Maremma Sheepdog

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Maremma Sheepdog

The Maremma Sheepdog is an ancient Italian breed that has been guarding the sheep and goats of its native region for thousands of years. In fact, it is one of the few such breeds that continue to find employment in this role, both in its homeland and elsewhere. However, it is a very rare breed in the United Kingdom, and unlikely to be encountered outside a farm. It is generally not recommended as a pet because of its incredibly strong work ethic, which does not allow it to let down its guard, whatever the setting. For this reason, the Maremma is sometimes accused of being overly protective when taken out of its natural setting, with the potential for defensive aggression towards strangers a constant threat.

That being said, the Maremma Sheepdog is friendly and unfailingly loyal to its owners, and is known for being a very touchy-feely dog, constantly seeking physical contact from either its human or ovine companions. Its working style requires it to be intelligent and capable of decision making, which means it may be too headstrong for less experienced dog owners, but it will respect and obey the person it identifies as being the alpha dog within the family “pack”. This is a large, active dog that needs lots of space and copious amounts of exercise, and would be very much out of place in an urban environment. Health problems are uncommon in the breed, which has a life expectancy of around 12 to 14 years.

About & History

Large white sheepdogs native to Italy were first described by Marcus Terentius Varro, a Roman scholar, around 100 BC, and continued to feature in works of literature, sculpture, and paintings thereafter. Representations from as early as the fourteenth century begin to bear an uncanny resemblance to today’s breed. Although its precise origins are lost in the mists of time, it is thought to share its lineage with the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, by virtue of their somewhat similar appearance and working roles. While its Pyrenean cousin patrolled the slopes of the eponymous mountain range, the Maremma Sheepdog was employed largely in the marshy lowlands of the Abruzzo and Maremma regions of Tuscany, where it worked with shepherds to protect livestock from theft and predation, generally by wolves.

The Maremma works in packs, usually of around three to four individuals. From puppyhood, they are released to live among the sheep, coming to recognise themselves as the flock’s protectors. Although their primary purpose is to act as a deterrent, they are fearless in the face of a threat, and their historic depictions often feature roccales – spiked metal collars worn by the dogs to protect their necks from potentially lethal injury by large predators. With the unification of Italy in the mid-nineteenth century, the regional differences in Maremmas became less marked, as free movement became possible between pastoral communities, and the breed assumed even greater importance, as their flocks needed protection on their new, seasonal migration between Abruzzo and the rich grazing lands of Puglia, further south. This migration has continued into modern times, and, although its numbers have waned over recent decades, the Maremma remains very much in demand as a working breed in its native country, where the wolf is still a very real threat to sheep farmers’ livelihoods. Despite its very long history, the breed remained unrecognised in any formal way until the first breed standard was drawn up in 1924, and it was many more years before most owners of these hard-working dogs would bother to have them registered as pedigrees.

While only a handful of Maremma Sheepdogs are registered by the UK Kennel Club in any given year, it is a popular working breed in several other areas of the world, including the United States, Canada, and Australia, and has proven itself capable of guarding a wide range of other species. In one of the more unusual uses to which it has been put, it is now tasked with protecting an endangered colony of penguins in Warrnambool, Australia, where a recent increase in the birds’ numbers has been attributed to their canine protectors.

Appearance

Maremma Sheepdog Large Photo

The Maremma is a powerful, but not bulky dog. It has a large, long head that is as much as 40% as long as the height at the withers – its shape is likened to that of a polar bear, which goes some way to conveying the great breadth of the skull and slightly tapering muzzle. It has marked bony arches above the eyes that accentuate its watchful appearance, but the stop is relatively subtle. The jaw is thick and strong, and it contains a set of very large teeth, as befits the Maremma’s role as a guardian. Its eyes are oval-shaped and ochre or brown in colour, and its small, triangular ears are set high and forward on the skull.

The neck, which is slightly shorter than the skull, is thick and heavily muscled, and has no dewlap, although it is thickly covered in hair. The strong, straight back may rise slightly from the withers to rump, and the chest is deep, long, and rounded, with a sternum that sweeps gently up into the abdomen. The Maremma’s well-furnished tail is set low, and hangs heavily around the hocks when at rest. It has sloping shoulders, but otherwise upright limbs, and large, round paws, with strong boning throughout. Its usual gait is a plodding, free-flowing walk or trot.

