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 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?
In the Beginning
When we first started breeding Maremmas we raised our puppies in our dairy goat barn , so that the puppies could be socialized with the goats and other animals from birth. We had one litter a year and this worked very well for a while, even though it was a lot of work to continually set up and then take down the whelping equipment when we needed the space for goats. But when we became Maremma Sheepdog Club of America Code of Ethics Breeders and began having more litters and bigger kid crops, all this moving back and forth and sharing space became harder and harder. Then beginning in 2020 we experienced some challenges due to extremes of weather (too hot or too cold) and extremely bad smoke from nearby forest fires. We realized that raising puppies in the barn was no longer ideal since we have no control over nature, nor over when our dogs were ready to breed. (Goats come in heat roughly every 3 weeks so it's not hard to time kidding for when it's convenient or when the weather will be nice. Dogs are much trickier with less options other than breed now or don't breed at all this year.)
But yet we were committed to ensuring that our puppies were whelped and raised in close proximity to livestock so that they wouldn't miss out on that very important early socialization period. Whelping in our house was not an option for this reason. That might be an acceptable choice for breeders who don't feel that raising their puppies with livestock from an early age is important, but for us it we were not willing to sacrifice proper socialization for health (both are important), or for our own comfort and convenience. We wanted it all, and we were determined to have it!
Back when puppies were raised in the barn we had to be creative in order to keep them healthy, using heat lamps and calf hutches in winter and ice packs and fans in summer. But nothing could keep the smoke from surrounding forest fires out of the barn.
An Idea is Born
We decided that the best plan was to build a dedicated, climate controlled combination whelping facility and dairy goat milking parlor within one of our goat pastures, where the puppies would be able to be kept at the right temperature and where they would be clean, healthy and safe, but where they would still be continually surrounded by livestock and the sights and sounds of barn life. So the idea of our Puppy Parlor was born! (Puppy whelping room + milking parlor = Puppy Parlor!)
Little did we know how long the project would take. We started it in January 2021, when we ordered a 14 x 30' "garden shed" from a California based company. (I won't mention their name because they were awful to work with and very unethical. We should have gone with Tuff Shed.) But we soon found that the builder had lied to us about what would be required to get the building permitted. We had one delay after another, and more and more hoops to jump through and more added expenses. I'm not exaggerating when I say that many tears were shed over this building! Nor am I exaggerating when I say that the project ended up costing MUCH more than we ever expected. But it was worth every hard earned penny in the end.
We hired a contractor to put in the concrete pad, a fence guy to build the fence and gates and a builder to build the shed. A plumber installed the Flying Pig professional dog grooming tub, deep sink, hot water heater, plus three hot and cold faucets (two outside and one inside, for cleaning floors) and one cold only faucet. An electrician wired it and installed all kinds of lights inside and out, as well as Ring security cameras on all sides. My son-in-law did pretty much everything else: epoxyed the floor, insulated it, put up the Duramax PVC wall panels and finished the ceiling, installed the two Gun Dog dog doors, two AC/Heat units and installed the K9 Kennel Store indoor/outdoor kennels.
Finally by late October the building was ready and operational! The first litter to move into the Puppy Parlor was Marcella's October 2021 litter. The first litter to be whelped in the Puppy Parlor was Gianna's December 2021 litter. Being able to whelp and raise puppies in this building was truly a game changer for our program. It was also a game changer for me since I always spend at least the first night with my dogs when they whelp. Being able to sleep in a nice, warm (or cool) building instead of in the barn was great!
Marcella & her pups moved in a few weeks after they were born. Gianna's pups were the first to be born in the Puppy Parlor. And it was a good thing, too, because she had THIRTEEN puppies! And thanks to this new environment all thirteen survived, even though it was December and cold! The pups stayed toasty warm and Gianna was happy and comfortable, able to go outside with the goats whenever she wanted while her puppies were safe and snug inside.
