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.
Author Hi I'm Kim. I love all animals but goats and dogs are my favorites so I built a business around them, breeding miniature dairy goats and Maremma Sheepdogs. I love sharing my passion and knowelege of these amazing creatures with others.