The skin is thick and tight over all parts of the body. The Maremma’s long, wavy hair is particularly abundant on the neck and hindquarters, and can be very thick in the winter, though the undercoat is far less prominent during the warmer months. It is of a coarse texture, and is always white in colour, although slight yellowing is permitted by the breed standard. Male Maremma Sheepdogs are generally 65–73 cm in height, and weigh between 35 and 45 kg, while females measure 60–68 cm and weigh 30–40 kg.

Character & Temperament

The breed is largely defined by its working characteristics; in fact, the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America explicitly advises that the Maremma should not be kept as a pet. Despite its loyalty and intelligence, 2000 years of adaptation to its work means that it is constantly on guard, and liable to act inappropriately in a home environment.

Raised voices, a doorbell, excitement at the arrival of friends or family can all be misconstrued as dangerous events that the owners need to be protected from – with physical force if necessary, and the breed’s tendency to act on its own impulses against such threats can make any aggressive behaviours difficult to manage. While this is a gentle and considerate dog with its own family, especially children, it cannot be entirely trusted in the company of strangers.

Trainability

Photo of Maremma Sheepdog puppy

Obedience training is essential for such a large dog, with its particular behavioural quirks, and it must be started young. Some shepherds place their Maremmas amongst their sheep from eight weeks of age, and this is also the time to teach the basics of good manners.

A Maremma Sheepdog will respond well to firm, consistent training, but may prove too headstrong for owners that have not previously reared a high-energy, highly intelligent working dog of this sort.

Health

There are very few breed-related health concerns for the Maremma Sheepdog with the following being the ones most commonly encountered:

  • Achondroplasia – A disorder of cartilage development that manifests as a form of dwarfism. Although it is considered a normal feature of some breeds, affected Maremmas will develop an abnormally shaped skull and short limbs.
  • Anaesthetic sensitivity – The breed has a low tolerance for many of the commonly used veterinary anaesthetic drugs, and requires special care when undergoing anaesthesia for any reason.
  • Hip dysplasia – Almost a ubiquitous problem in large breeds, this is an inherited abnormality of joint development. Affected dogs may develop stiffness and lameness in puppyhood, and will later be predisposed to osteoarthritis. A good-quality diet and maintenance of a healthy body weight can help manage the problem in combination with medical or surgical treatments.
  • Ivermectin toxicity – Like other pastoral breeds, the Maremma may have an unusually permeable barrier between its brain and bloodstream, allowing potentially toxic substances access to the nervous system. Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic treatment that is normally used in livestock, but sometimes also applied to farm dogs for deworming and ectoparasite control. Susceptible dogs exposed to this drug can develop severe neurological signs, including seizures, coma, and death.

Of these health concerns, prospective Maremma buyers should be most mindful of hip dysplasia, which is unlikely to be a problem in pups born to parents with healthy hip joints. Veterinary certificates of hip scores should be available from the breeder for both parents on request.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Maremma Sheepdogs are happiest when on the move, and although they are not rambunctious or hyperactive, they do need a lot of space over which to roam. When not working, they should be given several hours of walking each day, and should ideally have access to a large garden (or farm!) that is securely fenced.

Grooming

Many working Maremmas go through life without ever being groomed, but they are likely to develop knots and matts if the coat does not receive some attention. Occasional brushing is all that is required, although more frequent brushing can help manage the very heavy moults that occur twice every year. The breed has thick, strong nails that may also need occasional clipping.

Famous Maremma Sheepdogs

Possibly the most famous member of the Maremma family is the one that was immortalised as the Jennings (or Duncombe) Dog – a bronze representation of an early guard dog, similar in appearance to the modern Maremma, that was “appropriated” from Rome in 69 AD, and now sits on display in the British Museum in London.

Cross-Breeds

In the United States in particular, the Maremma Sheepdog is occasionally cross-bred with the Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever, although nobody seems to have been able to come up with a suitable “designer dog” label for either combination.

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