Prime effing rib.
These are the types of high-value treats that will get any dog responding to “come,” even a Maremma sheepdog.
It’s easy enough inside the house where Bella seems to sense me just thinking about opening the fridge to start making dinner.
They even work very well in the backyard.
But training recall out in the wild with a Maremma sheepdog isn’t that easy.
The challenges of livestock guardian dogs
When I was young and foolish — we’ll say mid-30s — I was convinced Shep knew me well enough that he would come back when I said his name.
Time after time, I would unclip his leash and then have to sprint after him because he’d ignore my commands.
We’d only been together for a couple of years and, with a Maremma sheepdog, trust doesn’t come that easily. And trust is a vital part of training recall.
“All dogs are the same,” I’ve been told by more than one trainer.
No. They. Are. Not.
Livestock guardian dogs are wired differently. They are not an eager-to-please dog, like a Labrador retriever.
They are not biddable like a border collie.
They have been bred over several millennia to be alone in the pasture, relying only on their partner LGDs for teamwork and their shepherds for guidance.
They think independently and can be very stubborn.
These are things I had to learn over time. I’ve spent years studying the traits of the Maremma sheepdog, asking questions of experts like Steve Kovacs and taking the time to watch my dogs.
Training recall with Bella
When I call Bella’s name, I can see her thinking and deciding what to do. Her brow furrows a little and sometimes I can even see the words “fuck off” in her eyes.
We’ve gone through the paces with a dog trainer, attempting in Bella’s puppy years to get her to come when called. Maybe we were convinced that getting started early would make her different than Shep, who was 2 when he arrived in my life.
She does marvelously in the backyard.
But unclipping her leash in the wild and, man, I’d better be wearing running shoes and a good sports bra. The good thing is that Maremmas aren’t particularly fast unless they’re chasing something to defend their flock.
At least not my Maremma anyway.
No high-reward treat has been helpful in training recall with Bella when we’re out hiking. That’s one of the big reasons I keep her on a leash.
The secret to getting Bella to come when called has been building our trust, our bond.
After eight years together, I am confident she will come to me when I unclip her leash on the trail, sometimes necessary when climbing over or under downed trees.
Oh, I still see her deciding to listen to me. And I still wear running shoes and a good bra.
Because her instincts are her instincts and nothing can wear away those centuries of brain formation.
I don’t need to carry high-reward treats. I don’t think I ever did need them. I needed her trust. And that was something that came only with time, time spent together, time learning each other, time understanding each other.
Understanding that she is my guardian. And I am hers.
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 @souldogcreative 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 the things that make your dog come running to wherever you are.
Don’t be shy. Tell me in the comments how your dog responded to training recall. 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.