Debunking the "Shepherd Way" Myth of Training Livestock Guardian Dogs - Science Versus Social Media Gurus
The other day I posted a cute photo of one of my 8 week old Maremma puppies (these puppies but not this photo) with my goats. It was just a chance photo I caught and it was cute, so I did a quick IG/FB post, captioning it "Where an 8 Week Old LGD Puppy Belongs". I took it a step further and shared it on a few LGD groups. As I was doing so I was already deciding that this needed to be a blog post because the topic was too in-depth for just a social media post. So I started working on the blog post but went ahead and put the "readers' digest condensed version" on social media. Here is the post:
As expected I got immediate push-back on Facebook. Most people agreed with me but a couple didn't. Here are some of the comments I received. Instead of getting into a Facebook war I decided to address the concerns here:
Comment: "The way you phrased it, every LGD puppy belongs in with the livestock, even if they just got picked up by their next owner at eight weeks."
Reply: I hear over and over that it's "unsafe" for an 8 week old puppy to be alone in a barn. And of course I agree 100% with this. Where an 8 week old puppy belongs is in the breeder's barn or pastures with its parents, litter-mates and/or other mentor dogs, and with livestock, not with an inexperienced new owner, especially if this is a single puppy, being placed without either a partner or a mentor dog. The answer to this issue is simple. Don't buy puppies from breeders who send their pups home at 8 weeks old. Don't enable this lazy and irresponsible style of dog breeding and puppy rearing.
I plan to write an entire post about this topic but the answer is that in most cases 8 weeks is too young for LGD puppies to go to new homes. Most LGD puppies are bought by first time owners who have no clue how to either properly socialize a puppy to livestock or how to keep the puppy safe and supported while doing so. Having the puppy stay in training with the breeder a few more weeks can make a huge difference both in the success of the puppy as a LGD and in its safety when it is brought home.
These 8 week old puppies are still babies. Their place is here, on my farm, with their litter mates and learning from their parents and other mentor dogs as well as my experienced puppy trainer livestock for at least a month or two more.
As the pups grow we utilize other dogs besides their dams as puppy mentors. We are very careful to only choose dogs that are patient and gentle with the puppies and do not encourage or allow our dogs to "correct" the puppies. Puppies who are treated harshly by adult dogs can become aggressive or fearful and neither makes a safe and trustworthy LGD.
The Real "Backyard Breeders"
Of course if the breeder isn't properly socializing the puppies to livestock in the first place then you're better off bringing home that puppy ASAP, if you are determined to buy from that kind of breeder. (I don't recommend it.) Cindy Benson wrote an excellent blog post about that titled "The Age of Placement for Pups Depends on Who is Doing the Training". That's a must read post!
There's a lot of criticism for "Backyard Breeders" out there. Usually this refers to breeders who are raising unhealthy, uncared for puppies from poor quality breeding stock, but often times the term is used as a weapon by breeders to judge other breeders. In my opinion the real "backyard breeders" are the people raising Livestock Guardian Dog puppies in their backyard (or in their home) instead of with livestock. If the breeder is raising their puppies in their home, backyard or on the patio then it's best to get that puppy home and with your stock ASAP.
But the REAL answer is not to buy from these "Backyard Breeders" in the first place, because even by 8 weeks old you have lost at least 3-4 weeks of vital socialization time with livestock and to be perfectly honest your puppy will never be the same as a puppy who was "raised in a barn". Puppies have critical developmental periods and where your pup spends even the first 8 weeks makes a huge difference in how they turn out. Breeders who raised their LGD puppies like companion dogs either don't understand puppy development or don't care about the impact it has on the future of the dog and the stock it's intended to guard. Ignorance or apathy, it doesn't much matter. Do yourself a favor and just say no to Backyard LGD Breeders.
Comment: "...if they are going to new homes, once they get there they need to spend time in the house to bond with their shepherd, learn how to behave in a house, how to ride in a car, walk on leash, and a whole lot of other things that will make them much better rounded LGD in the long run.
Reply: I totally agree that LGD puppies need to be exposed to experiences and skills that will make them well-rounded dogs (leash walking, exposure to lots of sights, sounds and people), and these experiences should be started by the breeder during their critical learning period, in the first 12-16 weeks. The more things the puppy is exposed to during this time the more well-rounded and resilient they will be. Again, waiting until the puppy goes to their new home is not going to be as effective as having the breeder do it, because by that point the Critical Socialization Period is ending.
Just simply housing the puppies in a stall in the barn (or on a patio or in a house or yard) with no mental stimulation is not good enough. The puppy will be mentally and emotionally stunted and may suffer from all kinds of problems as adults, including aggression and fear, both of which are unsuitable in a LGD. If you instead buy a puppy from a breeder who uses a comprehensive puppy socialization plan like Puppy Culture, in addition to an intensive livestock socialization plan, your puppy will be well-prepared for its future as a LGD and as a well-rounded, stable dog and part of your family.
Debunking "The Shepherd Way" Myth
Spend any time on LGD groups on Facebook and you'll likely encounter the "Shepherd Way of LGD Training" method. This ridiculous theory is heavily promoted on social media by self-described "experts" with no actual training or experience with LGD's. (What professional dog training or behavior courses have they taken? What scientific documents or books have they read? What is their experience with dogs in general and LGD's in particular? Are they a breeder or trainer of LGD's? If they are a breeder how long have they bred LGD's and how many puppies have they successfully placed in working homes?)
These "experts" make the claim that shepherds spent hours a day intensively interacting with and training their LGD's and overseeing their interactions with the flocks. So Livestock Guardian Dogs are independent natured because they historically spent so much time alone with the stock but they also spent every waking minute with the "shepherd"?! That is what we call and oxymoron.
Maybe these people are confusing herding dogs with LGD's but if there's evidence for this "Shepherd Way Theory" I haven't found it. And that idea is refuted in this National Geographic video on Maremmas, where the "shepherd" clearly states that the dogs, for the most part, take the sheep out all day long, by themselves, and then watch them all night, by themselves. The shepherds mainly see them in the morning before the animals go out to pasture and when the dogs bring the sheep back in for the night. No snuggling on the couch in front of the TV for these dogs. The point of LGD's is that they can and do work largely independently. (This video, by the way, was made by the uncle of the breeder of Pegaso, our imported Italian dog.)
Even if ancient Shepherds did spend hours a day interacting with and supervising their dogs those shepherds and dogs lived out on the open range with the sheep. They didn't live in warm, cozy houses with cable TV and internet. You can't take an old world, ancient way of managing LGD's and just plunk it down in our modern world and expect the results to be the same. Sitting on the couch watching TV with your LGD puppy for hours a day and then taking them out to do the farm chores for 30 minutes to and hour, or even a couple of hours, is not going to be enough to train that puppy how to be a Livestock Guardian Dog. You are training it to be a companion dog. Which is fine if you want a companion dog, but not if you need a LGD.
Yes there are adaptations and compromises that have to be made in order to keep a puppy safe while also ensuring the proper early socialization with stock, but if someone wants to be the "shepherd" to their LGD puppy the answer is NOT turning the puppy into a couch potato with token "livestock exposure" for an hour or so out of a 24 hour day. The answer is for a safe place to be made for the puppy in the barn or pasture so the puppy can be properly immersed with the livestock and for the "shepherd" to get outside and spend more time with the puppy, in their natural LGD setting. And for the puppy to have a working LGD partner or mentor, (or both) too.
The Best Place to Get Advice is From Real Experts
If you want to hear from an actual expert on Livestock Guardian Dogs you should read some of the books on the subject by Raymond Coppinger, professor emeritus of biology at Hampshire College, and his associates. In 1976, Ray and his wife Lorna founded the Livestock Guarding Dog Project at Hampshire College, where he conducted a long-term study of LGD's involving Maremma Sheepdogs as well as other breeds. For ten years the Coppingers compiled data from over 1,400 dogs in research that is still the single largest, long term study of LGDs in the world. They actually started a Maremma Sheepdog registry that predates the MSCA and many Maremmas in the United States are descended from dogs that were imported for the project.
Here's a quote from the Hampshire College website on Coppingers' work: "This long-term investigation into the behavior of a new kind of dog for farmers and ranchers in the United States has resulted in greater understanding of early developmental behavior of dogs, and how early experience (or lack of it) can affect adult behavior."
I don't know about you but I would rather get my LGD advice from real scientists and experts on the subject than from people on social media with no actual credentials, training, education or experience in the field.
"However, if you don't raise that set of genes in the proper environment, you won't get a good working dog either. Our experimental work has shown that there is a specific environment in which a livestock dog needs to be raised. If you don't raise the dog in that setting, you ruin its future as a livestock guardian dog. Not only do you ruin it for the moment, but there is no going back and correcting the mistake.