Despite the saggy air mattress the Puppy Parlor is a much more comfortable place to sleep than the barn! Sleeping with your dogs and their puppies as roommates is very special, too.
How we Paid for Our Puppy Parlor
I am not a fan of debt. Personally we have some and I hate it. But when I started my business I committed to not relying on credit or debt. Even though I make good money breeding dogs and goats I truly do it for the love of my animals and what I do. (Owning a farm was my lifelong dream. A dream I didn't achieve until I was much older than I expected to be, due to my husband's 40 year Navy career.) My family doesn't rely on my income from my business. I put every penny I make back into my animals and my farm. I don't want to take out any debt that my family or I might get stuck with if I one day closed my business, nor do I want the added pressure of having to earn a certain amount to cover debt. My first priority is to earn enough to buy hay and dog food and pay my vet when she's needed. The rest of what I spend depends on how much I make. I do not have a business credit card and have never taken out a business loan. Instead I save up money from my goat and puppy sales and cash flow the things I need for the business, be that hay, dog food, vet bills, health testing, breeding stock, equipment or whatever. The Puppy Parlor was no different. The Puppy Parlor is 100% paid for already. My dogs now have a safe, comfortable place to raise their pups and my goats have a much better place to be milked than they've had for the last several years. An if I never bred another litter I would have no debt for the building and it would still be useful for all kinds of things. My husband thinks I'm going to move into it. I just might. 😉
All in Good Time
Going debt free in this project means that some projects needed to wait until I had the money. I knew right off the bat that I wanted nice cabinets for my supplies and a counter for working, but I made do for almost a year with a variety of shelving units, carts and tables until I could afford cabinets. I also quickly decided that the doors the building came with weren't ideal because they let in too much dust and flies, blocked the light and let out the AC and heat. House style doors would be better and look nicer. Patience Precious....
The old doors were ok but not very airtight.
More Building Projects
We went through Lowes for both the cabinets and the doors and I will just say, if you're thinking of contracting with Lowes for a project, DON'T!! They screwed up everything they possibly could. They are awful! More tears. We ended up hiring a private handyman to install the cabinets a few weeks ago. The doors were supposed to have been installed last week but Lowes screwed that up AGAIN, so we just got one set of doors put in today. The set for the front door will be put in next week. Just in time for our next litter of Maremma puppies, due in a week or so!
Stock cabinets installed by our handyman in a few hours. They did what Lowes professional installation couldn't do in four months!
Jessie’s doeling, Pearl, inspecting the finished cabinets. There’s room for all my puppy and milking supplies and a nice countertop for working. I love it!
Inner doors with built in shades between the glass so we can let in or block light, as needed. Outer heavy duty screen doors that should withstand dog claws.
Right now things are pretty set the way we like them, but I'm sure there will be something I need to update or add down the line. Luckily I have fall Nigerian Dwarf kids coming, lol....
Did you know that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior recommends ONLY reward based training and is 100% against aversive training methods? Why? Because veterinarians are SCIENTISTS and SCIENCE supports positive training. It’s not only about what works or what’s “fast and easy”, it’s about what’s scientifically and ethically in the best interest of the dog. Here are just a couple of quotes from the AVSAB position paper on dog training:
“Evidence supports the use of reward based methods for all canine training. AVSAB promotes interactions with animals based on compassion, respect, and scientific evidence. Based on these factors, reward-based learning offers the most advantages and least harm to the learner’s welfare. Research supports the efficacy of reward-based training to address unwant-ed and challenging behaviors. There is no evidence that aversive training is necessary for dog training or behavior modification."
From The AVSAB FAQ's
“What techniques should be avoided in training?
An appropriate trainer should avoid any use of training tools that involve pain (choke chains, prong collars, or electronic shock collars), intimidation (squirt bottles, shaker noise cans, compressed air cans, shouting, staring, or forceful manipulation such as “alpha rolls” or “dominance downs”), physical correction techniques
(leash jerking, physical force), or flooding (“exposure”). The learner must always feel safe and have the ability to “opt out” of training sessions. All efforts should be made to communicate effectively and respectfully with the learner.
