyalty.

You should only introduce your Maremma to livestock once it has learnt how to act calmly around things which are ‘permitted’ by its master. If the dog is still over-excitable then you risk putting your poultry under unnecessary stress. If you think that your dog is at a suitable stage, you should follow these guidelines:

At first you should introduce your dogs to your poultry with a fence between the two. This will protect the poultry if the dogs aren’t quite ready, but it will also allow the chickens to feel safer too. It is likely that the chickens will feel a bit stressed out at first about the presence of an unknown dog. Trial this arrangement for at least a week and keep watching for any unexpected behaviour from the poultry or the dogs; the poultry will get used to having the dogs around during this time. Any new birds which you introduce after this period will quickly take their cues from the rest of the flock. If you see any unexpected behaviour from a dog then you may have to take it out of the situation and give it a little more training, so that it won’t place additional stress on the chickens. If it starts to bark at the birds or display any kind of threatening behaviour toward them, then you should get down close to the dog and verbally chastise it. If it is still continuing to bark at the poultry or try to get through the fence towards them after the first, then you should take it out of the situation and give it additional behaviour training.

Once the dog and the chickens have become accustomed to one another’s presence, (albeit with a fence dividing them), it is time to allow them to bond a little bit more closely. Allow the dog to move amongst the chickens whilst on a lead. Allow the dog to keep sniffing at the chickens, even if they start to become agitated. Both animals will soon learn that they are not a threat to each other. Repeat this exercise each day for about a week. By the end of this period you should find that the chickens don’t even get irritated by your dog sniffing gently at them.

In week 3, you can remove the fence and allow the animals to mingle with one another freely. If the first two steps of the process have gone according to plan then the animals should not face any problems. You should monitor this situation for about a week and if nothing unusual happens then you should be fine to leave your dog completely in charge of the flock.

Potential Problems

Problems with Maremma dogs tend to arise as the dogs grow older. They are more likely to occur if the dog has had nutrition issues during its youth. Hip Dysplasia is one of the most common issues affecting this breed, although risks are reduced by carefully picking the right puppies and maintaining a healthy exercise routine. Working dogs should not do any tasks which might strain their joints or muscles.

Another problem that owners have is that they feel inclined to get involved on behalf of the dog if they do encounter a situation where the dog has become involved in a confrontation. This is part of the dog’s work and interventions could actually put the dog at risk. Shouting or running towards the issue can distract or confuse the dog, and will leave it vulnerable to attack. The dog may also be torn as to whether protecting you or the flock as its main priority. This confusion will stop the dog from making the best choices and could put your flock at increased risk. After the incident is over, check the animal thoroughly for injuries and then treat these injuries as necessary.

Some owners struggle to get their animals away from the chicken trailer and to the vets, because they are fiercely territorial and do not like travelling in enclosed vehicles. Some Maremma owners have discovered that they are happy to be treated by a vet, as long the vet is able to come out to the site and treat them there instead.

Conclusion

Maremma Sheepdogs are an excellent investment if you can afford to take the time to train the dogs to work with your flock. The most effective dogs need to be trained by the person who wishes to be regarded as the master. 1 – 2 dogs are perfect for a medium sized flock and they may help to reduce loses by as much as 35%. Those who are interested may want to see how these dogs perform in real life by visiting other farmers who use them before they make the commitment. Maremmas are fiercely loyal and should be bought for life.

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