On Monday we were pleased to bring another Maremma livestock guardian dog to work on the farm.
It is fascinating to consider the centuries of careful breeding by shepherds in the mountains of Italy culminating in such a dog. Maremmas are large, imposing dogs capable of scrapping with bears, wolves, and mountain lions. But they are also intelligent, having excellent instincts to understand that, in most cases, they can accomplish more by deterrence with watchful patrolling and commanding barks.
Raising poultry on pasture is great for the chickens, but it only works if we can coexist with the predators in the area. Dogs have been the ideal solution to this challenge. We are strongly opposed to the idea of trying to exterminate every potential predator on the farm. We believe that they each have their ecological value. But we also aren’t interested in feeding live chickens to the wild critters, so the dogs help to signal to all the would-be chicken eaters that they should do their hunting in a different field. It is fascinating to watch a red fox hunting mallards in the tall grass, as it takes a wide path around the pasture protected by the dogs.
The new guy is a two year-old. He’s named Sushi, which we all think is a strange name for a dog, but he doesn’t know any better. He’s already bigger than our four year old female Greta. And he’s more goofy and affectionate.
We’ve been buying fully-trained two year-old dogs. This seems to work better for us. A prepared, competent guard dog is quite expensive, but neither Rachel nor I feel like we are especially good at training dogs, nor do we feel like the other demands of the farm leave us much time to give puppies the dedicated instruction and attention they require.
Livestock guardian dogs need constant training during their first two years to arrive at the point where their minds latch on to the idea that their whole purpose in life is to protect the animals around them. Before then, their puppy brains tend to become distracted by the fun of chasing, pestering, and occasionally eating the animals they are intended to be guarding. Reaching young adulthood, their priorities realign and they become dedicated to their work. I feel inclined to draw some analogies to experiences parenting teenagers, but I’ll resist the urge…
The dogs will spend the spring season together. These days their jobs are easy, as they are only guarding the small flock of laying hens we keep for our family’s eggs. In early May, when the first chickens of the season hit the pasture, they’ll get down to their serious work with 900 chickens spread out across the chicken shelters. Once the turkeys are ready for pasture, Greta will split off to guard them while Sushi will keep pulling chicken duty.