Good Question, Kayla. Thanks for Asking!
Lately I've been getting a lot of comments and questions about "breeding dogs with genetic defects" on my blog and social media. While I do test my dogs for genetic defects, both through PennHip screenings for Hip Dysplasia, as well as DNA testing, in no way do I consider myself an expert on the topic. Therefore at first I was going to remain silent on the subject. After all, all of my dogs' DNA and PennHip results are listed prominently on their individual pages on my website. So if someone wants to know about the health of my dogs and the breeding decisions I have made based on those results the info is very easy to find. But if someone was asking for an explanation of health testing in general then surely they could find a better resource than me.
But this morning I received yet another comment from someone named Kayla and it made me realize that I do need to address this issue. As I stated previously in my blog post on the Responsibility of Social Media, I feel that anyone with a social media following at all should take that responsibility very seriously. If they are someone with any kind of expertise or credibility in a field they should strive to always use their platform for the good of others, whether those "others" are humans or animals.
In this case answering these questions about genetic defects is for the good of the Maremma Sheepdog breed and the people who love and utilize the dogs. People need responsible, educated and articulate people to go to for information and education about these amazing dogs. People like Cindy Benson, of Benson Maremmas - published author of a Maremma Sheepdog Training Manual (available on Amazon) and a certified dog trainer (KPA CTP) who specializes in Maremmas, and organizations like the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America, the official registry for the breed. "Edutainment" platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram have their place but they are usually heavy on the "entertainment" and are no substitute for true education, or for professionals who have long-term and wide experience with the breed. Ethical Maremma breeders, certified dog trainers experienced with Maremmas, MSCA Board Members - that's who people should go to for trustworthy advice about Maremmas.
As a Maremma Sheepdog Club of America Code of Ethics breeder, dairy goat breeder who utilized Maremmas to keep her animals safe, a business owner, LGD trainer and admin of multiple Maremma related social media pages or groups, I do feel I have a responsibility (and honor) to educate people about the breed I love, breed, rely on and work with daily on my farm. So when Kayla asked the question, "What are your thoughts on breeding dogs with genetic health issues?" I decided it was time I answered the questions she and others have been asking recently. So thank you, Kayla. Here goes!
If you would like to DNA test your own dog or learn more about DNA testing go here:
Are Those Test Results Really "bad"?
Imagine you bought a dog that you considered breeding. Then imagine you later decided to spay the dog. Then imagine that you later decide to DNA test the dog you already spayed, to see what genetic defects may be lurking in her closet. Why would you DNA test a dog you can't breed? Good question. It won't impact the breed since your dog is not contributing to the gene pool but it would still be good to know if there's anything your dog might be in danger of getting down the line. So if you have the $100-150 to spare and feel that DNA testing your non-breeding dog is a good use of your money then why not?!
But while you're at it you should really consider getting a PennHip or OFA hip exam done on your dog, too, if it's a Maremma or other large breed. Because your Maremma has a greater risk of getting hip dysplasia than anything that will show up on a DNA test and you can't DNA test for hip dysplasia. That's going to cost you considerably more than DNA testing, but it would be a better use of your money. If you can only do one test on your Maremma I suggest you do a hip exam. But I digress...
But imagine you DNA tested your dog and the results came back as "bad" or "positive" for some "variant" or another. Maybe a couple of them. You're shocked and dismayed. Your dog could get sick! That truly would be sad, but at least you now know about it, so you can be prepared, right? And thank God you had that dog spayed and took her out of the gene pool. Take a big sigh of relief and give yourself a pat on the back for making such a wise decision. Great job!
But wait just a minute. Let's look at what those test results REALLY mean. Did you really dodge a bullet there in your breeding decision? Are those test results really spelling doom and gloom for your dog? What is the real likelihood your dog will get sick? Does a check in the box on a DNA test always mean "bad"? Let's investigate a little more, shall we? Maybe we should read further on the actual DNA report for more information before we get too excited or upset? Yes, that's what we should do. Read the fine print.
OK, enough with the imaginary dog. Imaginary dogs are fun but I prefer real dogs. So to illustrate this point I have something better than an imaginary dog. As I stated previously I do DNA testing on my own breeding dogs and it just so happens that one of my dogs has a couple of those seemingly "bad" (positive) test results. Let's see what that really means, shall we?