Why should aversive training techniques be avoided?
The consequences and fallout from aversive training methods have been proven and are well documented. These include increased anxiety and fear-related aggression, avoidance, and learned helplessness. Animals may be less motivated to engage in training and less likely to interact with human members of the household.”
We agree with the experts at AVSAB. At Prancing Pony Farm we are Positive Reinforcement Trainers and only use reward based training with our Maremma Sheepdog adults and puppies. We are so committed to seeing our puppies treated humanely that we put it in our puppy contract that all our puppy owners sign. The use of aversive training methods such as shock collars, choke chains, dangle sticks and other punishment based training methods is prohibited.
To read the complete document from the AVSAB see the link below:
There is a stage in LGD puppy training and development that I call “Finding their bark.” They bark at EVERYTHING that looks suspicious to them, whether that’s a strange vehicle or person, an animal they haven’t met or aren’t quite sure about, a blowing leaf, someone they know wearing a hat or coat they've never seen before or just about anything. People often ask me how to teach puppies what to bark at and what not to bark at, or how to get them to stop barking at things that aren’t a real threat. I personally almost never try to discourage my dogs from barking, especially when they are still learning. Yes I know the barking can be annoying, especially when there’s no real threat, but barking is a LGD’s first and main line of defense. And they have much better sight, smell and hearing than we do and can perceive threats we would never notice. I want my puppies to learn to be discerning on their own, so that they know to bark when there’s a real threat. If I micromanage their barking then they may learn to doubt their own judgement and to look to me for direction. And that’s not going to protect my goats and other animals when I’m in the house asleep, or protect the animals of whomever ends up owning these awesome, barking puppies. So I encourage you to celebrate your barking LGD puppy, because it means they are on their way to being a great guardian for your stock!
The puppies barking at what they perceive as an "intruder" (my son, Noah, getting hay for the animals) in the barnyard. The puppies see Noah feeding every day but apparently something was different about him this night, setting them off. Again, no need for me to do anything. The puppies can tell that I'm not concerned so they soon relaxed.
Polar's and Marisa's 2022 litters met the horses for the first time on this day. Apparently Blossom, the mini donkey, was a concern for this puppy. Notice how patient and calm Blossom is with the puppies. She's a seasoned puppy trainer and there's no need for me to say or do anything. I just let Blossom's calm behavior reassure the puppies and they soon accepted her.
I know that Temperament Testing is very popular among companion dog breeders so out of curiosity I took a course in Puppy Aptitude Testing last year. It was very interesting but after doing much research, observing my own dogs and multiple litters of puppies I’ve bred and trained, as well as talking with breeders and trainers of LGD’s that I greatly respect, I decided that choosing a LGD puppy for a particular job/home based on how it behaves at exactly 7 weeks old is ridiculous. So many things go into the shaping of a LGD and many of those things haven’t even happened to a 7 week old puppy, so how can that one test be the be all, end all of choosing a puppy? It can’t.
But the idea still persists and some non-LGD breeders and trainers, not understanding that LGD behavior and training are very complex, still try to push this PAT idea, insisting that we need to test pups at 7 weeks old to determine if they are LGD’s or pets. Again, a ridiculous idea. Not all LGD’s guard the same and how a puppy behaves at 9 weeks or 9 months doesn’t automatically predict how it will behave once mature. And a puppy that chases stock occasionally or even kills a chicken or two is not ruined for life. LGD puppies often go through a rough "teenage" stage and then, like a lightbulb coming on, they suddenly mature into calm, dependable LGD’s. What can affect that switch is not some test done when they were 7 weeks old but everything they've been exposed to before and after that.