~"How Dogs Work" Raymond Coppinger & Mark Feinstein
Nature Versus Nurture
Comment: "Dogs with good breeding will learn from you modeling the desired behavior, because that’s how they’ve been raised for centuries"
Reply: Another non-science comment. First of all, dogs don't mimic the behavior of humans, or of other species. To a degree they mimic other dogs but even that is minimal. If it weren't then all I would need to do would be to pair one of my excellent adult LGD's with my puppies and juvenile dogs and the training would be done for me. I wish!
And no matter how much I pet my goats and tell the dogs "nice goat" it doesn't stop the chasing. Dogs don't do what they do to please us or because they love us. They do what their instincts, developmental stages and environments dictate. In order to stop the chasing the environment needs to be matched to their developmental stage (appropriate stock and conditions) and conducive to getting the behavior I want. And they need to be rewarded for the behavior that's desired to encourage more of it.
As far as the assertion that dogs with good breeding will naturally figure things out by curling up on the couch and watching TV, that is pure hogwash, not at all "how they've been raised for centuries" and not scientific at all. Again, in the words of an actual expert:
One of the greatest difficulties we have with dog breeders is that they believe their dogs' behavior is entirely hardwired and therefore inevitable - all you have to do is buy a livestock guardian dog and it will guard your sheep from predators. We ethologists, who otherwise agree that genetic hardwiring is a crucial dimension of behavior, find ourselves frustratingly saying, over and over, that farmers also have to pay attention to the developmental context: if you don't raise the dog in the proper environment, you ruin it's adult working performance. It's the nature-nurture conundrum all over again."
~"How Dogs Work" Raymond Coppinger & Mark Feinstein
And I for one prefer science over urban legends. What about you?
To learn more about Raymond Coppinger, his writings and his work with LGD's and this important topic, please read the blog post below by Cindy Benson. (Another actual expert on LGD's in general and Maremmas in particular.)
**Disclosure - I am one of the Admins on a Maremma Sheepdog training and discussions Facebook group called Maremma Sheepdog Open Forum so maybe it seems a bit ironic that I am warning people to not get their training advice on Facebook. However our group is science based and run by people with real training and experience with the breed. The admins all have businesses as Maremma breeders and/or trainers and have invested in professional training and education on the breed and on dog training and behavior. We have our own websites and blogs where we do most of our writing about the breed, with social media used as a way to educate and encourage those who love the breed, but not as our main or only platform. We do not allow the promoting of unscientific claims or urban legends on our group or anything that harms or endangers dogs. Our mission is to make the world a better and safer place for Maremmas, their owners and the livestock they guard through true education and encouragement. Our group is the only place on Facebook I recommend for training advice.
**I posted this on Facebook and as usual, got some pushback from people. There were a few comments as well as a long private conversation I had with someone today about the post so I wanted to clarify something that came up. When I refer to “The Shepherd Way” it has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with how real shepherds in Italy managed their dogs or still do. What I am referring to is Americans who cherry pick aspects of what I have been told Italian shepherds did/do without doing the whole thing.
For instance, I was told that Italian shepherds basically have house/barns, where the dogs can come and go freely between the part where the animals live and wher the humans live. I do not know if that's true but if it is that is nothing like what I see advocated on social media because most Americans don't have that kind of set-up. Do YOU have a barn attached to your house?
What’s more I don't think most Americans live anything like the ancient or even modern Italian shepherds did/do. Again, I don't know, but I would guess shepherds did and do spend hours a day outdoors with their dogs and stock. Most Americans spend the majority of their hours indoors, in front of some kind of screen, with very small amounts of time outdoors, even if they have a farm or homestead. And most people with farms have an off farm job. So where is this house puppy while the “shepherd” is at work?
My point is not that the real “shepherd way”, whatever that really is, doesn't work. I have great respect for these real shepherds. I just don't believe that's what is being promoted by most people who advocate this on social media. From my conversations and observations on these groups I only see people telling other people to “bring the puppy inside and be the shepherd” without clarifying or teaching them how to really do that. And that is what I have a problem with. I love real shepherds. Fake ones not so much.
And I also do not have a problem if people want to allow their LGD’s in the house. I still believe they should spend the majority of their time outside with the stock, but I doubt a visit to the house now and then will ruin a well started dog. (An improperly started one is another matter entirely.) I have clients who allow their pups in the house and I support their right to manage their pups as they see fit. My dogs might visit my house if I had a different set up. But my house is 300’ from my barn, with an unfenced area between them. I couldn’t have my dogs come in my house without putting them on a leash and walking them over, and if I did the animals would be unprotected. But if you want to bring your Maremma in your house more power to you!
Four to Five Weeks Old - Puppy Call & Barrier Challenges - Important and Fun Tools in Puppy Training
Once the puppies have gotten steady on their feet and mastered eating puppy mush we begin working on two very important protocols - The Puppy Call and Barrier Challenges. These activities can be combined or done separately.
The Puppy Call
One of the most important things a breeder can teach their pups is the Puppy Call, and it's very easy to do. We simply start feeding the puppies in an area away from where they are sleeping or playing so they have to come to the new area to get their food. Then every time we put the food down we call the puppies to us with a distinctive and ridiculous sounding "puppy, puppy puppy", over and over and over, until all the puppies have arrived. It doesn't take long before the puppies associate the call with food, and they stop everything they are doing and come running. After we have introduced treats and clicker training to the puppies we can also use the call and reward them with treats other than puppy food. We like to use high value treats such as meat balls or baked chicken. The important thing is that it should be VERY rewarding for the puppies to answer that call!
The Puppy Call is the first step to teaching the puppies recall, which everyone seems to struggle with teaching their Maremmas. If the new owner continues to practice the Puppy Call at home they will retain it. It can be a very valuable safety tool if the puppy gets loose. And by gradually adding in their name the "puppy" can be phased out and you have now taught your dog to come when called. That's not to say your older Maremma will always immediately come if they think something else is more interesting, but like everything else, it's easier to teach a puppy this fun game during their critical socialization period than when they are older.
Another important tool we use is Barrier Challenges. We use a variety of "obstacles" that the puppies must navigate to get from point A to point B. Things like pool noodles, different surfaces to walk on, steps up and down into the dog door and the Puppy Parlor door and x-pens make great barrier challenges. Sometimes they simply navigate them of their own accord to get where they want to go and sometimes we use them in conjunction with feeding or treat time to give them extra motivation. Barrier Challenges teach puppies problem solving as well as how to deal with frustration. And a dog that's not easily frustrated is less likely to behave aggressively with people, other dogs or stock.
Four and a half weeks old and they are pros at coming when called for dinner! And yes, my two bottle raised rescue kittens know the puppy call, too! We are training the kittens right along with the puppies.
Here are the pups, coming into the Puppy Parlor from outside, where they are rewarded with meatballs. We also added a barrier challenge in the form of an x-pen fence around the step. You can see that the last couple of puppies got a little frustrated but they kept trying and eventually got around it and got their reward.
This was a very big challenge for the puppies. I had them in the kennel by the Puppy Parlor while my farm employee, Ethan, was raking the pasture. When he was done he released them while I stood by the gate and called them. My son Noah helped me film and feed the puppies when they arrived. (I should have brought a bigger dish of meatballs, or maybe their dinner. It's hard to feed and film and call puppies all at once.) They had only been in this part of the puppy pasture for a few days and this was a lot for them to navigate and figure out. Where was I? Which way should they go? Plus the last couple of puppies were very distracted by Ethan and thought they should stay and play with him. (Usually I'm by myself when I do the Puppy Call and there are no interesting people around.) If I had thought it through I might have done things differently but as it turned out it was a very good challenge for them and they all eventually made it to the gate and the meatballs! Great job, puppies!
I am one of the admins on a science-based Maremma Facebook group called Maremma Sheepdog Open Forum. One of the main goals of our group is to provide accurate, scientific and up to date information to anyone interested in this wonderful breed. We have had some great posts lately from people seeking to learn more about how to find an ethical breeder to buy Maremmas from, as well as how to choose breeding stock and make wise decisions for those who would like to start their own breeding programs. These are such wonderful questions that I decided that I would start a series of blog posts on the topic, breaking down each area of importance and examining it further.
There are so many considerations when choosing a breeder: temperament and working ability (number one in my book), the health and soundness of the breeding stock, pedigrees, conformation, DNA testing, COI's, how the parent dogs are utilized by the breeder, (Are they true working dogs or just pretty lawn ornaments?), how the puppies are socialized both with stock and with people and in other ways. Puppies locked in a barn and barely handled are really no better than pampered pups raised by a pool as "estate guardians" with no stock exposure. Both are being deprived of what they need to grow into great LGD's. I can't cover all the things to look for in one post so I will start with one of the most important, in my book, the importance of sound hips in breeding dogs.
