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Soul Dog: The Maremma sheepdog doesn’t play around

    The Maremma sheepdog doesn’t do toys. 

    I remember so well my boyfriend trying to get Shep to play fetch. Shep happily ran and got the ball, even played with it a little bit, but very reluctantly returned it.  

    The Maremma sheepdog does not like being told what to do. 

    Chip threw the ball again. Shep went to it, obliging the man one more time but with a slight look of derision in his eyes. 

    A third time, the look came out. “What is the actual point of this?” Shep said with his eyes and stood there with the ball at his feet. 

    More than 10 years and a puppy stage later, my husband has come to a point of acceptance, resigning himself to cuddles and occasional zoomies in the backyard. 

    The Maremma sheepdog is wired differently. 

    Dog photos in wide angle on the Thompson River in Kamloops, B.C.

    Instincts developed over 2,000 years 

    The Cane de Pastore Maremmano-Abruzzese (say that five times fast if you aren’t Italian) is an Old World guardian breed, first mentioned in ancient Roman literature more than 2,000 years ago. 

    From its very origins, the dog was used to protect vulnerable flocks from wolves. Some Italian painters, including Mariotto di Nardo (circa 1400 AD), depicted a large white dog at the birth of the Christian Jesus. 

    Over the millennia, the Maremma sheepdog developed instincts to think independently, to be her own decision-maker and to not submit easily. These dogs were – and are – left in the pasture with their flocks; they have been shepherds’ loyal companion and trusted guardian of sheep, keeping wolves and other predators at bay, fighting to kill when necessary. 

    I bought “The Maremma Sheepdog eBook: Understanding, raising and training your maremma” off a great website many years ago, hoping to learn more about my boy Shep. By the time I’d found this book, I’d already met a few Maremma folks who regaled me with stories of their dogs leaving coyote parts on the back doorstep as gifts. 

    My sweet, gentle boy? Oh never. 

    The brain of the Maremma sheepdog 

    The ebook, written by owner Katrina Jeffrey, goes into great detail about the motor patterns of a Maremma sheepdog’s brain. 

    I won’t go into great detail but the section would be a good read for anyone wanting to understand why their dog wants to play fetch, or has a herding or predatory instinct. The concepts are pretty complicated but there is a series of actions a dog’s brain undergoes, including orient, eye, stalk, chase, grab-bite, kill-bite, dissect and consume. 

    In some dogs, Jeffrey writes, select stages are atrophied in the brain, while in other dogs, select stages are exaggerated. Ever see a border collie “eye” its herd or a German shepherd “stalk”? 

    A game like “fetch,” Jeffrey writes, is based on a predatory motor sequence, one that requires stalking, chasing and the grab-bite. Over time, those stages have been quieted in the Maremma sheepdog brain. They neither stalk, chase nor grab-bite, having learned to nurture the vulnerable and defend their property instead. 

    OK, that’s enough sciencing 

    It all boils down to the Maremma sheepdog being a dog that’s fairly quiet in nature (I don’t mean quiet in lack of barking because geebus, no, there’s a lot of that). 

    They sleep a lot, reserving their energy for when it’s needed. 

    They lope and trot, rather than run at high speed. 

    They aren’t a biddable retriever or a “happy to please” Labrador.  

    They’re built for serious business.  

    As a puppy, Bella was playful when she wanted to be. Always on her terms. Most often, when she had a friend to play with.

    She wanted no toys to fetch or bat around.  

    We did occasionally get her to kick around a small rubber ball. We called it “soccer” and laughed that she was so good at it because she’s Italian. 

    I bought her a squeaky pig that lay unwanted next to her chew ropes and squirrels that met quick fates of delimbing.. 

    Maremma sheepdog playing with a chew toy

    And those damn chew ropes. 

    After three or four went missing, I realized she was eating them. I count my lucky stars she digested them, rather than sustaining a blockage and costing us $3,500 in stomach surgery.  

    A basketful of toys 

    Today, we have a collection of Kongs and other rubbery “toys.” 

    They are not for playing. No, no.  

    They are mere vehicles for smears of peanut butter and Greek yogurt – two times of day Bella will not let us forget.  

    No, toys are beneath her.  

    She’s a serious girl 90 percent of the time.  

    She has two speeds: sleeping and “OK, mama, let’s hike.” 

    But that’s really the dream, isn’t it? 

    To take long walks in the wood and to sleep. 

    As long as we’re together, she guarding me and I her.

    The Soul Dog Journey Project 

    These stories of Bella, to be told every Monday in 2022, are part of the Soul Dog Journey Project, an effort 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 is “your dog’s favorite toy, and the joy it brings to both of you.” 