Another thing non-LGD breeders don't get is this: "play drive" is not the same as "prey drive". All LGD's love to run and play and chase to some degree because they are dogs and because they are practicing skills they will need as LGD's. Every one of my Maremmas loves to chase me on my ATV, they all chase each other, roughhouse and play fight. If a strange sounding vehicle comes down the street they all race along the fence line, CHASING it. Like they would chase a predator. Your LGD won't catch many predators by walking calmly. They need to practice chasing. 😆
Maybe the misunderstanding is because almost all breeders of non-LGD's place a large percentage of their puppies in companion homes. Whether this is because there really are such wide differences among puppies in a litter in their breed or simply because they don't have enough homes looking for working dogs I do not know. But some of them do use PAT to determine which pups go to which kinds of homes. Whether this testing is a valid tool for their breeds I can't say. I can say, as of right now, I don't feel it's a valid tool for placing LGD puppies. Or for Maremmas, anyway. Maybe one day I'll change my mind but there are only so many hours in a day and I prefer to spend my time doing things I feel are more productive with my puppies.
Most non-LGD breeders seem to place pups at 8 or 9 weeks old, so maybe the 7 week temperament test is the best tool they have. I keep my puppies a minimum of 12 weeks and often much longer. I have a lot of time to observe my puppies as they grow and mature.
Can a LGD puppy “fail” as a LGD? Certainly. But if it’s a well bred dog from proven working parents from proven working lines who have consistently produced puppies who matured into excellent LGD’s then how likely is it that the puppy is “badly bred” or “doesn’t have the aptitude” for guarding livestock? I’d say it’s pretty slim and that there’s something else going on. Improper socialization, training and management by the breeder OR the new owner. I firmly believe it takes nature and nurture to produce an excellent LGD and that you can screw up an otherwise well bred LGD by poor management and training at any step of the way. But not doing a PAT at exactly 49 days is not going to ruin a LGD or spell doom and gloom for its future.
I don’t breed pets. I breed Livestock Guardian Dogs. Period. A few of my pups have gone to companion homes and most are general farm dogs who are very loved and serving a dual role as LGD and family dog. But I'm not selecting puppies specifically for LGD's or pets because I don't breed for pets. In fact, I believe the same traits that make a good LGD are usually also traits that can make a good companion dog, in the right home. After all, if a dog can't be trusted with chickens are you really going to trust it with children?! I'm not!
So while Puppy Aptitude Testing may or may not be a useful tool for some breeds (and that's a highly debated topic) I don't feel it's all that helpful for LGD's. And from what I can gather the research says the same. But who knows, maybe someone will do more studies on the topic and prove me wrong. If so I'll be the first to sign up to test my litters. For now I'll be relying on other tools, such as the CARAT course I'm working on completing. That seems much more useful than PAT and can be applied to pups or dogs of any age.
Normal PLAY Behavior of LGD’s
Two year old Olaf and his 8 month old daughter, Polar, exhibiting normal “play” behavior of LGD’s. Maremmas, like most LGD’s play rough and hard. This is their normal way of burning off that excess energy in an appropriate manner (not directed towards the stock) and it’s also a way for them to practice fighting with potential predators. And this is also a prime example of why all LGD’s need a working partner and need to live WITH that partner 24/7. If your LGD doesn’t have an appropriate outlet for play such as this, they are much more likely to engage in inappropriate play with the livestock.
Polar and Olaf are both adult LGD’s now who are both excellent with stock of all kinds. Part of why they matured into such excellent LGD’s is because they were properly managed as puppies, getting both lots of exposure to livestock of all kinds from birth, and getting plenty of time to just be dogs and have fun.
Spend any time patrolling the internet and you will find people complaining about the "problems" they have with their LGD's. Some are committed to making things work and are just reaching out for advice and help. Others not so much. There are people who are dumping their dogs in rescue because it doesn't live up to their expectations. They see LGD's as cheap, expendable "products" and are happy to throw their dog away and start over if things don't go according to plan.
