Do you want to own a Maremma?

photo of four puppies


Penny Whatley has been a Maremma owner for more than 30 years.

The following introduction to the breed is a good practical guide for prospective new owners planning to keep a Maremma as a companion dog. The views expressed are Penny's own.

Before

Before buying one of these beautiful dogs, please consider the following and answer the questions honestly:

If the answers to these questions are 'Yes', read on.

Maremmas

Maremmas are different, ask any seasoned Maremma owner. The majority of people are accustomed to the more popular breeds such as Labradors, German Shepherds, etc. and assume that the upbringing of any dog is the same no matter what breed it is. NOT SO! The Maremma is bred in Italy to guard sheep and is often left on his own with the flock to protect it from danger. Because of this, they are independent and able to think for themselves.

This has to be kept in mind when living with a Maremma. Young dogs of any breed need to learn the ground rules and be taught what is expected of them.

The difference between other breeds and a Maremma is, that having learned those ground rules, and the parameters you expect your dog to stay within, in adulthood your Maremma will give occasions when you will have to insist on certain reactions from the dog without resorting to draconian means.

You will have to respect what Maremmas really are: They are not puppets, they will not jump to attention on command, fetch a ball or stick when you throw it, nor come to you always immediately when you call him. You can insist they do as they are told but do not expect subservience that is not in the Maremma's mental make up. Far better to retain a sense of humour and accept that this is the nature of the breed.

The early days

When you fetch your puppy from the breeder please try to introduce him to his new home as early in the day as possible. He has left the only surroundings he knows, been taken from his mother and siblings by total strangers and placed in a completely alien environment. He is going to be a bit frightened and confused. By getting him to his new home as early as possible he will have the majority of the day to get used to his new place and family before bedtime.

Obviously he will not be house trained so he will have to sleep somewhere where it is easy to clean up any little accident. You will have to expect that he will cry for the first few nights so it is best to tire him out as much as possible before settling him down for the night.

photo of Zak at 10 weeks

Handling a Maremma puppy is one of the most important things you can do. This can take the form of playing, cuddling, training, feeding and grooming. It is while the puppy is young and impressionable that the discipline during these handling sessions comes into force. These sessions do not have to be formal. Teach the puppy as you go along and he will learn from your tone of voice and the expressions that you use what is expected from him. For housetraining always take him outside and stay with him until he 'performs', please do not just put him outside and expect him to do what he is supposed to do. Whilst you are waiting for him to do his toilet, use and repeat words that he will come to associate with this. The words 'Be good' encompass everything and once learnt, can be used to your advantage throughout his life.

Maremmas are naturally clean dogs and house training is generally easy but a lot depends on how much time and effort you put in. Use copious praise once he has 'performed' and he will soon learn.

Maremmas are guardians

This of course means that they will want to protect whatever they consider theirs. This also means their food. From day one, stroke your puppy whilst he is eating and tell him what a good dog he is at the same time. I do not mean every single time he is fed or for the entire period he is eating, but certainly on a daily basis until you are confident that he will not react in an adverse manner. Also pick his food bowl up, fork the food around and praising him, give it back.

Stroke him around the face area, if you get a reaction, you can reprimand firmly but do not tower over him, he will feel threatened, get down to his level, say firmly 'No', that is all that is usually required.

Some people do not consider that it is fair to handle a dog when it is eating, but consider the situation of a fully grown Maremma who objects to your presence even near him, never mind touching him whilst he is eating, you need to be confident that you can take any object away, if you want to without fear of reprisal even if it is a nice fresh bone....

Maremmas as a rule have a terrific sense of humour. Catch the eye of your dog with a 'come and play' expression and I can assure you, he will respond, they love to chase and be chased, but make sure that in case he gets rough during play, you respond with a firm 'NO, GENTLY'. He will soon learn what is expected. NEVER go over the top with discipline, your Maremma must know that he can trust you, it is a partnership: he should be your friend and confidant, DO NOT abuse this trust, you will never gain it back!

Like most dogs, Maremmas respond wonderfully to kindness. Discipline is more a matter of fairness, determination and re-iteration on your part.

Diet

When collecting your puppy, the breeder should have given you a diet sheet. Please follow this feeding regime as closely as possible for the first weeks; stick to a balanced diet. Some Maremmas become very fussy, some people prefer to add a little something tasty to encourage them to eat, but please DO make sure that it is in very small quantities otherwise you will upset the balance.