When I first began building my program I knew nothing about health testing and definitely knew little about Hip Dysplasia. I had previously bred small dogs and hadn't really owned many large breeds. I googled "health problems of Maremmas" and couldn't find much. I knew that Hip Dysplasia was a problem in many large breeds so I asked other Maremma owners and breeders about it and was mostly told "Maremmas don't get Hip Dysplasia". I was also told that Maremmas can be sensitive to anesthesia and this seemed to be a common reason some people gave for not doing radiographs on their breeding dogs. It definitely scared me. Who wants to send their dog for an elective procedure and risk losing it? What I later learned is that the first part is absolutely not true and is usually told by people who don't test their dogs because of financial reasons. And as for the risk of anesthesia I learned it's really very minimal. And after watching my own veterinarian perform procedures on several of my dogs under anesthesia I'm no more worried about anesthesia than I would be about any other risk.
My first Maremmas were unregistered so no one did hip testing on them. But when I decided to start breeding registered dogs I contacted a lot of MSCA breeders, looking for suitable dogs. I was surprised at the disparity I found. There were the breeders that did no hip testing at all. They told me things like "I've had these lines for years and none of the dogs have had hip dysplasia." Or the "Maremmas don't get HD" line. I almost fell for it but I decided if I was going to go to the expense of buying expensive breeding stock I needed more reassurance than that.
I bought only dogs from parents who had passing hip scores according to the MSCA. All were Code of Ethics breeders, but getting the hip testing info was a little tricky, and understanding it was even trickier. But I trusted that if they were a COE breeder they were breeding the best dogs possible and making all the right decisions. What I later learned was that some breeders use the Code of Ethics more as a marketing tool than anything else. The COE says that dogs should have at least a fair OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) score or a PennHip score of 0.51 or lower to breed. So some breeders aim for the lowest passing score. As long as it passes they will breed it. That can be disastrous. What I didn't know until later is that while "fair" is passing you shouldn't breed a fair to a fair, or you have a higher chance of passing on hip dysplasia. And that a 0.51 PennHip score is really too high. The breed average is 0.42, so why does the Code of Ethics accept much higher scores? That's not a question I can answer but personally I want to breed better than average dogs.
Another thing that took me a really long time to learn and that was very shocking, is that some Code of Ethics breeders will breed a dog based on preliminary OFA scores. There are two ways you can score a dog's hips: PennHip or OFA. PennHip can only be done by specially trained vets with very expensive equipment. It costs a lot more to do than OFA ($600-700 the last time I had it done, about 2 years ago.) and the dog must be anesthetized to do it, but the results are accurate as early as 16 weeks.
For OFA rads the dog doesn't have to be anesthetized (though a good vet will insist on it) and it's much, much cheaper to do ($150-300 in my area) and any vet can do it. The drawbacks are that the interpretation is very subjective (the opinion of 3 vets, rather than the precise measurements of PennHip) and that you can't get a final score until the dog is 2 years old. That's a long time to wait to see if your dog will pass or fail. But most ethical breeders will do just that. They will wait. Sadly not all breeders are ethical.
With OFA you can test as early as 16 weeks, just like PennHip. The difference is that with OFA that's only considered a preliminary score. Why? Because the score often changes with age with OFA, and usually not for the better. I have heard a fellow Code of Ethics breeder lament that their dog had an "excellent" preliminary score but later was downgraded to fair. But this very same breeder routinely breeds dogs that are under 2 years old, based on their preliminary OFA scores. Their reasoning is that the COE doesn't say it has to be a final score, so they are within compliance. But just aiming for compliance wise, or ethical? What if they breed the dog and later it scores poorly? You could now have hip dysplasia in the gene pool and there's nothing you can do about it.
This breeder could get a PennHip exam on their dogs and know for sure but they feel that it's "too expensive". They could wait until the dogs are 2 years old and have had their final OFA exams done, but they feel that's "unfair" for them to wait. So they take a calculated risk with their breeding program. Which is their right to do. But let the buyer beware! If you buy from such a breeder it is YOU who are taking the risk! And I, for one, am not willing to take that risk, now that I fully understand it.
Luckily all my dogs passed their PennHip exams and received excellent scores, but it was pins and needles waiting for the results. But I was not so lucky. I know of people who have bought dogs under such conditions who not only didn't pass but who acquired hip dysplasia. The saddest case I have heard was a sweet dog named Marco, who was diagnosed with bilateral Hip Dysplasia at under a year old. This dog was bought for breeding and the buyer paid extra for breeding rights. The breeder offered the buyer no compensation at all. Not even the extra that was paid for breeding rights. The buyer had to purchase a new stud dog and Marco had to be neutered. He can't even work a full day as a LGD. He will live the rest of his life on expensive pain meds and joint supplements. So much for the "Maremmas don't get Hip Dysplasia" line. Tell that to Marco's owner.
Now I'm not saying that Marco's breeder purposely did anything unethical, and sometimes no matter how hard you try bad things happen. But I am saying that there most definitely is hip dysplasia in the breed, and the best way to prevent it is for breeders to make ethical breeding decisions and for buyers to do their research and ask lots of questions. And if you don't like the answers find another breeder!
Another sign of commitment in a breeder is whether they have requirements the owners and the dogs they sell must meet in order to get obtain breeding rights. Some breeders only require the buyer to pay more money and breeding rights are given, without knowing whether the dogs will pass or fail their testing, and with no plan for what will happen if they don't. (Or testing isn't required.) Other breeders either require hip testing to be done by the new owner in order to obtain breeding rights, or they do it themselves before the puppy is picked up, for an additional fee to cover the cost of the test. If the dog doesn't pass they aren't bred. We considered doing the PennHip on breeding candidates we sell but have chosen to have the new owners do it, so that they are showing a financial and ethical commitment before they can breed. All puppies leave here in Limited Registration, which is only changed to full if and when all the requirements of the contract are met, number one being a passing hip score not only for the dog purchased from us, but for any intended mate. And we never charge extra for breeding rights. Breeding rights are earned by the puppy and the owner, not bought.
The breeder (now retired) who taught me the most about Hip Dysplasia in Maremmas is Cindy Benson, of Benson Maremmas Training. Cindy has single-handedly raised the bar for Maremmas by testing every puppy from every litter she's ever produced. The real reason the myth that "Maremmas don't get hip dysplasia" exists and the reason that a score of .51 used to be "normal" is because before Cindy started breeding very few people did test Maremmas. Hip testing used to not even be required by the MSCA Code of Ethics. But because of the efforts of ethical breeders like Cindy that changed. Not enough, apparently, but baby steps are better than nothing.
Cindy used to have an entire page on the subject of Hip Testing but she deleted it when she stopped breeding. It was quite impressive so hopefully she can recreate it, because its very needed information. For now she has shared two radiographs with me. One is of a dog she bred, with an unbelievably impressive score. The other is of a nine month old female dog who was imported for breeding purposes but who failed her testing terribly. Even if you know nothing about judging radiographs its easy to see the difference. Which dog do you want in your breeding program? Or even just guarding your stock. Being a LGD is hard work. Hip Dysplasia isn't just painful. It can prevent a dog from doing the job it was bought to do. So if you think it only matters for breeding dogs think again. Marco's owner would beg to differ. She didn't just lose a breeding dog. She lost part of her work force. She loves Marco and wouldn't trade him for the world, but she will have to watch him deal with the effects of a disease that might have been prevented if different choices had been made. A disease that could be greatly reduced if breeders act in a truly ethical manner.
Above are photos of the rads on a 9 month old female dog that was imported for breeding, who failed her hip testing, and an 18 week old female puppy bred by Cindy Benson. Cindy's puppy has an incredible score of R 0.15 and L 0.14. I know which dog I would choose!
I don't have this specific dog in my program but I do have four dogs bred by Cindy Benson. All have fantastic scores. Below are their scores, as well as the scores of my other current MSCA registered breeding dogs. This is what everyone should look for in a breeder or strive for as a breeder. Embark testing, COI's - all that stuff is great, but no hips, no LGD's. Let's start with what really matters.
The Transitional Period begins when the eyes start to open and end when the puppies startle at sudden sights our sounds. On "average" this period is from 2-3 weeks, but this varies by breed and by puppy. We have found Maremmas to be a precocious breed with some puppies' eyes beginning to open as early as 7 or 8 days old. Therefore we find that our puppies enter and exit the Transitional Period well before they ever hit 3 weeks old. So basically don't blink or you will miss it!