Others are calling their dogs "a failure", "bad dog" and "a disappointment". They seem to revel in criticizing their dogs to get attention, which is disgusting and sad. What makes this even sadder is that these are often PUPPIES that are being called failures. Everyone knows that LGD's can take 2 years or sometimes more to reach maturity and to be totally safe with stock. So why is it ok to call a 9 month old puppy a "failure" for being a puppy?
The first step in setting the puppies up for success lies with the breeder. Puppies have critical learning periods in the first weeks and months. If breeders don't take advantage of these periods the dog will never live up to its full potential. It might be an "ok" LGD, but not likely a "great" one. Puppies should have intensive socialization with stock from as early as possible. At our farm every dog and puppy we own lives with other dogs and livestock 24/7. Dogs are social creatures and they need to have their needs for socialization met in order to thrive.
Puppies should also be trained with positive socialization methods and only allowed to be around other dogs and stock that are kind to the puppies. Using harsh training methods or harsh treatment by other dogs and stock on puppies teaches puppies to be either fearful or to bully other animals, or both. Neither is what you want to nurture in a LGD.
But no matter how careful and conscientious the breeder is in their socialization of their puppies the job doesn't end there. The new puppy owner has the responsibility to continue this nurturing training and treatment of the puppy once it gets home. Other than the first few days the puppy should be with livestock full time asap. Of course with poultry, accommodations will have to be made to keep the birds safe, but the puppy should have another dog as a companion and some type of mammal to guard if at all possible. The puppy should not ever be locked up by itself for extended periods of time. This is counterproductive to what you're trying to accomplish with your puppy. You will only frustrate the puppy, which will lead to "bad" behavior.
If you are experiencing problems with your puppy the first place to turn is your breeder. A reputable breeder will provide lifetime support to their customers. They can tell you how your puppy was trained before it left their farm and can give advice on how to integrate the puppy with your new stock. Good breeders love their puppies and their customers and want everyone to be happy so don't be afraid to reach out to them.
If you need more help I suggest you seek professional help. And by professional help I don't mean some self-described "expert" with no real background or training. I mean a professional trainer with certifications in dog training and behavior and who specializes in LGD's and positive reinforcement training. Hands down the expert in this area is Cindy Benson, of Benson Maremmas. She is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, former Maremma breeder and author of books on training LGD's. She can do zoom training sessions with you and your dog and get you back on track asap.
I would like to challenge everyone who owns one of these wonderful dogs to never, ever think of your dog as a "failure" or a "disappointment" and to challenge others to do the same. Advocate for these dogs. When you hear people blaming the dog for human failure, laziness and ignorance speak up and set them straight! Dogs come to us as clean slates. It's our responsibility to help them live up to their potential. It starts with breeders and continues with owners. And if there is any "failure" along the way it is not our dogs who have failed. It is us who have failed our dogs.
These are six of Marcella's puppies, at 4 months old, enjoying a fun game of tag with their puppy mentor, Marisa. LGD puppies need to have at least one LGD companion in order to be happy and healthy and so that they can channel that boundless energy in an appropriate manner.
When you breed a breed of dog that only comes in one color (white) and one basic coat length (fluffy) telling the puppies apart can be a real challenge. However, being able to do so is important for several reasons. First of all, you need to be able to track the health and weights of the puppies as they grow. Secondly, tracking the temperaments and behavior of the pups is extremely important in making placements, especially in LGD puppies. The puppy that constantly chases chickens might not be the best fit for a farm with poultry. Two puppies that constantly fight should not be placed together and a very timid puppy will need a home that won't overwhelm or stress her out. Being able to tell the puppies apart from an early age, at a glance and from far away is really useful, but how do you do it?
Over the years I have tried a variety of methods with varying degrees of success. First I tried several different types of whelping collars, made of velcro, nylon webbing or paracord. The collars either came off too easily and got lost, or didn't come off easily and presented a strangulation hazard. They got tangled in the long fur too easily and most of them were quickly outgrown. And since they couldn't easily be seen under all the fur they were pretty useless for identifying puppies from even a few feet away.
