The Maremma Sheepdog is not likely to pass by unnoticed due to its impressive size and dramatic white coat, but its striking appearance is not its predominant feature. The dog, which is indigenous to central Italy, is better known for its talent for watching over sheep, cattle and other livestock. The breed is considered a real economic resource for farmers throughout Italy and further afield.
Protecting sheep and other livestock against bear and wolf attacks is the main task of the Maremma Sheepdog, which can count on the colour of its coat to blend in amongst the sheep, especially at night, making it almost impossible for predators to spot. Independent and determined, the Maremma Sheepdog also has a natural predisposition to outdoor life thanks to its innate resistance to diseases and adverse climatic conditions.
Mia Canestrini, technician of the National Park of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennine and the Wolf Apennine Centre, guides us in our discovery of this remarkable breed, which is also a beneficiary of the ambitious ‘Love-Food’ initiative promoted by Almo Nature in association with the National Park to raise awareness with farmers about the importance of achieving a peaceful coexistence with wolves in the region.
Maremma Sheepdog: how to become a flock ‘sentinel’
Although the Maremma Sheepdog doesn’t need training, a few important steps can help make it an excellent custodian. As emphasised by Canestrini, starting at early age is very important: “The ideal situation is to allow the female to give birth in a stable near the cattle, so from the first moments of life, the puppy is in direct contact with the animals that one day it will protect, favouring a kind of imprinting.
At the age of two months, puppies can be inserted in to the flock, regardless of whether this is the flock in which its parents work or a new flock.” At this point, it’s important to develop mutual trust between the dog and animal: “Initially, it is advisable: to create a space in the stable where the puppy has exclusive access, not to force contact with the flock, and to ensure that its food and water is safe from trampling and undesired ingestion.
With each passing week, the puppy will grow in size and become less clumsy in the flock and its time spent with the livestock will grow exponentially.” When they reach six months old, the dogs fulfill their training as guardians of the flock and take their position at the base of the pack, perfectly integrating into the system of hierarchies within the group of guarding dogs, in which some supervise from within the flock, and some guard from a distance to ensure the safety of their charges.
Caring for the Maremma Sheepdog: the role of feeding
Attention must be paid to the nutrition of the Maremma Sheepdog from an early age because a Maremma puppy can gain more than a kilo a week, Dr. Canestrini explains: “In order to aid proper development of the dog’s growing skeletal system and enable it to move with the flock in the mountains, its need for calcium will be high.” The viable alternative to a balanced ‘DIY’ (do it yourself) mash – of raw meat with added vitamins or a meal made with whey and dried bread as with pastoral tradition – is a mix of both wet and dry dog food specifically designed for large breeds and differentiated by age and stage of development of the dog.