Maremma puppies also begin walking around a week or so old. True to their breed they are practically born barking. ☺️
Twelve day old "toddlers" learning to walk. It's vitally important that puppies have soft bedding in the whelping box. This serves to keep them warm and dry, as well as to give them "traction" when they start walking. Puppies raised on improper footing can develop joint problems.
As soon as puppies enter the Transitional Period we discontinue ENS and ESI and begin Enrichment. The puppies are introduced to at least one new item or experience each day. This includes tactile items like toys and different kinds of footing. (Rugs, rubber mats, fleece, etc.) and interesting household items they can look at and explore.
The Neonatal Period lasts for approximately the first 2 weeks. During this time the puppies eyes and ears are closed. We weigh the puppies daily, charting their progress on their individual record forms. Any pups that don't gain are supplemented with a little bit of either homemade or commercial goat milk formula. (We prefer homemade if we have goats in milk, or frozen milk previously stored from our goats.)
(I call the puppies "baked potatoes" during this time because that's what they look like!)
We have everything we need for our daily puppy care routine at out fingertips in our Puppy Parlor: baby scale and kitchen scale for weighing puppies, individual record sheets, ENS/ESI supplies, sheep paint for marking pups, bottles and formula for supplementing as needed and all the charts for puppy enrichment laminated and at eye level on the cabinets.
A mixing bowl and a food scale is perfect for weighing puppies - for about a week! After that we move to an infant scale. Then by about a month or so we move to a dog scale. These pups grow so fast! But getting regular weights is important, both for ensuring the puppies are gaining as well as for properly dosing regular parasite prevention. To see our parasite and vaccine protocol and products we use go here.
ENS & ESI
During the Neonatal Period we do Early Neurological Stimulation (ENS) and Early Scent Introduction (ESI) with the puppies. ENS and ESI are discontinued once the puppies' eyes begin to open, which is actually closer to 1-1.5 weeks for Maremma puppies.
Benefits of Early Neurological Stimulation
With Early Scent Introduction we focus mostly on introducing "farm scents" like goat hair, poultry feathers, hay and other scents to our puppies, mixing in a few household scents for variety. Interestingly enough every single one of Marcella's puppies showed a distinct interest in the goat hair scent, sticking their noses deep into the canister to sniff it.
Notes on Early Neurological Stimulation
Early Neurological Stimulation is not the same as socialization. It’s not giving the puppies toys or enrichment items. It’s not exposure to livestock. It is a very specific set of exercises designed to stress the puppies very slightly, and can only be performed in the first 2 weeks.
It's important to keep the puppies' nails trimmed regularly so that they don't scratch their dams, which could lead to infected teats or mastitis. Keeping the nails trimmed also ensures the puppies are able to gain good footing as the begin walking, which, with Maremma puppies, is as soon as one week old! Cat nail trimmers are perfect for trimming puppy nails.
All new moms deserve a little pampering and dogs are no different. Marcella enjoys a little break from the puppies every now and then. Mama dogs should always have a way to get away from the puppies, especially as they grow and get more demanding with their sharp little teeth and nails. Moms that don't have a way to get a break can become aggressive towards their puppies, which in turn can cause the puppies themselves to become either fearful, aggressive or both. An aggressive LGD is unsafe with stock, humans and other dogs and a fearful LGD is harder to manage than a happy, well-adjusted one.
I prefer to give my moms a "maternity clip" before they whelp. This helps keep everything clean and dry, helps the pups find the teats more easily and makes inspecting for mastitis and other issues easier. It's especially helpful since LGD moms go outside with the stock and bring so much of the outdoors back in with them. It helps keep the whelping box and the puppies a little bit cleaner without all that excess hair for dirt and debris to stick to.
There will be some discharge for a while after whelping so regular "butt baths" keep Marcella clean, dry and comfortable. We also check her for signs of mastitis or scratches or bites from the puppies, which could lead to a painful infection.
We use Arlo and Ring cameras to keep an eye on Marcella and the puppies no matter where we are. Whelping pads are changed daily to keep everyone clean, dry and comfortable.
Moms tend to have looser stool for a while after giving birth. This is largely because of them eating the placentas and eating the puppy poop, which they do for several weeks. We add Doc Roy's GI Symbiotics and Pumpkin Powder to their food, as well as Kaolin Pectin, to help firm things up. We also add calcium citrate powder twice a day. Calcium deficiency can cause moms to be neurotic or aggressive with their puppies. Extra calcium usually keeps them calm and happy, and protects their own bodies from being robbed of calcium to feed the puppies. We mix all this into either raw goat milk from our goats or a little canned dog food.
Due to their Critical Learning Periods, puppies learn and retain more in the first 12 weeks than they ever will for the rest of their lives. Raising puppies in an enriched environment has proven to result in the following intellectual and emotional benefits:
•Improved ability to learn and remember
•More emotional stability
•Better resiliency to stress
In addition to socializing our puppies to livestock from an early age, we also utilize a well laid out "Puppy Curriculum" to help them reach their full potential. We utilize Puppy Culture, Badass Breeder Curriculum, Avidog, Karen Pryor Puppy Start Right and other resources. Rather than trying to "wing it" and remember what to do with the puppies as they grow we have these great resources to help keep us on track. Puppies are individuals, therefore each puppy is allowed to go at their own pace and comfort level with the activities, but having these great resources the refer to keeps us on track!
We laminated the BAB and Puppy Culture activity sheets and posted them on the Puppy Parlor cabinets so we can easily refer to them.
On October 4th, 2022, Marcella of MoonAcre Maremmas whelped a beautiful litter Of Maremma Sheepdog puppies sired by Unfinished Acres Sevro. There are ten adorable pups, 6 boys and 4 girls. I am going to document the progress and training of the puppies in a series of blog posts with the category of "Follow Marcella's 2022 Litter". Stay tuned for more updates as these pups grow and mature into amazing Livestock Guardian Dogs!
Proud parents Sevro and Marcella, with their Mini Nubian goats. They are both excellent Livestock Guardian Dogs as well as loving, affectionate dogs. To see their individual pages with their pedigrees, PennHip scores and DNA results click on their names.
All the supplies are ready for the delivery, including the Puppy Warmer Incubator and Oxygen Concentrator, which can (and has) saved the lives of struggling pups. We use a 54" x 54"Lakeside Products Magnabox Whelping Box, lined with whelping pads and washable bed pads which we change or add to as the pups are born. Whelping puppies is very messy and wet business so I do my best to keep Marcella and the pups dry and comfortable without being too intrusive. Marcella gets fast acting Breeder's Edge calcium gel, starting after the first puppy is delivered and continued in between each pup to keep the labor progressing and to prevent what I call the "post partum crazies".
Our newly installed cabinets and countertop came in very handy for recording each puppy and doing everything we needed to in order to ensure the pups got a good start in the world. I quickly discovered another upgrade I need to make, though. I like to keep the overhead lights off so the moms (and I) can rest between pups, but then it's too dark to see at the counter. So I am going to have my electrician install some under cabinet lights for when I just need lights for working but don't want the bright room lights on.
Since my dogs seem to prefer to deliver late at night I always spend the night in the Puppy Parlor with them. The air mattress isn't very comfortable but it beats sleeping on the floor, or in the barn like I used to do! The first puppy arrived around 12:30 AM and the last around 10 AM so it was a long but good night!
The first puppy arrives!
After a long night Marcella is the proud mom of ten beautiful pups! Great job! I did a quick whelping pad change after all the pups were born and then both of us took a long nap!
Will My Dog's Behavior Improve? What are Critical Learning Periods in Puppies, Why do They Matter, and What Should you do if You've Missed Them?
An 8 week old maremma puppy snuggling with a baby goat. Both animals are right at home and well bonded, as they should be.
I am an admin on Maremma Sheepdog Open Forum, a Facebook group for Maremma owners and enthusiasts. This group is run by me and some other Maremma trainers so we often get questions about training issues. A question popped up recently, which I am quoting below. This is a scenario I hear ALL the time on our group and through my own website and business page, so I decided to write a blog post about the topic.
Here is the question:
"Seeking advice: I am working on a homestead in upstate NY, I arrived here a couple of weeks ago. The owners of the land recently acquired two 10 month old Maremmas (they are sisters as well). They acquired them late due to the original breeder having someone back out last minute, and then struggled to home them. Needless to say, they were not bonded with goats or sheep (they apparently grew up in a pig pen). They are now with 5 kids and 3 adult goats and chasing them CONSTANTLY. They will at times latch onto hind legs, and nip at their sides. Thankfully skin hasn't been broken yet, but unless they are supervised all day, they will spend all their time chasing the goats. So far, we have separated the Maremmas so they don't encourage each other. They share a fence line however so they can see each other and be comforted by each other's presence. We try to keep the herding border collie away for the time being, as it seemed like they were mimicking her herding instincts. We are worried that they were brought into the herd way at a much too late age, and aren't going to improve. Any suggestions are experience with this is very much appreciated!"