    Since we don’t have a favorite toy, I thought I would share more about the Maremma sheepdog brain and why toys don’t really fit into our world. I hope it gave you some insight into why the Maremma – and other livestock guardian dogs – are so different and why they need a different kind of human when they’re in a companion home, rather than on a working farm. 

    Every one of those traits that make Bella different from other dogs is one more reason why I love her more than anything or anyone I’ve loved before. (Don’t worry … Husband knows.) 

    Her independence, her stubbornness, her defiance are all reasons why she is my Soul Dog. 

    Don’t be shy. Tell me in the comments about your dog’s favorite toy and the joy it brings both of you. And if you’ve found yourself here because you have a Maremma sheepdog that doesn’t do toys, well … you probably just know. 

    Your story matters

    Start your journey to telling it

    The Journey session with Big White Dog Photography produces a book that tells the story of you and your dog on the adventure of life together. Words and images come together in an heirloom piece you’ll read again and again.


    Dogs. Adventure. Outdoors. These words set Angela's heart afire. Angela Schneider, an award-winning writer and dog photographer, documents the story of you and your dog and the adventures you take together. Your portraits will be a statement piece in your home, art that will make your friends and family beg to hear its story.

    11 thoughts on “Soul Dog: The Maremma sheepdog doesn’t play around”

    1. My soul mate was a Labrador Rusty who I miss every day…he was a mate to Moby, our first now also departed Maremma and Shelby, also a Maremma. Moby was beautiful and loving, and fiercely independent. His early death was a tragedy and I loved him dearly. Shelby is a serious Maremma who came to us at three years of age, she had already had six homes, and there was abuse is her past. She will be eight years next month. Shelby and Rusty co-existed but didn’t really have much to do with each other because Rusty never saw other dogs (though he and Moby were close – Rusty did not ‘play’ with Moby, though Moby wanted to and tried to every day). When Rusty died, Shelby adopted some of his characteristics including immediately for a short time his limp. It wasn’t until Rusty died that I allowed myself to really love her…..loosing Moby had been hard, and Maremma’s were my partners dogs, dog of choice. We have now adopted 5 year o old Harry, Shelby doesn’t know why we needed to get Harry, she was happy being an only dog, she has been teaching him how to be a Maremma, as he thinks he’s a lapdog……he is 57 kilos and he demands a daily massage.
      Maremma’s are just like me and my partner, independent, strong willed, instinctive, barbers!! Sensitive, and like to be pampered (me) aloof. Loyal.
      Thanks for the writing, I’ll definitely read along. Dee xo

    2. Loved this story. We have a 10.5 year old Maremma female who has a basket of untouched toys. She sleeps a lot, has no interest in play or too much cuddle time. Everything is her decision and her time table

      1. hi I’m new to mareema
        first one 13 weeks old
        I think she’s imposter she fetches all night 10 10 12 times brings it back to me
        she loves cuddles and always watching me through kitchen door
        loves all other puppies us she an Imposter

    3. Loved you story and so looking forward to the rests. I have a 4 years old Maremma boy. He plays fetch and tag a war game with me in the garden but only for 15 mins or so. I think he thinks I really love the game and he should play with me for my welfare. 😂

    4. Charlie is my very first Maremma pup. She’s four months old and has been with me for three days now. Everything you say rings true-heres my question. When a super-sized dog decides she doesn’t want to come inside the gate at the end of the day- how do you get them to move? More treats?

      1. Hey Jillaine, when Bella was a puppy she often refused to come in the house. She was also fresh off the breeder’s farm, where she slept with her mom, her uncle, the goats and the ducks. I learned a new level of patience with these dogs because I quickly lost interest in chasing a puppy around my yard and hoisting 65 pounds of squirm to carry in. It was a sight, let me tell you. I had to leave the back door open and let her make the decision to come inside when she was ready. We quickly bonded enough, though, that she would come in with me and seven years later, she won’t be outside or inside without me. 🙂

    5. Baxter is our 14 month old Maremma and he plays fetch with his stuffies and balls. He loves his squeaky toys! He is so gentle with them because he loves to squeak them for me. (I encouraged it when he was just a little one) And every morning, we snuggle on the couch.
      I just can’t imagine life without him!

    6. My urban maremma loves stuffed toys. She doesn’t play with them, she guards them as she would guard a sheep if she was on a farm. My other dogs leave her stuff alone when she’s watching.
      Other than that, she’s like a big woofy cat! Definitely not like a typical dog.

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