As adults, Maremmas do not require vast quantities of food, as they are not burning up calories like for instance Border Collies. Maremmas lead a more sedentary lifestyle with food requirements to match.

This is not to say that some of them do not have large appetites, but this is not the same as requirement!

Training

Basic training is the same as with other breeds and Maremmas do learn quickly as puppies. It is only as they get older that they may question your commands. If you never have trained a dog before, try to attend training classes, these serve two purposes: they will teach you to train your dog and it is a good way of socialising your puppy with both other dogs and people. Try to spend five minutes twice a day with basic training, puppies have a short attention span and will become easily bored after a short time.

One point to remember: One hundred hours of training before your puppy is six months old is worth one thousand hours after the age of six months.

Puppies, like children, are very impressionable and you will imprint this training in your puppies mind for life, he may go through a teenage 'I do not have to do this if I don't want to' stage, but like any well brought up child he will get over it. If you like you can reward with titbits but not too many and as the training progresses do not give a titbit every single time your puppy obeys, however always praise him.

This you cannot overdo. Your voice should be lower in tone for commands (do not ask your dog to do something, tell him). A higher encouraging tone of voice should be used for praise.

photo of Hector at 3 months

As soon as your puppy has had his vaccinations, take him out and socialise him. This does not mean long walks, which he certainly should not have but meeting other dogs and people, especially children - and getting them to handle him gently will reap untold benefits when he is fully-grown. Also get as many people as possible to visit you and make him understand that if you say a person is allowed into your home so must he. Some people shut their Maremmas away until a person is indoors and sat down, this is not necessary if you are firm from an early age.

If you say it is OK then it is OK, no argument!

However, it is essential that you supervise your dog when you have visitors, who should never force themselves on him or put their faces close to his.

Make your guests understand that your dog must take his time to accustom himself to them, usually, once a Maremma has made friends with someone, they are friends for life unless that trust is abused.

Exercise

Contrary to their size, Maremmas do not require vast amounts of exercise. Watch a flock of sheep and you see the lifestyle they are bred for. They do however enjoy their walks and meeting people and other dogs, but your dog will not thank you for daily ten-mile hikes. An hour and a half to two hours is ample as long as he is allowed to run free.

At first your puppy will want to keep you in his sight, he will gain confidence as he gets older and may go out of sight, but they are not really wanderers and as long as you are away from roads and he is not able to get in with livestock, do not worry, he will always return to you. What a Maremma hates more than anything is constantly being called back; let him run off to sniff something or see another dog, when he comes back, always praise him, then say, 'Off you go then, good boy'. Do not exert pressure upon him, then he will never be hard to get back when you want to put him on the lead to go home.

A happy Maremma will always check on his owner.

To make sure he or she is OK and if you do want to get your dogs attention, just get him used to expressions like, 'This way', or my own favourite is waving at an imaginary person and calling out 'hello', that soon makes them take notice and they come immediately to investigate. Do not try this one too often though, they soon come to realise that you are just crying 'Wolf'!

You may find that your dog views certain people with suspicion, people without a dog for instance. You have to be aware of this and reassure very firmly that all is OK, do NOT allow your dog to jump up at people, a firm 'No, leave' then praise when the dog responds is all that is required, it may take a while to instil this into your Maremma, but he will learn. Always remember, your dog will want to protect you at all times, that is the breeds dominant instinct, but remember that you are the Alpha male or female in your pack and what you say goes.

Try to split your walks to two a day, three if they are slightly shorter, you will know if he needs more, a bored Maremma barks for the sake of it and not just when there is something genuine to bark at, if this happens you need to be looking at what is wrong with his lifestyle. More exercise and more attention is a possible solution.

Guarding

As I have stated before, Maremmas are natural guards, this means that not only will he want to protect you but every member of your family living in his home, including other animals, whether they be other dogs or the family hamster, they are part of his flock. It is important that you recognise this instinct in him and allow him to do his 'job'. It is important that he recognises that you and the other family members have the final say, praise him for guarding and then if everything is OK, reassure him. NEVER get angry with him for barking he is only doing what comes naturally to the breed. Maremmas hate being shouted at; it just makes them nervous and jeopardises the trust you have built up.