Here are my thoughts on the issues raised:
This is a disaster waiting to happen and unfortunately it's a story that I hear all too often. There are so many things going on here that it's going to take a long post to cover it all.
First of all there are two big red flags here and one well-intentioned mistake. First, it's not at all appropriate for 10 month old pups to be unsupervised with baby goats or sheep. Some rare pups mature early but they are the exception, not the rule. Most LGD's aren't considered trustworthy with baby ruminants or poultry until age 2 or later. It's not because they are bad pups. It's because they are pups. So remove the baby goats ASAP. Ten month old puppies shouldn't be guarding baby goats, particularly when little is known about the history, breeding or early socialization of the pups.
Second, a LGD should NEVER, EVER have unsupervised time with the stock in the presence of a herding dog or any non-LGD. It's ok for your LGD to interact with your other dogs, but not with the stock unless you trust your non-LGD and you are physically supervising the interactions and are sure the other dog isn't teaching the LGD's fun new games. The LGD's most certainly can and probably will pick up bad habits from the herding dog. And this is not because your herding dog is bad. It's because he's a herding dog. LGDS's and herding dogs are both purpose bred dogs. Bred for polar opposite purposes. (The OP knows this but I'm stressing it for the sake of those that don't.)
And lastly, these pups need to (temporarily) be separated from the stock but NOT from each other. LGD's need partners and young LGD's need appropriate playmates. A goat, sheep or chicken isn't a suitable playmate. Another puppy is. Usually allowing the puppy to have a partner reduces inappropriate behavior with stock. BUT if the puppies weren't properly socialized to begin with or have picked up bad habits, or if the stock isn't suited to the pups, then peer pressure can kick in and they can sometimes get into trouble together. You may need to separate the puppies from the stock temporarily, until you get things under control. So for now I would put both pups together next to the goats and don't allow either of them unsupervised with the animals until you can assess the situation and come up with a new plan.
Now to address the root of the problem and the question of whether the pups can improve or not.
People sometimes acquire puppies or dogs from dubious sources or without knowing much or anything about how those pups were raised. Then they are shocked and dismayed when they find the very dogs they bought to protect the stock have become a danger to them. It's not the new owners' fault. Most people really don't have any idea what's involved in properly socializing and training a LGD. In most cases they trusted the person who sold them the dogs and that person took the money and is long gone, not willing to give advice or point them to truly helpful resources and certainly not willing to take the puppies back. This is really a shame. In my opinion the breeder's responsibility to the puppies they bred continues as long as those dogs live. Meaning they should give lifetime support, encouragement and advice to the owner and be willing to take the dogs back if the owner can no longer keep them for ANY reason. But instead they either ignore the new puppy owner or tell them it must be their fault. It's not that a breeder can fix every problem but they certainly should do their best to help. But since this breeder in question obviously can't or won't support the buyer of her pups I'll do my best to give advice, and to share my own experiences with such dogs. (Yes, unfortunately I've had to learn this lesson the hard way, too. Which is why I feel so strongly about the subject.)
Pups chasing and harassing stock is a very serious issue. Now I am not talking about the occasional case of the "zoomies" many young dogs get. The zoomies is when the puppy is full of energy and feeling good and they suddenly decide that those goats or sheep would make a fun toy. There's a playful energy to it, not an aggressive one. It's still inappropriate but it's different, and usually pretty easy to fix by redirecting or switching out the stock. Nor am I talking about poultry. All pups need to be carefully supervised with poultry and most aren't totally poultry safe until around age 2, though some do mature earlier. But dogs of this age aggressively chasing and biting larger stock like sheep or goats is an entirely different matter. And there are multiple issues at play here.
The first is that the livestock needs to be matched to the developmental stage of the puppies. Baby lambs or goats are not appropriate stock for most 10 month old pups. They can visit the babies under supervision if they are well mannered, but they shouldn't be left alone with them. (I rarely leave any dog under age 2 unsupervised with baby animals or poultry.) Pups this age need to be with ADULT stock and the stock needs to be of the right temperament. You do not want aggressive stock because they could cause the pups to become fearful or even aggressive if they feel threatened and bullied. Regardless of what some people will tell you an animal that continually head butts a puppy for no reason is NOT a good puppy trainer.
On the other hand excessively flighty stock is also bad. A goat or sheep that runs every time the puppies make the slightest move actually excites the puppy and encourages it to chase. Chasing is a self rewarding behavior and once the puppy learns the habit it's very hard to break. So if you have such flighty stock you need to get them away from the puppy immediately. Even my goats, who have all been around Maremmas all their lives, do not all make suitable puppy trainers. Often times I'll notice a puppy chasing and all I need to do is remove one goat who's acting like a silly lunatic and everything is calm again. What you want is stock that looks at the puppy pulling on its ears as if to say "buzz off, kid" and completely ignores them. The puppy gets bored and the chasing stops. They still might try it again, because they are puppies, after all, but they will try it less and less. And when they realize they're not getting the response they want they will eventually quit trying.
Another issue is that most people, when they first get their LGD's, have stock that have never been around a LGD. They think of dogs as predators (because they are!) and they are sure you've lost your mind for bringing one into their midst. So that's why putting the puppy and the stock side by side, until they are acclimated to each other, is important. If you keep them side by side until the stock calmly accepts the puppy then you'll have a lot less chasing when you do put them together. If you bought your puppy from a breeder that properly socializes their pups with stock the pups will seek out the comfort of your stock and will be more likely to behave calmly. But your stock needs to get used to your pup. So give them time.
Polar has lived with these goats her entire life and they with her. Katniss (the doe) is completely comfortable with Polar interacting with her newborn kids. This behavior in both animals is the result of proper socialization as babies.
What if your puppies didn't get the best start?
The other big contributing factor in stock chasing is improper socialization with stock when the pups were small. (Or no socialization at all.) This is a huge problem and more common than it should be. Irresponsible breeders put little to no effort into socializing the puppies and then a scenario like the OP's is the result. If you bought your pups from a breeder that failed to socialize the pups properly to stock then you're probably going to have a really hard time of it and a lot of work ahead of you. Contrary to what some people will tell you it's not all instinct with LGD's. It really does take nature AND nurture to produce a great LGD. You can't buy a puppy from a breeder who raises them in their house or on their patio and then put it out with your stock and expect instincts to just take over. It doesn't work that way. And if that breeder tells you that's an acceptable way to do it they are either lying to you or are ignorant of puppy development. LGD’s need to be socialized to stock almost from birth, in order to maximize the chances of success.
All puppies have a critical socialization period that begins once their ears and eyes open and end at roughly 12-14 weeks. (It varies by breed and dog.) This is when puppies need to be socialized INTENSIVELY with livestock, as well as with humans and to a variety of sights, sounds and experiences. A responsible breeder will have their puppies in close proximity to stock as soon as safely possibly. Definitely BEFORE 6 weeks and honestly by 3-4 weeks (with protected contact at first ) is the minimum I would accept. Once they can see and hear well they should be seeing and hearing the stock they will guard, or similar stock. If all they are seeing is the swimming pool, patio or the couch and TV then you've got a problem. And taking those patio pups for a walk past the chicken coop occasionally or even daily is NOT enough. In order to learn the "language" and "culture" of livestock, puppies need to be immersed in that "culture" 24/7 DURING the critical learning period. Those first 12 weeks are more important than any other time in the dog's entire life. You can certainly still train an older pup who missed this critical learning window, but the dog will never live up to their full potential. And it WILL be more work for you, I'm sorry to say. How do I know that? Because I made the same mistake myself. 🤦🏻♀️ So don't feel bad if you did it, because it's only through my own mistakes that I have learned these hard lessons. But hard lessons often help us grow and learn and do better so let my mistakes help you.
These 4 week old pups are at the beginning of the Socialization period. They are fearless and curious about the world. Look how they interact with the goats! Experiences they do and don't have during this time will shape them into the dogs they will become. LGD puppies need to be interacting with livestock NOW, not living in a house or on a patio. A breeder who raises their puppies in a home setting instead of a barn setting for the first 8-16 weeks is socializing them to be companion dogs, not LGD's. If you need a LGD buy a puppy that has been raised as one.
