I made a terrible error last week.
I took Bella with me to a photo shoot with a friend and her two German shepherd puppies. I was tasked with the challenge to get an action shot of a dog running straight at my camera.
Bella, my companion Maremma sheepdog, doesn’t run – unless there’s a cat on the fence in the backyard – so I needed to call in my top models.
Jazzlo is a trained service and therapy dog. She is a sweet, gentle girl.
So is Bella.
Jazzy came running straight at me, just like she was supposed to.
Bella’s guardian instincts clicked in and she saw danger.
We had to pull the two girls apart.
I failed her
When a livestock guardian dog looks at her human, she is supposed to see a partner, a trusted advocate.
And that doesn’t matter whether she’s a working Maremma or a companion Maremma.
Through the centuries, the Maremma sheepdog has worked closely with their humans to protect livestock. They look to us to understand what their job is and what a “threat” is.
My friend Steve Kovacs is longtime owner and trainer of Kuvasz, the Hungarian big white dog. He is well known throughout LGD circles on Facebook and I look to him as an LGD expert and companion Maremma mentor.
He says the Maremma sheepdog was bred to work with humans as a guardian protector of whatever is important to humans.
“They are not like other dog breeds,” he wrote on Facebook. “They are a partner and need to be treated and taught as such.”
Without livestock to protect, the companion Maremma looks at her house as her territory and her humans as the livestock.
Advocating for the companion Maremma
When Bella saw Jazzy running a beeline at my camera, she didn’t think “oh Mama’s taking pictures of this dog instead of me, how fun!”
She thought, “Danger! Mama’s in danger!”
And she jumped to protect me. The 90 seconds of trying to pull these dogs off each other and evade their bites (I didn’t but it was 10-below Celsius and I had a thick winter jacket on) were scary.
They’re also a strong reminder to keep Bella out of these situations. Mind you, she’s come to sessions with me before without incident – hiking sessions where dogs and humans are enjoying a single pursuit and not running at each other.
They also remind me why I’m:
- So passionate about this breed
- A fierce advocate for keeping your dog on a damn leash
Despite the insistence of the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America and many breeders throughout the United States, the Maremma makes a wonderful companion and house dog.
“This has been proven throughout history and even today,” said Steve. “In Italy, almost half the Maremma are in homes and on estates, not out in the field. In France, it is similar with the (Great Pyrenees). The old-timers’ advice – and the advice of those who introduced LGDs, including the Maremma, to North America … was flat-out wrong.”
The Maremma is an “outstanding companion with a sensitivity and enact reaction to their owners not found in other breeds,” he wrote. “Let’s stop insisting that they can only be in the field or that LGDs that are companions are failed LGDs somehow. That seriously misrepresents the full capability of the LGD breeds.”
My guardian, my best friend
When Shep saw strangers approaching us, he would step in front of me and stand perpendicularly to the path.
My friend Dana noticed this once and commented, “He’s T-barring you.”
He was letting me know he had my back … well, front, I guess.
Being so focused on getting my shot, I didn’t see warning signs that Bella was sensing danger.
That is why I failed her.
As a human with a companion Maremma, it is one of my responsibilities to keep one eye on her, watching for the signs that a threat is approaching:
- Squinty eyes and furrowed brow
- Ears pinned back
- Neck ruff blown out
- Hair on her back raised
The Maremma sheepdog treats humans as equals and friends, say the owners of The Abruzzo Maremma Sheepdog website.
Trust between a Maremma and her human is at the very core of the bond. Bella needs me to help her understand a situation.
It’s why I don’t participate in the bark at your dog challenge on TikTok and other stupid human tricks.
It’s why I don’t play games with her food.
It’s why I don’t leave her alone in an area full of strangers.
She is my guardian, and I am hers.
If her natural instincts to disengage a threat kick in, there’s going to be trouble.
There was trouble.
And it’s my fault.
After 18 years of loving a companion Maremma, I recognize that I made a mistake, one that I’m going to do my damnedest not to make again. We become better humans for our dogs, though, because of the mistakes we make.
As long as we learn from them.
First and foremost, I need to remember that Bella’s trust is my priority. If I break that trust, I lose her and the incredible connection we share.
The Soul Dog Journey Project
These stories of Bella, to be told every Monday in 2022, are part of the Soul Dog Journey Project, a mission by my friend Marika at @dirtiedogphotography in Seattle. After losing her Soul Dog, Kerouac, last year, she’s put together a 52-week project that gets us telling the stories of how we are connected to our dogs and what they bring to our lives.
