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Farm Animal: Changing of the Guard


Maremma sheepdog (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Prized for its loyalty, independent nature, and instinctive protective-ness, the Maremma sheepdog (cane da pastore Maremmano-Abruzzese) is named after its homeland, a hilly region in Tuscany. While the dog has been around for centuries—the canis pastoralis, its classical predecessor, appears in several 14th-century frescoes—it wasn’t until 1958 that the Ente Nazionale della Cinofilia Italiano (Italian Kennel Club) recognized the Maremma as a single breed.

Initially, the pastore Maremmano was considered distinct from the pastore Abruzzese, but the unification of Italy in the mid-1800s led to the mixing of shepherds and flocks—and, consequently, guardian dogs—between regions. By 1950 no morphological differences remained between the two breeds, and in the 1970s Maremmas made their way to the United States, where they remain a popular livestock protector on dairy farms.

Appearance

Muscular and majestic, Maremmas often intimidate predators with their size. Standing tall at 25 inches and typically weighing between 70 and 100 pounds, they make formidable opponents for wolves and coyotes. Their dense, white coats are coarse to the touch and almost woolly, like the sheep they protect—this promotes trust and encourages strong interspecies bonds, says David Major of Westminster–based Vermont Shepherd (he has four guard dogs, including one Maremma, that watch over the farm’s 300-plus sheep).

Personality

First and foremost, Maremmas aren’t lapdogs. They are workers, and their top priority is protecting any livestock entrusted to them, not pleasing humans. But this independence and confidence in their own decision-making is exactly why they are ideal guard dogs on large farms where they don’t get constant instruction and feedback. They are, however, deeply loyal to their owners. If socialized from a young age, they can be affectionate and very protective of their pack, while still wary of strangers. “She particularly loves baby animals and children—she is present for every goat birth and loves to clean the babies . . . [But] she can be quite fearsome looking to strangers that approach the gate without permission,” says Jessica Hussman, co-owner of Devil Goat Farm in Buxton, Ore., about Artemis, one of her Maremmas.

Activity

Maremmas are livestock guardian dogs, or LGDs. Rather than having the pups herd or drive, dairy farmers task them with 24-hour animal protection. Maremmas accompany livestock from pasture to pasture and are often present for milking, feeding, and other daily tasks. For this reason farms usually have more than one LGD to split the burden.

At Big Picture Farm in Townshend, Vt., two Maremmas stand watch during different hours, says co-founder Louisa Conrad. “It’s amazing to see how they’ve worked out a day and a night shift,” she says. “Josie works days, and Elvis works nights.” Being such dedicated laborers with a strong disinterest in following commands for the sake of it (in other words, they aren’t tempted by treats to “sit” or “stay”), Maremmas are not suited to be house pets or city dwellers. “They have no desire to come inside,” Conrad says. Working on farms allows the breed to employ their natural self-reliant streak and keeps them from getting bored or mired in routine.

Maremma guardianship on dairy farms enables livestock to stay on pasture—weather permitting—at all times. “The does will graze until close to sunset and are up before we are, snacking away,” says Hussmann. “This saves us a lot of money on hay supplementation, and . . . less confined feeding time is always a benefit to [the goats’] health and well-being, as well as the quality of the milk.” Which, in turn, leads to great cheese.

Feature Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Caroline Fenn

While Caroline Fenn’s primary pursuit is an M.A. in publishing from Emerson College, she thinks almost as frequently about whether burrata or Brie would be her desert island cheese. She comes to Boston via Connecticut and Rhode Island and also loves writing, coffee shops, and Fountains of Wayne.

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