Next I tried human spray-in hair dye, sold at Halloween time. This worked pretty well but was hard to find most of the year. I tried human hair chalk, sharpies, pet dye and a variety of other things - none really showed up or lasted on the thick Maremma fur, or they were too messy or too expensive. Then somewhere I found some sheep marking dye, available in sticks (like big crayons) or spray. The sticks were useless but the spray worked ok. The only problem was the ones we initially found either didn't last more than a couple of days or didn't come in more than a couple of colors. Foiled again!
Then one day while perusing one of my favorite livestock supply websites I saw a product called Sprayline sheep marking spray. It comes in 6 colors in big cans and wasn't too expensive. I ordered a couple of cans and tried it. It worked great! It was bright, crisp and clear and it lasted at least a week. This was it! I found that by combining colors or marking different locations (head, shoulders, tail) I could mark even Gianna's litter of 13 and easily tell the puppies apart. I simply reapply the paint as it starts to fade and it works great. I even occasionally use it to mark older dogs so we can tell who they are from far away, or to mark our dairy goat kids.
In February 2021 we had two litters born about 2 weeks apart, so I carefully kept them separate so as to not mix up the puppies. But this year (2022) I ended up with two litters that are two DAYS apart, and each litter has exactly 5 males and three females. One litter belongs to Marisa (sired by Simba) and one to Polar (sired by Sevro) and while the puppies do look very different (Marisa's puppies have Simba's fluffier coats while Polar's have slightly "plusher" coats) I didn't want to risk mixing the puppies up. And since female dogs sometimes fight or may hurt another dog's pups I kept them apart for safety, anyway, for the first 9 weeks.
But the puppies were getting bigger and I knew that eventually combining the litters would make training and management a lot easier. And having 16 fluffy white puppies all sharing one space would be a lot of fun! As Polar and Marisa were getting closer to being ready to wean their pups I knew it was about time to turn them over to Genevieve, my amazing puppy mentor, who's raised 4 litters of her own (including the litter Polar came from) as well as helped train many other dogs' puppies. But how would I tell the puppies apart? Well, I had a plan!
And what I did is this. Each litter got the same 8 colors or color combinations (Blue, green, orange, pink, purple, blue/green, blue/orange, pink/purple) of Sprayline but Marisa's puppies (the older litter) got marked on their shoulders while Polar's litter got marked on their tail ends! And to be extra sure I don't mix up the puppies I microchipped them all with the Datamars/Petlink microchips we always use, but did so before putting the pups together, noting the color and litter for each chip number in my Breeder Cloud Pro software. Then Polar and Marisa went back to work (they can come visit the puppies if they want) and Genevieve took over. And oh boy, was it ever an exciting event! The brightly painted puppies had a grand time running around, meeting the pups that until now they had only interacted with through the fence, barking at Genevieve, playing in the mud, and in general having a blast. Genny looked at as if I had truly lost my mind giving her this many puppies to care for, but she took it all with her usual placid attitude and good nature. The puppies played themselves out and crashed all together in the Puppy Parlor yard, while Genny watches over them like the great puppy mentor she is. This is going to be a fun adventure, for me and Genny!
How to Bond your New LGD Puppy to Your Livestock (for new puppy owners) and The Importance of Early Socialization with Livestock in LGD Puppies - part 1
This is part of a longer article I'm working on for my new puppy customers to help them learn how to integrate their new Maremma puppies with their stock. But I don't believe you can address what to do in a puppy's new home unless you first understand what happened - or should have happened - during the time the puppy was with the breeder. Therefore I decided to break this down into a series of blog posts so I can get the first part out there, then I'll come back to write more later, eventually hopefully making an entire page on this complex but important topic.