Each week, there’s a new story prompt to get our creative juices flowing. This week’s prompt focuses on how you imagine your dog sees you. Beyond imagination, Bella needs to see me as a trusted partner and an advocate.
Don’t be shy. Tell me in the comments about the way you imagine your dog sees you. And if you’ve found yourself here because you have a Maremma sheepdog that brings you a deeper connection than you’ve ever known, well, you just know.
HI, thanks for sharing your story. In the past I have had Retrievers, Flatcoat to be specific and they lavish attention and licking all over you, well, over every human in their field of vision actually. When I got my Maremma, I guess I was looking for the white version of a retriever and the in your face factor to continue. My girl Oona is nothing at all like that. I have had people say that the Maremma is more like a cat than a dog, meaning their affection can be very exclusive. what I have had to do is learn that I am not the one in control, that I might be her owner but that doesn’t entitle me to her soul. As she has grown I have learnt that there is such a world of difference to have a companion that chooses me, exclusively me and no one else. She has taught me about my neediness and that the dependency that I have always had with my other canine companions is going to have to be earnt and not just given unquestioningly. Her trust is something to acknowledge as elusive and that informs my choices in handling our relationship. I am learning so much from her. She hasn’t been the dog that I originally wanted but she is definitely the companion that I needed. I am looking forward to growing our bond over the years and being complete in each other’s presence.
Congratulations on being chosen. You’re setting a great foundation for a connection that, I promise, will last forever in your heart. Bella and I butted heads for her first three or four years. We shared a special trip a few years ago and from that moment, everything is different. We see each other’s soul now.
I am a Breeder of Merit with AKC. I have bred, raised, competed and won Championships with my Labradors. My dogs day job is working a therapy dogs in my pediatric psychiatric practice. We live in a small farm. Hence I found after much research a Maremma pup. I do not want to betray this magnificent being. I must learn the best for him. Interested in following your site. He is 4 months old and the most intelligent, thoughtful and connected pup I have ever had. Any suggestions most appreciated.
Hi Colleen! If you’re on Facebook, I highly recommend joining the Companion Maremmas group and the Maremma and the Abruzzes Sheepdog group. Both are very active and give you easy access to Steve and other very experienced LGD owners. I would also spend some time on the maremanno.com website, learning the history and nature of your puppy. More than a lot of puppies, it’s important to spend lots of time with your Maremma, cementing that bond of trust. Two of the most important things to learn right away are:
1. How to allow strangers into your Maremma’s space
2. How to teach him what is a threat and isn’t a threat
With the first one, I like to tell people to not rush into Bella’s space, to spend time talking to me which lets her know I trust that person to be near. It is never the human’s right to guess when they can enter her personal space, it is her right to say when it’s OK.
And the second, when your puppy starts barking at a perceived threat, reward him. Let him know “good boy,” when it is appropriate or “it’s OK” when it may not be as threatening as he thinks. Treats and pats and love should accompany these moments. 😉
By the way, here’s a light-hearted look at Maremmas and their barking.
My Blue is 1/2 Maremma, 1/4 Great Pyrenees and 1/4 Anatolian.
He is a trained service/therapy dog, trained by me, a behavioral analyst/therapist. He has been an amazing companion dog and so wonderful with kids on the spectrum and in any environment I have taken him to, he is always the show stopper and draws people to him and he rewards them with love.
He’s a gentle giant with the most beautiful demeanor I have had in any dog I’ve owned and I’ve owned many. He’s also the smartest dog I’ve owned.
All that being said, I never, EVER forget that he is a dog, with dog instincts, that all the training in the world won’t completely replace. I don’t fully trust him or ever assume he won’t react and protect his flock aka me/family/clients and I will not ever put him in that kind of situation to test it. When we are in a multiple dog environment, he’s usually leashed and by my side. I even watch him like a hawk with our new kitten because though he is playful with her, I know that he could turn on a dime and I wouldn’t be the responsible owner I am if I allowed that to happen. So I am always there to oversee this stuff. That’s part of the deal. Never assume a dog will not be a dog with their own primal behaviors. Never assume you’ve trained those behaviors out. Assumptions like that lead to tragedy.
But I will for sure take on anyone who says that these dogs can’t be amazing companion/therapy/service dogs and thrive beyond taking care of livestock. I am witnessing it and there’s many families in the autism community also choosing trained LGDS as service dogs with amazing results.
I was often told that my boy Shep would have made a wonderful therapy dog but I wasn’t in that kind of place in my life. Their gentle and protective nature, I think, make them perfect candidates for the therapy world.