Three Kinds of Breeders
I have acquired Maremmas from eight different breeders and I have bred and raised several dogs of my own, as well as kept in contact with multiple clients who've bought my pups over the years. I am not here to criticize other breeders, as we all have our own preferences and need to do what works for us. Raising puppies is hard work. Raising puppies and keeping them healthy and safe while also socializing them properly to livestock is REALLY hard work. Not everyone wants to sleep in the barn with their pregnant dogs (what I did before I built my puppy parlor) or trek back and forth to the barn to take care of those puppies for weeks on end. Personally I think if you want to raise puppies in your house or on your patio you should breed companion dogs instead of working LGD's but that's not my choice to make. It IS my choice to not ever buy puppies from such a breeder again and I won't. I have learned my lesson, several times. (Apparently once was not enough for me.) I won't make that mistake again. I promise.
The way I see it there are three ways breeders raise LGD puppies. First there are the "puppy mill" breeders. They are truly just lazy and greedy and are churning out pups without any real effort and with the least expense in order to maximize profits. The puppies could very well be "raised in a barn" but they still may not be getting any interaction with stock or any training. These are pups such as the OP's pups who were "raised in a pig pen". Often these pups are of questionable parentage and health. Unvaccinated, fed cheap dog food. These are the Craigslist dogs. Breed them, house them for 8 weeks (or less) and sell them quick and cheap. Repeat, repeat, repeat... These are the people that give breeders a bad name and they should be stopped. They should be arrested.
Then there are the "estate guardian" breeders. They are usually well to do and live in beautiful, high dollar homes with acreage. They may have a few token sheep, horses or chickens but they aren't serious farmers or homesteaders. They just like having a "cool" or "rare" breed to lay around looking pretty and keeping coyotes from pooping on their fancy lawns. They usually have beautiful, well bred, healthy dogs, which are registered and health tested. They may have even imported dogs or acquired them from great breeding programs. Their dogs truly are beautiful but most often they aren't really LGD's. They are pool and patio guardians. These breeders put little to no effort into socializing their pups to livestock. Since that's not how they use their own dogs they don't understand the importance. They feel that keeping their puppies on their patio or in their house for the first weeks or months is perfectly acceptable. Maybe they just don't understand puppy development or maybe they do but they feel the compromise is worth it. They believe that it's reasonable for them to raise the pups on their patio or in the comfort of their own home for 2, 3 or 4 months and then the new owners can take the puppies home and do the rest. And this works great if the new owners need their pool or patio guarded. Not so much if they need their goats, sheep or chickens guarded. Remember the "critical learning periods"? This method wastes the best time of the puppies' lives. In my opinion these breeders are almost as bad as the puppy mill breeders. Sure they might be taking good care of their puppies but what about the stock those puppies are going to harass and maybe even kill, all because they didn't want to train their puppies? Breeding dogs that will be responsible for the safety and very lives of other creatures is a very serious responsibility and shouldn't be taken lightly.
Last are the truly "good breeders". These people are real farmers, livestock breeders and homesteaders. They depend on their dogs to keep their livestock safe, so they understand what it takes to produce a great LGD. They breed the kind of dogs they themselves need; true working LGD's. Their dogs might be registered or they might not, but the difference is in the effort, time and work the breeders put into their pups to ensure they are breeding true LGD's and not pool guardians, nor puppies that look like they came out of a rescue. These pups are born in a barn or a building near the stock, like my puppy parlor, or a dairy goat milking parlor or some similar set up designed to keep the pups safe and healthy without compromising the socialization of the pups with stock. These breeders put a lot of time and work into their pups. The pups and their parents are healthy, well fed and receive proper veterinary care. And they are well loved, too. Hopefully the parents are health tested but not all are. But the puppies get the safe, gentle, intensive early socialization with livestock as well as with humans and various experiences that will ensure they are set up for success in their new homes. This is how I raise my pups and the only kind of breeder I will buy pups from, now that I've truly seen the difference.
Six week old Maremma puppies learning the language of goats and chickens.
We all Make Mistakes
Luckily I have never made the mistake of buying puppies from a puppy mill breeder. I have acquired puppies from both the "estate guardian" breeder and the "good" breeder. The difference in these pups when I brought them home was striking. The difference is still apparent as juvenile or adult dogs. Now I didn't purposely set out to acquire "estate guardian" dogs. It just never occurred to me until AFTER I had several of these dogs in my possession that not everyone raises puppies the way I do, and the way the breeders I respect do. And I didn't realize the impact the puppies' early socialization would have on them, and me. I thought, like so many people do, that once I got these puppies home and put them out with my goats and other livestock that everything would go great. Boy was I wrong.
These dogs were all between 8 weeks and 4 months old when I brought them home. All had various issues. Some dogs simply didn't bond well to my livestock (not wanting to be near them), some of them harassed and chased my goats constantly and aggressively, some not only killed chickens but ate them. (I didn't let them with the chickens but my chickens trust white dogs and sadly they trusted the wrong dogs and sometimes wandered where they shouldn't have.) I had strangers driving by stop and knock on my door to tell me the dogs were harassing the goats. The most problematic of all the dogs actually broke a goat's leg. (She had seemed to be doing well but then she regressed.)
This is Cedar, with Benson Ranch Celeste. Celeste was bred by Cindy Benson and has guarded my goats since she was 9 months old. She is an excellent LGD, gentle and sweet. Cedar's leg was broken by a different dog. Despite the fact that another dog hurt her Cedar still completely trusts Celeste. The difference is how the dogs act around the goats. Celeste never chases or harasses the goats. She was raised with sheep since she was a tiny puppy, taking advantage of her critical learning period. (Her puppyhood is documented on the Benson Ranch Training Blog - Follow Blush's Litter series.) This allowed her to come to my farm and immediately go in with my goats. They trust her completely, as do I. Cindy does a better job than anyone I know of in socializing and training her pups and I am blessed to have four of her dogs in my breeding program.
Nature or Nurture?
Now you might think this is bad genetics and for a while I worried that it was, too. But some of these dogs are completely unrelated to each other and some of them are related to dogs without temperament problems that were bred by me or by other breeders. The one difference is the early socialization of the puppies. If they were raised similarly to how I raise my pups they acclimated to my herd immediately and had few, if any, issues with inappropriate behavior with stock. If they were not raised in this manner they were hell on wheels. I have owned and trained a lot of Maremmas and I have NEVER been so challenged as I have been by these dogs. Unfortunately once I had them I couldn't do much but try to manage them. I certainly couldn't sell them to someone as LGD's. That would be disastrous and I'm not going to do that to the person or the dog. I would either end up getting the dogs back with more problems than before, or they would get dumped. And they might harm or even kill someone's stock. Definitely not an option. They are friendly with humans and I considered placing some of them in pet homes but the right home never came along. So here they stayed. And I won't lie, it's been ROUGH. But we are finely, after months and months, seeing progress. The older the dogs get the more they have settled.
But I had to be VERY careful about livestock selection with all of them, as well as choosing partners for them. I'm very committed to having my dogs be with livestock as well as to always have a working partner. All of these dogs are dominant with other dogs so finding a dog they get along with was tricky. (I couldn't put them all together because they would fight with each other. Each one needed a very mellow dog partner, which meant that my easier dogs were often required to be put on babysitting duty with these difficult dogs, which is somewhat of a waste of their talent.) Finding stock they could be safe with was even trickier. Some absolutely couldn't be trusted with poultry, though one is better with poultry than with goats. Some chase horses, which would normally be a good choice for "biker chick" dogs. Some of them were too rough for my dairy goat does but did ok with my Mini Nubian bucks, who are big and stinky and not easily intimidated. I experimented until I found stock each dog seemed to do well with as well as a partner they got along with. Then I kept watching for signs of either problems or improvement. Over time they all made progress, though it was very slow progress. Most of them have progressed from bucks, to larger Nubian and Mini Nubian does, to Nigerian Dwarf does. (One of them is still only with the larger does but I will try her with Nigerians soon.) One of them is now guarding chickens and ducks and behaving perfectly. Another that used to chase horses is much better with them. I haven't tried them with baby goats yet but I think eventually they will be ok with them. Maybe not newborns but older kids.
How did I achieve these results? Well I didn't shock the dogs or use dangle sticks or any aversive, that's for sure. What training I did was only positive because that's the only way I train. But mostly I just matched the dogs with stock they could be safe with and dogs they got along with and waited for them to mature. Sometimes I made mistakes, such as when Cedar's leg was broken. Then it was back to the buck pasture for that dog. For most of them they were around 1.5-2 years old before I saw any real improvement. But luckily once I did things moved pretty quickly. For some it was almost like a switch went off. They just matured and got tired of their games. Mostly. They grew up.
