Fencing Options & Considerations for Maremmas
I truly feel that most of the success of LGD management involves management of the environment the dogs live in, in a variety of ways. One of the key factors in managing Maremmas is safety, for the livestock they live with, certainly, but also for the dogs themselves. An LGD that does not stay home is not safe.
LGDs that wander are often shot, or hit by cars. They can simply get disoriented and lost, and then are unable to return home. Dogs that climb over fences, or dig under fences, drive their owners crazy! Once learned, these behaviors are nearly impossible to train past. Typically, dogs that do these behaviors are viewed as "bad" LGDs. What is actually true is that a good LGD is a problem solver. The dog in the photo above is a fourteen month old pup. So, right on target for adolescent behavior is challenging everything, just like human teenagers do. In the photo, the dog is not challenging anything - he is doing his job, which involves ridding the field of squirrels and squirrel holes, which are dangerous to my livestock. The dog has his nose in a squirrel hole. The squirrel started outside the fence and tunneled into the field. In digging into the tunnel in search of the squirrel the dog can easily find himself digging out of the field, all in innocence; not a bad dog, a problem solving dog. But once outside the fence a grand adventure would be had. The dog would remember that, and remember how he made the adventure happen. Dogs are not "disobedient', in my opinion. They do what is immediately reinforcing to them. So, if a dog learns that there is more adventure to be had outside the field than there is inside the field, why would he pass up that opportunity?! This is particularly true for single dogs because their social needs are not being met. They often go looking for a dog, any dog, some sort of dog, because they are lonely or playful.
I am often asked how high a Maremma fence needs to be. For me, that really isn't the issue, or at least not the whole issue. In the photos below you'll see several issues that deserve great consideration that are often overlooked in the "how high" question. What also needs to be considered is what kind of livestock the fencing is to be used for. A fence needs to be tall enough that the livestock can't reach over it in an effort to eat what is on the other side, because this creates a damaged fence that an LGD is more likely to consider jumping or climbing.
So, I went all over my ranch and took photos of fencing situations we have, both good and bad, I hope you'll find this helpful.
Both the fences in the photos above were built using four foot tall "field" fencing. In our area, this is what this fencing is called; it is typical fencing for general purposes, such as for cattle, and other livestock. Keep in mind, though, that the names for fencing are often regional, so if you live on the east coast and go looking for "field" fencing you may find that it has a different name.
Most of the fields on my ranch are built using four foot field fencing, and most of my dogs never challenge them. However, take a really good look at the quality of the construction of these two fences, both built using the same products. The fence in the second photo is an invitation for adventure for a problem solving dog, particularly just about any adolescent Maremma. Why wouldn't it be?! A dog who says "hi" to me while I am pruning these fruit trees is likely to put this feet on the fence; now the fence is three feet high where he is standing. That was easy!!! And now the livestock in the field will reach over this fence to eat my fruit trees; now the fence is three feet high, and the posts are bent sideways towards the trees. So, this fence is now a Maremma ramp!
A well constructed Maremma fence is tightly stretched. The bottom of the fence needs to tightly follow the contours of the ground, right against the dirt! The top line needs to be tight, but what the fence does near the ground is even more important. Fences need to be maintained over time. Sometimes they need to be re-stretched; often, dirt or rock needs to be added to the bottom in places where erosion, or squirrels, have happened.
Erosion happens over time and is a fencing fact of life. Periodic checking of the bottom of fence lines, and repairing the damage before the LGDs become inquisitive about these places, saves a lot of time in the long run and protects the dogs.
The space under the fence in the photo above was not created due to erosion. We built this fence before we had Maremmas. We liked the look of the level top line. Now, our priorities have changed. For Maremmas, that first staple should have been placed with the wire right down against the dirt. So, we pulled the staples, I stood on a hammer placed through the fencing, and my husband set the staples and wire where they need to be for use with our dogs.
This is the first fence my husband and I built on this ranch. We didn't live here yet, there was snow on the ground, we got the rented tractor stuck - and we were grumpy! We put the top clips on while promising ourselves we would put the rest on "soon." Now, nearly fifteen years later the wire has curled inward, which will make putting the bottom clips on a miserably difficult job, thereby making it easier to put off. Fortunately for me, the dogs that work in this field are mature and happy, so they don't fuss with the fence. It might actually be easier for a companion dog to crawl into the field, which is not something I want to experiment with. We need to finish this fence!