Here's my dog, with 3 of her puppies. Her name is Sky Island's Gianna.
She's a beautiful dog, isn't she?
Now for a little background info on Gianna. Gianna was imported en utero by a MSCA Code of Ethics breeder who imported her dam, a Finnish champion, while she (the dog, not the breeder) was pregnant. Gianna's sire is an Italian champion so Gianna has all imported lines, bringing much needed new genetics to the breed. Gianna will be 4 years old in October 2022 and she has had two litters, of 7 and 13 puppies. If you would like to see Gianna's pedigree, full health test results (PennHip and Embark results) and other info you can click on the button below and go to her page. Below that is a screenshot her Embark profile:
And now Gianna's Embark Health Summary results:
Oh my, Gianna has positive results for DCM2 and ALT Activity! Yikes! This is bad. Really bad. I should probably spay her. It's the responsible thing to do, right? Or is it? Hmmm...maybe I should click on the next screen and read what these results actually mean before I call my vet.
First the DCM2 results. Let's do some reading:
Wait, Embark themselves say that Gianna is not likely to be at risk for developing the disease and that DCM is not known to be common in Maremmas, nor should these results be the primary factor in breeding decisions. The disease is most common in Dobermans, which are not at all closely related to Maremmas. And even in Dobermans it is not recommended to remove all dogs with one or even two variants (Gianna only has one) from the gene pool. Why? Because by removing dogs from the gene pool of an already small breed you increase inbreeding, which in turn increases the risk of other genetic defects. Defects we may not even have a test for yet.
I did a quick google search on how many registered Dobermans are in the USA and got 39,000. Now I'm no expert but I'm pretty sure there aren't 39,000 registered Maremma Sheepdogs in the USA.
We aren't counting unregistered dogs because without registration and "official" pedigrees from an accepted registry you can't 100% prove what breed a dog is, nor who his parents are, even with DNA testing. If you could then all registries would accept DNA tested dogs into their gene pool. As far as I know, no reputable registry does, including the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America.
In fact, there was a big push to add DNA tested dogs to the MSCA stud book earlier this year and it was not approved because, according to those who did the research, the science doesn't support it. So though I have nothing against unregistered dogs, owning 4 of them myself, they aren't really relevant to this discussion. You can certainly DNA test an unregistered dog to determine if they carry genetic defects but without actually knowing where they came from through a registry sanctioned pedigree you can't do a lot with the information, since you don't officially know where those defects, if any are present, came from.
So registered Maremmas in the United States are a much smaller breed than Dobermans, without a known predisposition to the disease and with a very specialized purpose as working LGD's. So would it be "the right thing to do" for me to remove a dog from my breeding program that has a lot of other great qualifications (stellar hip scores, correct conformation, working ability as a LGD, diverse genetics from imported lines) because she carries one gene for a disease that Maremmas aren't known to be at risk for and for which the testing company says it's not an important factor in breeding decisions? In my opinion that would be a very stupid reason to remove her from my breeding program. I prefer to use science and proven results (how my dogs perform as LGD's) over emotion when making breeding decisions.
So no, I won't be spaying Gianna over her DCM2 results.
Now lets look at the ALT Activity:
Oh no, Gianna inherited this "ALT Activity variant! That's bad, really bad! Call the vet, we better spay her TODAY! Right? It's the right thing to do, isn't it? Or is it? Hmmm... I better read the next screen and see what these results actually mean.
Wait, what does that say? "This genetic test can be used as a clinical tool by veterinarians." "This genetic test does not diagnose a disease." "Dogs with one or two copies of this variant may have an ALT value that is low or on the low end of the normal reference range."
Wait what?! This only means that Gianna's "normal" ALT range is lower than average, but that it's still HER "normal" and is not at all indicative of any disease? Just like a person can have a resting heart rate that's higher or lower than the "average" person their age, or their temperature can naturally run higher or lower than 98.6, or any number of factors can be above or below "average" in humans or animals. And actually the results say it "may be" lower than normal, not even that it is. Hmmm...
Let's not forget what "average" means. You can't have "average" anything without some things in that category being above or below average. That's how you get average! And below or above "average" isn't always bad.