But what's very telling is that I see the same level of maturity out of 6-10 month old pups that were bred and raised by me or breeders who use similar methods as I do out of these 18-24 month old dogs that were raised the opposite way. So yeah, these dogs can improve, but boy is it a lot of work. And I for one do not want to work that hard or wait that long for a puppy to mature and stop harassing stock. I would rather spend the first few months working hard to do everything I can to ensure those pups get a good start so I can relax later. But that's what works for me. Work smarter, not harder. Which is why I now ask to see PROOF (photos) of how a breeder socializes their pups before I'll consider buying a puppy from them. I don't care how beautiful your dog is or how good its hip scores are, if those puppies haven't gotten a proper start with livestock I am not interested.
These goats and this pup were born and raised together and are well bonded.
Will My Dog's Behavior Improve?
If you've already bought dogs that didn't get the start they should have, don't despair, there is hope. With time and patience those instincts most likely will kick in and overcome the lack of socialization and you will probably end up with a good, if not great, LGD. It's not the dog's fault they weren't set up for success by their breeder. I had to remind myself of that fact over and over when I would get frustrated with those dogs. They were behaving exactly as they were socialized to do. Even blaming the breeder was pointless. I should have done my research. I should have paid more attention. What mattered was accepting the dogs I now had and working to bring out the best I could in them. It was my job to be patient with them and teach them how I wanted them to behave. So try to be patient with your pups and eventually you'll be rewarded.
But if you haven't bought your pups yet, do yourself a favor. Do a lot of research before you choose a breeder. Don't just ask to see pedigrees and health test results. Ask for PROOF that those puppies are getting the proper socialization with stock. (Spend a little time on my website and social media and you'll find hundreds of photo of my dogs and puppies with stock.) Because that's exactly what I didn't notice when I made my mistake. I didn't notice what was missing in those cute puppy photos. Livestock. That's what was missing. There were no photos of the puppies with stock because they weren't with it. They were on the patio, by the pool, by the jacuzzi, in the house. Anywhere but with livestock.) So if the breeder can't show you lots of photos of both their parent dogs AND the puppies with livestock do yourself a huge favor. Find one that can. Because we all have cameras in our pockets, everywhere we go. It's called a cell phone. If the breeder isn't taking photos of their pups (or adult dogs, for that matter) with livestock it's because they aren't with stock. And you can never redo the critical learning period.
Good Question, Kayla. Thanks for Asking!
Lately I've been getting a lot of comments and questions about "breeding dogs with genetic defects" on my blog and social media. While I do test my dogs for genetic defects, both through PennHip screenings for Hip Dysplasia, as well as DNA testing, in no way do I consider myself an expert on the topic. Therefore at first I was going to remain silent on the subject. After all, all of my dogs' DNA and PennHip results are listed prominently on their individual pages on my website. So if someone wants to know about the health of my dogs and the breeding decisions I have made based on those results the info is very easy to find. But if someone was asking for an explanation of health testing in general then surely they could find a better resource than me.
But this morning I received yet another comment from someone named Kayla and it made me realize that I do need to address this issue. As I stated previously in my blog post on the Responsibility of Social Media, I feel that anyone with a social media following at all should take that responsibility very seriously. If they are someone with any kind of expertise or credibility in a field they should strive to always use their platform for the good of others, whether those "others" are humans or animals.
In this case answering these questions about genetic defects is for the good of the Maremma Sheepdog breed and the people who love and utilize the dogs. People need responsible, educated and articulate people to go to for information and education about these amazing dogs. People like Cindy Benson, of Benson Maremmas - published author of a Maremma Sheepdog Training Manual (available on Amazon) and a certified dog trainer (KPA CTP) who specializes in Maremmas, and organizations like the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America, the official registry for the breed. "Edutainment" platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram have their place but they are usually heavy on the "entertainment" and are no substitute for true education, or for professionals who have long-term and wide experience with the breed. Ethical Maremma breeders, certified dog trainers experienced with Maremmas, MSCA Board Members - that's who people should go to for trustworthy advice about Maremmas.
As a Maremma Sheepdog Club of America Code of Ethics breeder, dairy goat breeder who utilized Maremmas to keep her animals safe, a business owner, LGD trainer and admin of multiple Maremma related social media pages or groups, I do feel I have a responsibility (and honor) to educate people about the breed I love, breed, rely on and work with daily on my farm. So when Kayla asked the question, "What are your thoughts on breeding dogs with genetic health issues?" I decided it was time I answered the questions she and others have been asking recently. So thank you, Kayla. Here goes!
If you would like to DNA test your own dog or learn more about DNA testing go here:
Are Those Test Results Really "bad"?
Imagine you bought a dog that you considered breeding. Then imagine you later decided to spay the dog. Then imagine that you later decide to DNA test the dog you already spayed, to see what genetic defects may be lurking in her closet. Why would you DNA test a dog you can't breed? Good question. It won't impact the breed since your dog is not contributing to the gene pool but it would still be good to know if there's anything your dog might be in danger of getting down the line. So if you have the $100-150 to spare and feel that DNA testing your non-breeding dog is a good use of your money then why not?!
But while you're at it you should really consider getting a PennHip or OFA hip exam done on your dog, too, if it's a Maremma or other large breed. Because your Maremma has a greater risk of getting hip dysplasia than anything that will show up on a DNA test and you can't DNA test for hip dysplasia. That's going to cost you considerably more than DNA testing, but it would be a better use of your money. If you can only do one test on your Maremma I suggest you do a hip exam. But I digress...
But imagine you DNA tested your dog and the results came back as "bad" or "positive" for some "variant" or another. Maybe a couple of them. You're shocked and dismayed. Your dog could get sick! That truly would be sad, but at least you now know about it, so you can be prepared, right? And thank God you had that dog spayed and took her out of the gene pool. Take a big sigh of relief and give yourself a pat on the back for making such a wise decision. Great job!
But wait just a minute. Let's look at what those test results REALLY mean. Did you really dodge a bullet there in your breeding decision? Are those test results really spelling doom and gloom for your dog? What is the real likelihood your dog will get sick? Does a check in the box on a DNA test always mean "bad"? Let's investigate a little more, shall we? Maybe we should read further on the actual DNA report for more information before we get too excited or upset? Yes, that's what we should do. Read the fine print.
OK, enough with the imaginary dog. Imaginary dogs are fun but I prefer real dogs. So to illustrate this point I have something better than an imaginary dog. As I stated previously I do DNA testing on my own breeding dogs and it just so happens that one of my dogs has a couple of those seemingly "bad" (positive) test results. Let's see what that really means, shall we?
Here's my dog, with 3 of her puppies. Her name is Sky Island's Gianna.
She's a beautiful dog, isn't she?
Now for a little background info on Gianna. Gianna was imported en utero by a MSCA Code of Ethics breeder who imported her dam, a Finnish champion, while she (the dog, not the breeder) was pregnant. Gianna's sire is an Italian champion so Gianna has all imported lines, bringing much needed new genetics to the breed. Gianna will be 4 years old in October 2022 and she has had two litters, of 7 and 13 puppies. If you would like to see Gianna's pedigree, full health test results (PennHip and Embark results) and other info you can click on the button below and go to her page. Below that is a screenshot her Embark profile:
And now Gianna's Embark Health Summary results:
Oh my, Gianna has positive results for DCM2 and ALT Activity! Yikes! This is bad. Really bad. I should probably spay her. It's the responsible thing to do, right? Or is it? Hmmm...maybe I should click on the next screen and read what these results actually mean before I call my vet.
First the DCM2 results. Let's do some reading:
Wait, Embark themselves say that Gianna is not likely to be at risk for developing the disease and that DCM is not known to be common in Maremmas, nor should these results be the primary factor in breeding decisions. The disease is most common in Dobermans, which are not at all closely related to Maremmas. And even in Dobermans it is not recommended to remove all dogs with one or even two variants (Gianna only has one) from the gene pool. Why? Because by removing dogs from the gene pool of an already small breed you increase inbreeding, which in turn increases the risk of other genetic defects. Defects we may not even have a test for yet.
I did a quick google search on how many registered Dobermans are in the USA and got 39,000. Now I'm no expert but I'm pretty sure there aren't 39,000 registered Maremma Sheepdogs in the USA.
We aren't counting unregistered dogs because without registration and "official" pedigrees from an accepted registry you can't 100% prove what breed a dog is, nor who his parents are, even with DNA testing. If you could then all registries would accept DNA tested dogs into their gene pool. As far as I know, no reputable registry does, including the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America.
