For the longest time, I would look into the eyes of my Maremma puppy and see nothing but “fuck off.”
They were piercing, defiant and so bright yellow.
They showed a stark contrast to the gentle, warm brown eyes of the 12-year-old boy I’d lain to rest just nine days earlier.
This Maremma puppy was different.
A little about the Maremma sheepdog
The Maremma sheepdog is an Old World livestock guardian dog, bred with an instinct to protect flocks of sheep, chicken and other farm animals. They come from the Apennine Mountain region near Tuscany, Italy, and many surmise they may be the original Big White Dog from which all others descended.
Before Shep died seven years ago, I knew I wanted another dog just like him but finding a Maremma puppy is not the easiest task in the world.
Sure, there are breeders — even one right here in Spokane — and I was prepared for the responses I was going to get.
No, because I live in suburbia.
No, because my Maremma puppy would live indoors.
No, because my Bella would be a pampered princess with no chickens to guard.
No, because my girl would take incredible adventures on hiking trails, to glacier lakes and Oregon beaches instead of resting in a pen with her goats.
No, because breeders sometimes indiscriminately sell their puppies to eager beavers who want that gorgeous white fluffball and aren’t prepared for the barking at every suspicious approach to the house, for the stubbornness, for the defiance, for the unwillingness to come when called.
You see, the Maremma puppy is born to grow into her role and rely on her instincts to guard her flock.
And when that gorgeous fluffball matures and that fierceness you thought was just being a shithead puppy sticks around into adulthood, people dump their Maremmas at shelters. Their trust is broken and they lash out in self-defense. And they are rehomed to people who don’t know about their special traits, they are dumped at the shelter and the cycle begins anew. Unless they are destroyed in that process.
I get it.
But to be told “no,” when I rescued a Maremma sheepdog from being destroyed, spent 10 years growing with him, learning about him, loving him and respecting him, I become defiant and fierce.
Like a Maremma sheepdog.
The teachings of a Maremma puppy
So many people — my friend Dana and her Bernese mountain dogs, Darlene and her sled dogs, Jamie and her beagles — become connected to a particular breed.
Mine is the Maremma sheepdog.
I feel to their core every bit of their defiance and independence. Where I used to get frustrated and impatient with Bella’s “fuck off” eyes, I now smile and laugh. Especially when she’s giving my husband the gears for not getting her nightly peanut butter on time.
When she first came into my life, she refused to come into the house from the backyard in Kelowna, British Columbia. If I could catch her, I would haul her into my arms and carry this squirmy 65-pound Maremma puppy into the house.
Other times, I would leave her in the backyard and go inside with the door left open. She would timidly, gingerly make her way in, give me that look and settle onto her pillow.
After living through such moments with Shep, I knew I had to give her the time and patience to learn who I was and to trust me. After all, she’d just been torn away from a life with her family, her ducks and her goats.
Over the last seven years, I have learned so much about the boundaries she needs me to set for her to be happy and healthy.
She requires space from strangers, mostly children. I must advocate for her and say, “No, my dog does not want to meet you.”
She needs protection from loud noises, like fireworks and hammering to fix roofs.
She wants snuggles when she wants snuggles. Not when I want snuggles.
She has taught me ways to communicate with her, ways to see her communicate with me and every day that I show her the patience and understanding, I feel our connection grow deeper.
My Maremma puppy stirs my soul in ways no other being can.
Shep taught me how to love, Bella teaches me how to feel it deeper.
She amazes me every day.
This was her first time seeing water. She jumped and bit at the waves of Lake Okanagan in Kelowna, B.C.
The Soul Dog Journey Project
Shep was my Heart Dog. Bella is my Soul Dog.
I am connected to both of them in such profound ways but there’s just something different about my bond with Bella.
Shep was my guardian. I knew he would have given his life for me.
Bella is my guardian, too, but more than I was with Shep, I am hers.
These stories of Bella, to be told every Monday in 2022, are part of the Soul Dog Journey Project, an effort by my dear 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.
It works so well with my own Journey sessions and how I want to tell the stories of you and your dog on adventures together in your own custom-designed book.
Many of us don’t believe our stories deserve to be told. I do. Your story matters.
And when you struggle to find the right words to tell your story, I am here for you.