Now if someone thinks it's "the right thing to do" to not breed a dog because their ALT activity "may be low normal", which is still perfectly normal for them but not "average", and not indicative of a disease, then that's their choice to make. Maybe they only want "average" dogs in their breeding program. That's ok. But again, I prefer to base my breeding decision on more important factors, like science.
So no, I won't be spaying Gianna because of her "Low Normal" ALT Activity.
So What Health Test Will I use First to Base my Breeding Decisions on?
Now let's look at a health condition that really is a problem with Maremma Sheepdogs - Hip Dysplasia. Maremmas are a giant breed of dog that grows fast and can mature in excess of 100 lbs. They are also hard working dogs, bred to guard livestock in a variety of terrains. They need sound hips to have long, productive, pain free lives as LGD's. A LGD can't fight off predators or even navigate the outdoor terrain they may be guarding if they have crippling pain from arthritis. So instead of focusing on some obscure test result on a $100 DNA panel to make all their breeding decisions, smart Maremma breeders (or breeders of any large breed dog) will first take a look at the dog's hips to rule them in or out for breeding. Good scores of the parents' doesn't guarantee their puppies won't get hip dysplasia but its still a very important diagnostic tool.
In fact, hip testing is the ONLY health test required to be a MSCA Code of Ethics breeder. DNA testing isn't required. Why? Because most of the things you DNA test for aren't a big concern for Maremmas. As far as I know only one or two other MSCA Maremma breeders besides myself DNA test their dogs.
Now it's not that I think DNA testing isn't a valuable tool for the breed. Of course not. Anything breeders can do to improve the breed is a good thing and that's why I started DNA testing my dogs. It's not very expensive and it gives me useful information to make breeding decisions. And if more breeders tested we would have a bigger database to compare our dogs to, and would really see the big picture for the breed. So I hope more Maremma breeders do start DNA testing and I hope the MSCA starts to educate their members on the benefits and limitations of DNA testing. Maybe one of the BOD members could write an article in the MSCA newsletter. 🤔
This may offend some people but, in my opinion, DNA testing Maremmas (or any large breed dog) without also doing hip screening is often times nothing more than virtue signaling and pretending to be ethical without putting your money where your mouth is. I see breeders listing their dogs (all breeds, not specifically Maremmas) as "health tested" with no hip testing. Often times that's just tricking the uneducated potential customers, IMO. (Someone I know bought a Great Pyrenees puppy and proudly told me it was from health tested parents. I checked the website. No hip testing whatsoever. Let's hope that puppy doesn't end up with Hip Dysplasia.) Anyone can afford the $100 DNA test and it's quick and easy to do. Add a check in the "health tested" box. But if you really want to prove your dogs are sound and healthy to breed how about forking over $600-700 for a PennHip exam, or even $300-400 for an OFA hip exam? (PennHip is proven to be more reliable and scientific so that's what we use, but OFA is acceptable if done right and certainly better than no hip testing at all.) That will prove something of real value to the breed. And that, along with the DNA testing, would be even better.
So let's look at Gianna's PennHip Scores:
Gianna's Distraction Index is 0.32 R and 0.32 L. There's no evidence for osteoarthritis and no cavitation.
The breed average is .40 (lower is better) and to qualify as a MSCA Code of Ethics breeder (see below) dogs must have a score of less than 0.51.
This means that Gianna has outstanding PennHip scores. And she is much more likely to pass on those good hips to her puppies than she is to pass on DCM, which isn't known to be a problem in Maremmas or low ALT activity, which isn't even a genetic defect at all.
MSCA Code of Ethics Testing Requirements
The Limitations of DNA Testing:
DNA testing is a good thing. I'm not saying it isn't or I wouldn't have spent the money to test my dogs. I plan to continue DNA testing my breeding dogs and learning more about how to utilize the information. But DNA testing has its limitations and needs to be used wisely and put in perspective. In my opinion breeders who make their breeding decisions only based on DNA results are throwing the puppies out with the bathwater and potentially harming the breed. As I've said, there are a lot of factors to consider when breeding dogs. Below is a little more info on that topic.
(The ICB is a GREAT scientific resource for breeders, btw.)
So What Else Should I Base My Breeding Decisions On?