In fact, there was a big push to add DNA tested dogs to the MSCA stud book earlier this year and it was not approved because, according to those who did the research, the science doesn't support it. So though I have nothing against unregistered dogs, owning 4 of them myself, they aren't really relevant to this discussion. You can certainly DNA test an unregistered dog to determine if they carry genetic defects but without actually knowing where they came from through a registry sanctioned pedigree you can't do a lot with the information, since you don't officially know where those defects, if any are present, came from.
So registered Maremmas in the United States are a much smaller breed than Dobermans, without a known predisposition to the disease and with a very specialized purpose as working LGD's. So would it be "the right thing to do" for me to remove a dog from my breeding program that has a lot of other great qualifications (stellar hip scores, correct conformation, working ability as a LGD, diverse genetics from imported lines) because she carries one gene for a disease that Maremmas aren't known to be at risk for and for which the testing company says it's not an important factor in breeding decisions? In my opinion that would be a very stupid reason to remove her from my breeding program. I prefer to use science and proven results (how my dogs perform as LGD's) over emotion when making breeding decisions.
So no, I won't be spaying Gianna over her DCM2 results.
Now lets look at the ALT Activity:
Oh no, Gianna inherited this "ALT Activity variant! That's bad, really bad! Call the vet, we better spay her TODAY! Right? It's the right thing to do, isn't it? Or is it? Hmmm... I better read the next screen and see what these results actually mean.
Wait, what does that say? "This genetic test can be used as a clinical tool by veterinarians." "This genetic test does not diagnose a disease." "Dogs with one or two copies of this variant may have an ALT value that is low or on the low end of the normal reference range."
Wait what?! This only means that Gianna's "normal" ALT range is lower than average, but that it's still HER "normal" and is not at all indicative of any disease? Just like a person can have a resting heart rate that's higher or lower than the "average" person their age, or their temperature can naturally run higher or lower than 98.6, or any number of factors can be above or below "average" in humans or animals. And actually the results say it "may be" lower than normal, not even that it is. Hmmm...
Let's not forget what "average" means. You can't have "average" anything without some things in that category being above or below average. That's how you get average! And below or above "average" isn't always bad.
Now if someone thinks it's "the right thing to do" to not breed a dog because their ALT activity "may be low normal", which is still perfectly normal for them but not "average", and not indicative of a disease, then that's their choice to make. Maybe they only want "average" dogs in their breeding program. That's ok. But again, I prefer to base my breeding decision on more important factors, like science.
So no, I won't be spaying Gianna because of her "Low Normal" ALT Activity.
So What Health Test Will I use First to Base my Breeding Decisions on?
Now let's look at a health condition that really is a problem with Maremma Sheepdogs - Hip Dysplasia. Maremmas are a giant breed of dog that grows fast and can mature in excess of 100 lbs. They are also hard working dogs, bred to guard livestock in a variety of terrains. They need sound hips to have long, productive, pain free lives as LGD's. A LGD can't fight off predators or even navigate the outdoor terrain they may be guarding if they have crippling pain from arthritis. So instead of focusing on some obscure test result on a $100 DNA panel to make all their breeding decisions, smart Maremma breeders (or breeders of any large breed dog) will first take a look at the dog's hips to rule them in or out for breeding. Good scores of the parents' doesn't guarantee their puppies won't get hip dysplasia but its still a very important diagnostic tool.
In fact, hip testing is the ONLY health test required to be a MSCA Code of Ethics breeder. DNA testing isn't required. Why? Because most of the things you DNA test for aren't a big concern for Maremmas. As far as I know only one or two other MSCA Maremma breeders besides myself DNA test their dogs.
Now it's not that I think DNA testing isn't a valuable tool for the breed. Of course not. Anything breeders can do to improve the breed is a good thing and that's why I started DNA testing my dogs. It's not very expensive and it gives me useful information to make breeding decisions. And if more breeders tested we would have a bigger database to compare our dogs to, and would really see the big picture for the breed. So I hope more Maremma breeders do start DNA testing and I hope the MSCA starts to educate their members on the benefits and limitations of DNA testing. Maybe one of the BOD members could write an article in the MSCA newsletter. 🤔
This may offend some people but, in my opinion, DNA testing Maremmas (or any large breed dog) without also doing hip screening is often times nothing more than virtue signaling and pretending to be ethical without putting your money where your mouth is. I see breeders listing their dogs (all breeds, not specifically Maremmas) as "health tested" with no hip testing. Often times that's just tricking the uneducated potential customers, IMO. (Someone I know bought a Great Pyrenees puppy and proudly told me it was from health tested parents. I checked the website. No hip testing whatsoever. Let's hope that puppy doesn't end up with Hip Dysplasia.) Anyone can afford the $100 DNA test and it's quick and easy to do. Add a check in the "health tested" box. But if you really want to prove your dogs are sound and healthy to breed how about forking over $600-700 for a PennHip exam, or even $300-400 for an OFA hip exam? (PennHip is proven to be more reliable and scientific so that's what we use, but OFA is acceptable if done right and certainly better than no hip testing at all.) That will prove something of real value to the breed. And that, along with the DNA testing, would be even better.
So let's look at Gianna's PennHip Scores:
Gianna's Distraction Index is 0.32 R and 0.32 L. There's no evidence for osteoarthritis and no cavitation.
The breed average is .40 (lower is better) and to qualify as a MSCA Code of Ethics breeder (see below) dogs must have a score of less than 0.51.
This means that Gianna has outstanding PennHip scores. And she is much more likely to pass on those good hips to her puppies than she is to pass on DCM, which isn't known to be a problem in Maremmas or low ALT activity, which isn't even a genetic defect at all.
MSCA Code of Ethics Testing Requirements
The Limitations of DNA Testing:
DNA testing is a good thing. I'm not saying it isn't or I wouldn't have spent the money to test my dogs. I plan to continue DNA testing my breeding dogs and learning more about how to utilize the information. But DNA testing has its limitations and needs to be used wisely and put in perspective. In my opinion breeders who make their breeding decisions only based on DNA results are throwing the puppies out with the bathwater and potentially harming the breed. As I've said, there are a lot of factors to consider when breeding dogs. Below is a little more info on that topic.
(The ICB is a GREAT scientific resource for breeders, btw.)
So What Else Should I Base My Breeding Decisions On?
When breeding any breed of dog there are a lot of factors to consider and focusing too much on a few traits while ignoring others can cause many problems, not just in our own breeding program but long term, with the breed. If this is true of companion dogs it's especially true of working Livestock Guardian Dogs, who are responsible for the safety and well being and the very lives of other creatures. Then consider a breed such as the Maremma Sheepdog, that has a much smaller gene pool than a lot of breeds and it's a big responsibility to breed these dogs. Breeders must be discerning, wise and able to keep their long term goals in mind when breeding Maremmas. They should always be evaluating their program as well as seeking out new information (through reading, taking dog breeding and training courses and having discussions with reputable experts in the breed or the dog breeding world, in general) that will help them do the best job possible with their dogs.
As far as making individual breeding stock selections some of the things to consider are temperament, working ability, pedigrees, Coefficient of Inbreeding (kept as low as possible), correct conformation, sound hips and other health testing.
So How Does Gianna Measure Up?
So when I weigh all the traits Gianna has going for her against the small things that are less than "clone perfect" it's an easy call. Gianna stays in my breeding program, to help improve future generations of these amazing Livestock Guardian Dogs.
So What Are My Thoughts About Breeding Dogs with Genetic Health Issues?
These are my thoughts. No dog is perfect. They all have faults of one kind or another and they all have strengths. Wise breeders will weigh the pros and cons of their dogs and decide if they bring enough value to their breeding program and to the breed in general to be included. If the answer is yes then they will match that dog with a mate who is likely to improve the areas that aren't quite perfect, or to compliment them well. It's the same with breeding any animal - goats, horses, cattle, cats, whatever. We are working with living, naturally created animals here, not laboratory grown clones. It's as much art as science. We will make mistakes. Things don't always turn out how we planned. There's no shame in that as long as we learn from those mistakes so that we can do better the next time. The best breeder in the world will still never achieve breeding all "perfect" dogs. But if they are smart enough and dedicated enough to continue to learn and research and to look beyond the surface (and to read the fine print on the DNA test) then they just might achieve breeding "almost perfect" dogs. Which is still a pretty worthy goal.
I know what I will do with the time that is given to me. I'm going to breed the best "almost perfect" Maremma Sheepdogs I can. What about you?
Author Hi I'm Kim. I love all animals but goats and dogs are my favorites so I built a business around them, breeding miniature dairy goats and Maremma Sheepdogs. I love sharing my passion and knowelege of these amazing creatures with others.