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.
Good Question, Kayla. Thanks for Asking!
Lately I've been getting some comments and questions about DNA and Health Testing 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 I wasn't planning to write about the subject. 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 I felt that they could find a better resource than me.
However I feel strongly 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 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. Platforms like YouTube, and TikTok have their place but they are usually heavy on entertainment instead of education. And sadly some of them rely on clickbait, controversy and manipulating people's emotions to make money. Even innocuous ones are no substitute for true education, or for professionals who have long-term and wide experience with the breed. Ethical Maremma breeders and certified dog trainers experienced with Maremmas are 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 though I'm no expert on the subject I'll give it a shot!
If you would like to DNA test your own dog or learn more about DNA testing go here:
To Illustrate how to interpret DNA tests and use it to make breeding decisions I'll use one of my own dogs, and her test results through Embark.
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 looks 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 else chooses 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 while DNA testing is a great tool, 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 Genetic Health Testing and Dog Breeding?
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?
Hi I'm Kim. I have been an avid animal lover all my life but goats and dogs are my favorites so I built a business around them, breeding registered Mini Nubian & Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats and MSCA registered Maremma Sheepdogs. I love sharing my passion and knowledge of these amazing creatures with others.