One of the most common questions we get asked by new puppy owners, whether they are buying a puppy from us or have bought one elsewhere and are seeking advice is "How do I train my puppy to livestock?", followed by "When can my new puppy be left unsupervised with my livestock?" This is a a very complex issue and the answer to the first question depends on many factors such as the temperament, age and developmental stage of the individual puppy, how the puppy was socialized with stock for the first few weeks or months of it's life, the type of livestock it will be guarding, the temperaments of the livestock and whether that stock is used to LGD's or not. The answer to the second question is "As soon as it's possible to do so safely for both the stock and the puppy."
I have heard people say to never leave a LGD unsupervised with stock until they are two years old. I very strongly disagree with this advice! That is a good way to end up with a companion Maremma, instead of a LGD. A LGD puppy needs to bond with the livestock it will guard as soon as possible, however it needs to be done safely. And while it's true that in general LGD's aren't fully mature until they are around 2 years old (some even later) in reality a well bred, well started LGD should be safe with at least SOME livestock at a much younger age, and in fact they should not be deprived of this important bonding time with the stock. The trick is matching the right stock to your puppy and setting the puppy and the stock up for success. And that all begins with what happened before you ever brought your puppy home. Then it's your job as a puppy owner to build on that foundation.
If you bought your puppy from us, or from a breeder who socializes their puppies intensively with stock like we do then a large part of the work has already been done for you. Our puppies are born near our goats and are smelling, hearing and seeing them from birth, while being kept safe from sharp hooves and the elements in our Puppy Parlor, which sits in one of our goat pastures. This building doubles as a milking parlor and occasional kidding area and hospital/nursery ward for our dairy goats, so our puppies are exposed to the goats from birth. Usually sometime between 3 & 4 weeks old the puppies have outgrown their whelping area and are getting very mobile. At this point they start going outdoors in the attached kennels and other partitioned off areas to meet a few gentle goats and watch the animals all around them. Usually by around 5 weeks old the puppies have free access to goats and chickens and are never away from livestock as long as they live here. They just meet different types of livestock (horses, poultry etc) as they grow and mature. So when a customer asks us when the puppy they bought from us should be with livestock I tell them they already have been since birth, and not to go backwards. The trick is getting the livestock in their new home to accept a puppy, and if the stock has never had a positive experience with dogs then caution will be needed. That is different than adding a puppy to stock that's already used to LGD's and will be addressed in a later post.
To learn more about how we socialize our puppies with livestock please see this page below:
How We Raise and Train Our Maremma Puppies
If you bought your puppy from someone who skips this important early socialization with livestock them I'm sorry to say that you have a lot of work cut out for you and your dog may never reach it's full potential. It requires nature AND nurture to produce a superior LGD. And it requires a lot of work and a carefully planned and set up environment to raise puppies this way and to do so safely for the puppies and the stock. Sadly there are some "breeders" out there who are either too lazy or too ignorant to do things right. These people seem to be breeding solely for money or prestige. They aren't really farmers or livestock producers and if their puppies get any exposure to stock at all it's an occasional visit to the chicken coop or trip out to the barn to see the family horse or to visit a few token sheep or goats on their "farm". Calling this kind of experience "learning livestock" is like watching a cooking show and calling it "learning to be a chef".
There is a "critical window" of learning for puppies that lasts during roughly the first 16 weeks. This is a scientific fact, not an opinion. There have been many documented studies to prove this. To learn more about these critical learning periods see these links:
Puppy Developmental Stages
Socialization and the Race Against Nature
The Sensitive Period and Socialization in Puppies and Kittens
Neuroscience and Brain Mechanisms of Critical Periods in Puppy Development
Critical Periods in Puppies Revisited
Puppy Socialization Starts with the Breeder
The Puppy Culture DVD and early socialization in Puppies
Now admittedly most of these articles are about companion dogs but the same science applies to Livestock Guardian Dogs. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the early socialization period in puppies is even MORE critical for LGD puppies than companion dogs. We are taking a predator species, dogs, and asking them to bond with, live peacefully with, protect and perhaps even lay down their lives to protect one or more other species - prey species. It requires more than "good genetics" for a LGD puppy to live up to their full potential. It requires nature AND nurture to produce the best LGD's, and anyone who tells you something different is ignoring science. And any LGD "breeder" that ignores this vital early learning window is doing a great disservice to their puppies, their customers and the livestock they will one day protect.