Grooming

Grooming is an excellent way of strengthening the bond between dog and owner. Start the day after you bring your puppy home; five minutes a day is all you should do at first. Gently get your puppy to lie down, using persuasion, not force and make the grooming session's fun. You can reward with a little titbit when you are finished. All you need at this stage is a soft bristle brush; anything else is too harsh for a delicate puppy skin. Remember that there are certain delicate and sensitive areas, obviously the genital areas, under the front legs above the elbow and around the ears. Your puppy has to know he can trust you not to hurt him and time spent with grooming will pay dividends later. Grooming becomes a pleasure and not something both of you comes to dread. Please check regularly behind the ears and under the armpits, dogs are very adept at tangling the fur around these areas when they scratch.

Maremmas have a double coat; the top coat consists of slightly harsh guard hairs whilst the undercoat is soft and thick. Bitches normally moult twice a year, particularly after a season whilst dogs generally moult once a year beginning when the warmer weather sets in. Living in a centrally heated environment can upset this rhythm and you may find that there is some degree of shedding for the best part of the year. It's helpful to have a good vacuum cleaner and a good sense of humour but not necessarily in that order! Maremmas are quite content to spend a lot of time outside, even in very cold weather; however most Maremmas do not particularly like wet weather conditions and you should make sure he has somewhere dry to go. The coat of the Maremma is not difficult to dry off owing to its texture, a brisk rub with a towel is all that is generally required and this is something else you should accustom him to from an early age. For grooming you will require a double sided brush, one side has wire tines with protective bobbles whilst the other side is bristle and only really of use for finishing off or using around the genital areas. With any brush you use, if running it over the back of your hand is comfortable then use it on your dog. You will also require two combs; one with long tines and a double sided comb, one side the tines are set slightly further apart than the other, once you can go through smoothly with the close side you know you have thoroughly groomed your dog. It also useful to have a slicker brush, preferably one that is sold as a soft slicker.

Start with the wire brush (except for puppies) gently draw the coat forward in the wrong direction then making sure you get close to the skin brush forward in the right direction. Repeat with the slicker brush. Use combs after brushing is complete. The close toothed comb may be difficult to use when your Maremma is in full winter coat but it is essential for getting the last of the coat out when he is moulting heavily. Don't worry if it appears to be coming out in great drifts, this is quite normal. At this time it helps enormously if you bath your dog giving his coat a good massage to loosen it. Please don't forget to comb the shorter hair around the face, top of the head, ears and the front of the legs. You will be amazed how much comes out and your dog will feel so much better for it. For grooming the tail train your Maremma from an early age to stand, be kind but firm as many dogs are not keen on their tails being brushed. All this sounds like incredibly hard work but in fact it is very easy, done regularly Maremmas are very easy to groom and unless left for long periods, do not matt easily. It is also important to check between toes, if neglected matt's can develop making walking painful. Checking ears and teeth on a regular basis goes without saying.

photo of Hector at 8 months

Some people are reluctant to give their dogs bones, I have always given mine these from an early age (raw beef marrow bones only) at regular intervals and have never found any problem, they benefit by cleaning teeth and massaging gums. It is however a matter of personal choice.

Nails

Unless you are accustomed to clipping a dogs nails PLEASE DO NOT ATTEMPT IT, I have seen irreparable damage done when it goes wrong and your dog will never forget that you cut the "quick" and for the rest of his life you will have a battle on your hands do perform this task. If you want to do this yourself ask someone competent to show you how to do it, but please be very careful.

Showing

You may wish to show your Maremma and although you will not be able to enter him for a show until he is six months old, training for this should start early and can become part of obedience training. If you have never shown before, try to get to ringcraft classes on your own and talk to experienced show people; observe what is going on and once your puppy is fully vaccinated, you will be able to take him along. Your local library should have details of dog clubs who run classes.

Also practise at home and even out on a walk, it can become part of the daily training routine. Maremmas soon catch on. As with obedience training, do not prolong the periods of show training, it is better to do a little often. The Maremma Sheepdog Club of Great Britain hold two shows per year and members are happy to help with practical advice.

Maremmas are a wonderful breed, a joy to live with and they are great teachers of canine behaviour.

Author: Penny Whatley



Return to the top