This fence was to be a temporary fence. It isn't pretty, but ten years later it is still standing and serviceable. When I build fences like this I prefer to put the narrow openings at the top, rather than at the bottom as is the typical installation, because I have had donkeys get their hooves caught in the narrow portions. But it is also possible for young puppies to crawl right through the large openings on the bottom, so I can't use it with them. It is possible for small animals, such as sheep, to get their heads through. This means they may get stuck, or hurt by our Border Collie, AKA Tornado, so I put cows or adult sheep in this field. This fence is 52" high. The panels are 16' long. The posts are placed at 8' intervals.
This fence is 52" high, lined with 2"x6" stained pine rails. The openings in this hog panel are 4"x4". Maremma puppies up to ten weeks of age are able to get their heads stuck in these panels - I know this because I have had to cut panels twice to free puppies. So, no puppies behind these panels. What I like about this style of panel is that the openings are too small for livestock to get their heads through, and big enough that if they get a leg through they can't get stuck in the fence because they can pull their leg back through. The use of lumber in this fence makes it a bit of an expensive option. Also, because of the rigid nature of the finished product it would be easy for an industrious Maremma to climb. Not one of my many dogs has ever tried, but if I had a dog who's tendency was to climb fences I would not house him behind this style of fence.
This fencing is great stuff. On our property, if I could afford it I would use it in all our fields. But I can't afford to do that, and truly, in most cases I don't need fencing this fancy. This fencing is made out of heavy wire, and lots of it because of the small 2"x4" openings. It is too tall for most livestock to easily put their heads over, and harder for a dog to climb than a shorter fence is.
A lot of livestock owners use this type of fencing. It is relatively inexpensive, it doesn't take as much specialized equipment to install as a woven wire fence does, it can be put up one wire at a time instead of having to finish it all at once, and it is easier to use on hilly terrain than woven fencing is. It has it's advantages. The fence in the photo is on a hilly pasture of ours that we use for horses and mules only. My husband put the bottom wire up higher than is typical because he wanted the baby deer and turkeys to be able to easily go under it. Often, every wire or every other wire, is "hot" for most people's uses. For us, we decided to put one hot strand up high only. This fence is not where we see it often, it goes through brush, grass grows under it, and branches fall on it. So, most of the time the hot wire isn't hot. Our equines like the other side of this field better than this backside, so none of this causes us problems.
A Maremma is unlikely to perceive a fence like this as a physical barrier. Even in investigating a fence like this for the first time he would be at risk of getting hung up in it. I am certain a Maremma chasing a predator would attempt to run through a fence like this. A dog hung up in a fence like this could get shocked over and over and over - and it could kill him. This type of fencing is absolutely unacceptable for use with LGDs, in my opinion.
So now, let's talk about gates. For some reason baffling to me, most of the dogs I have had that chose to try to dig out of a fenced field did so under a gate. Why?! We put lots of rock under our gates. That isn't as easy to dig in as anywhere else along the bottom of the fences, because that is just dirt. So, to shut my dogs down before they even get the idea of messing with my gates I put a pressure treated 4"x6" beam under every gate. Now, I do want to say here, that most Maremmas aren't problematic to house behind fences, but I have owned a lot of dogs. I love to train adolescent Maremmas; inherent to that age is the inclination to challenge all sorts of things, such as the concept of staying home. I also make it a practice to move my dogs all over the ranch. I switch partners, I change livestock, I do all sorts of things that may stress my dogs and cause them to consider their options. This is all part of training for young dogs and is wise management of mature dogs because life is uncertain. I want my dogs to learn that they can work successfully anywhere, with anyone, guarding any type of livestock.
The beam under this gate has been here for several years. A smart person, me, should have made sure there was lots of dirt around this beam because the donkeys would not have been able to chew it to pieces!
Most of my dogs don't bother gates like this all all, but some do, especially adolescent dogs. Below is my answer to that problem.
This is a good news/bad news situation. Yes, I used pieces of hog panels to cover the opening of the gate. This works beautifully. However, I truly intended to cut a full piece of hog panel and use wire to attach it, because that would be far more attractive than this quick fix. I still intend to do this...soon. I hope. Ranches are busy places. What matters most to me is that my animals are safe. This good young dog isn't the reason I needed to patch this gate; one of his siblings was. Said pup now lives behind one of the 5' non-climb fences and have not caused me problem one since.