If puppies spend their first 12-16 weeks living with livestock they are learning the "language" of the stock, much like a child immersed in a bilingual home naturally picks up both languages and does so more easily than any adult ever could. If puppies instead spend this time inside a house, on a patio or hanging out by a swimming pool then they are learning to be companion dogs, no matter how many acres the "farm" is or how many predators patrol the outer edges of the property. What matters is what the puppy directly experiences during these first 12-16 weeks and he can't learn to be a LGD if he's not with livestock, period. When you take that puppy that was raised in a companion setting and drop him into a barn full of goats, sheep or chickens he will feel like Dorothy did when she landed in Oz. And then he will spend a lot of time trying to get back home to Kansas! These puppies invariably have a harder time bonding with stock and some never really do. And it's not the dog's fault or the owner's fault. That is 100% on the breeder.
What's more, puppies raised with little to no livestock interaction haven't learned proper behavior with stock during the most effective learning period of their lives. It's a simple fact that a peck on the nose or a head butt from a goat or sheep is a lot more impressive to a 15 lb puppy than a 50 lb one. And a goat that calmly ignores a tiny puppy's attempts to bite its ears is a much better teacher than a goat that yells and screams when a 40-50 lb puppy attempts the same thing. The first goat taught the puppy that this kind off silly play doesn't pay. He soon gets bored and finds something else to do. The second goat taught the puppy a very exciting new game and he will not likely give that game easily, if ever. Better to never let the puppy learn that game by putting the right stock with the puppy at the right age. And that's NOT when the puppy is 3, 4, 5 months old or older!
The RIGHT livestock, introduced early in the puppy's life by the breeder, can teach the puppy manners while also giving the puppy positive interactions with stock so that the puppy learns to respect the stock but also see these animals as his friends. This is what "bonding to stock" is all about. Positive early interactions for both the puppy and the stock. There's a specific type of "puppy trainer" stock that works best: steady, calm and gentle but not prone to either getting overexcited or overly aggressive when the puppy tries to engage in rough play, as all puppies will eventually do. A good breeder understands the vital role the livestock has in training their puppies and employs specific trustworthy stock just for this purpose. But if the puppy gets NO (or little) exposure to stock during this critical window, or exposure to the wrong kind of stock (either aggressive stock or flighty stock) then you are much more likely to have problems with puppies and adolescent dogs that engage in rough play and even aggressive behavior with stock. And in my opinion a breeder that raises puppies in such a manor is highly unethical and should just pick a companion breed.
But these breeders are not going to give up their breed, either because they don't realize the harm they are causing or because the just don't care. Therefore it's the potential puppy owner's job to educate themselves before buying a puppy. Don't just look for a cute puppy or for a breeder who has pretty dogs, even beautiful dogs with correct conformation, impressive pedigrees and fantastic hip scores. Are those dogs actively LIVING with and guarding livestock, and if so, what kind and how many? And I don't mean the stock is in a pen and the dogs patrol around the animals. If that's the case then to me that's a huge red flag that the dogs can't be trusted with stock. And if the parents can't be trusted then the puppies likely won't be trustworthy, either. Also, are the PUPPIES themselves living with livestock? And if so what kind and at what age were they put with stock? As stated in the articles above the longer you wait to socialize the puppy the more permanent damage you're causing. You might be able to train a puppy that missed that critical window but you'll never truly make up for what the puppy missed. You may get an "OK" LGD but you won't get a "great" one. And I don't know about you but "Ok" is not good enough to guard MY animals! So if the breeder can't show you proof and lots of it, in the way of lots of photos and videos of their parent dogs and their puppies WITH livestock from an early age, as well as the accommodations they've made to maximize this vital socialization with livestock for their puppies then I would highly suggest you find another breeder.
To be continued.....
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.