When breeding any breed of dog there are a lot of factors to consider and focusing too much on a few traits while ignoring others can cause many problems, not just in our own breeding program but long term, with the breed. If this is true of companion dogs it's especially true of working Livestock Guardian Dogs, who are responsible for the safety and well being and the very lives of other creatures. Then consider a breed such as the Maremma Sheepdog, that has a much smaller gene pool than a lot of breeds and it's a big responsibility to breed these dogs. Breeders must be discerning, wise and able to keep their long term goals in mind when breeding Maremmas. They should always be evaluating their program as well as seeking out new information (through reading, taking dog breeding and training courses and having discussions with reputable experts in the breed or the dog breeding world, in general) that will help them do the best job possible with their dogs.
As far as making individual breeding stock selections some of the things to consider are temperament, working ability, pedigrees, Coefficient of Inbreeding (kept as low as possible), correct conformation, sound hips and other health testing.
So How Does Gianna Measure Up?
So when I weigh all the traits Gianna has going for her against the small things that are less than "clone perfect" it's an easy call. Gianna stays in my breeding program, to help improve future generations of these amazing Livestock Guardian Dogs.
So What Are My Thoughts About Breeding Dogs with Genetic Health Issues?
These are my thoughts. No dog is perfect. They all have faults of one kind or another and they all have strengths. Wise breeders will weigh the pros and cons of their dogs and decide if they bring enough value to their breeding program and to the breed in general to be included. If the answer is yes then they will match that dog with a mate who is likely to improve the areas that aren't quite perfect, or to compliment them well. It's the same with breeding any animal - goats, horses, cattle, cats, whatever. We are working with living, naturally created animals here, not laboratory grown clones. It's as much art as science. We will make mistakes. Things don't always turn out how we planned. There's no shame in that as long as we learn from those mistakes so that we can do better the next time. The best breeder in the world will still never achieve breeding all "perfect" dogs. But if they are smart enough and dedicated enough to continue to learn and research and to look beyond the surface (and to read the fine print on the DNA test) then they just might achieve breeding "almost perfect" dogs. Which is still a pretty worthy goal.
I know what I will do with the time that is given to me. I'm going to breed the best "almost perfect" Maremma Sheepdogs I can. What about you?
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. Another Maremma breeder once said to me, very snarkily "It's going to take a lot of puppies to pay for that fancy building." No, it's not. The Puppy Parlor is 100% paid for ALREADY. My dogs and my goats and I earned the money for that building, TOGETHER. And we all benefit from it TOGETHER. My dogs 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.
On the way home from The Ranch Cindy Benson and I stopped to visit our friend, Kathy. Cindy trimmed Kathy's dogs' nails and got some much needed dog snuggling time, after a week away from her own dogs. I love the way Cindy always gets right down on the ground with the dogs. If I end up on the ground it's usually an accident! 😁
The views here in Oregon are beautiful!
We had a lot off great demos on Thursday but I'm having trouble uploading them to Weekly. Below is the goat recall demo. I'll try to add the others later.
The goats and alpacas enjoy their enrichment and browse time. This gives me lots of great ideas of things to build for my goats!
Some of the students had an apple catapulting contest. Apples are shot into the pastures to attract the elk. I watched. This map depicts all the places students have come from to visit The Ranch. More places will be added after this course is over.
Wednesday morning started out rainy, which made learning the lecture difficult but was a great break for me, coming from the drought ridden California Central Valley. We did end up moving indoors to finish the morning session, but things dried up in time for the first animal lesson.
After the morning lecture we went out for another goat session. We had a visitor for the pre-lesson briefing. ☺️ Corgi was as cooperative as usual. He's a smart boy!
In the afternoon we had our first donkey training session. The black donkey is Sillouette, my training partner. She was a good girl.
We had dinner at the ranch that evening, where Ken Ramirez shared stories of all the amazing adventures he's had training all kinds of animals all over the world. He once even trained thousands of butterflies to do a synchronized flying routine!
Tuesday morning the goats were ready and waiting for their training session!
We also had an alpaca training demo by Ken Ramirez, on Tuesday. This was a great lesson in how to work with shy and skittish animals, as well as how to train multiple animals at once.
Tuesday afternoon Ken Ramirez gave us a donkey training demo.
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.