Updated: Jan 23
In one of the many courses I have taken from Suzanne Clothier, she talks about a "natural fit" and a "trained fit" for dogs. This is an incredibly important concept.
A natural fit for dogs is one that requires no training to support them.
A trained fit is one that requires frequent time and support from an owner to maintain.
Here is an example of a natural fit and a trained fit for me. I live on a ranch, surrounded by dirt and dog hair, and chores. For me, this is a natural fit. Could I learn to live in New York City? Probably. But imagine the inherent stress I would feel in trying to exist in that environment. And yet, people routinely do this to dogs: He'll get over it, he'll get used to it, and on and on. Well, yes, maybe, but will the dog ever feel at ease in a situation he is not naturally suited to? I think not.
Dogs that live in an environment they are not well suited to can develop coping skills that reflect the stress they feel. These behaviors can include barking, digging out of or climbing over fences, and aggression, just to name a few. Many owners deem dogs that do these behaviors as failures or a nuisance. What is actually true is that the owner placed unrealistic expectations on the dogs and the dogs did their best to cope.
In 2021, I learned a lot about this when I made a big mistake. I placed an adolescent Maremma into an ideal home, or so I thought. Reggie did not agree! He jumped out, due to his deep fear of his new surroundings, and was "lost" in the hundred-acre woods for four days. His humans were devastated, but in Reggie's mind, I think he just fixed the problem because for four days he was seen on the game cameras completely at ease guarding those big woods. He eventually surrendered himself, and we brought him home. Here he will stay because I now know that he has a narrow view of his world. He is safe and happy with me.
Genetics and Temperament – How Big Is Your World?: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/genetics-and-temperament-how-big-is-your-world
Resilience & Coping Skills – What You Can Do To Support Your Dog: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/resilience-coping-skills-what-you-can-do-to-support-your-dog
We placed a pair of six-month-old dogs about a week after our experience with Reggie. The young pair of dogs went to a wonderful owner, with wonderful fencing, and wonderful sheep; one dog was happy there, but the other dog was stressed. The area the dogs were in is part of an eleven-hundred-acre property. With visions of Reggie in my head, on about day #3, I drove the eight hours one-way to swap out dogs. I brought one of the male pups home and left a female pup instead. Instant success! And the male I brought home? He is a happy, working guardian in a different setting.
Circumstances in the life of a dog can change. I placed Meadow and Aspen as two-year-old capable, confident dogs into a wonderful home. An event involving a mountain lion changed that for Meadow. Through her stress barking at night, Meadow let us know that she no longer felt safe in that environment. Could she have learned to "get over it"? Maybe. But why ask her to do that, why not just make a change and place her in an environment she is well suited to.
The blog post below describes the process we went through in working with Meadow's owner to find just the right home for Meadow as well as providing the right partner for Aspen.
Feeding & Manners - Katie S. - Shaping, Blog #1 – Katie’s Story: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/feeding-manners-katie-s-shaping-blog-1-katie-s-story
Katie S. is remarkable. She had tears streaming down her face as I drove away with Meadow. Katie placed Meadow's needs above those of her own heart. I have heard people say they would never give up on a dog, never re-home a dog. This is often said about rescue situations. It makes me prickly because this is often said from a virtuous point when in fact, I think being willing to listen to what a dog tells you he needs, even if it isn't what you need, is what is truly virtuous.
Not everyone has a stack of young dogs sitting around as I sometimes do, so what do you do? You find an answer for the dog anyway.
Rocco and Isla were adult dogs when they were re-homed the first time. Their owner lived in an area that was increasingly not well suited to the presence of LGDs. Her necessary management of her dogs was stressful for everyone. It took me almost a year, but I eventually found the perfect home for Rocco and Isla, or so I thought.
I placed the pair of dogs with a wonderful woman, the Katie W. in a few of the blog posts. The area was idyllic, and the dogs were happy; they were happier when they made an adjustment or two. Katie's soil is sandy, so Rocco was able to make quick work of digging under her fences despite her desperate effort to patch every hole and stay ahead of him. When out, Rocco went down the hill to Katie's house, where he sat on her front step, waiting for a human to play with him. Ever the adventurer, Isla went on amazing journeys. When Katie ultimately found Isla, she was not generally quite done with her romp, so Katie became a hiking partner for a bit until Isla cheerfully returned to her.
This was stressful! Bad dogs? Nope, Katie would tell you they are not, but they needed something Katie couldn't give them, so back they came to me. We swapped the two adult dogs for two five-month-old pups. Presto, Katie became a puppy trainer! This isn't what any of us had in mind to begin with, but again, the needs of the dogs had to be considered. LGDs that roam are often shot or run over by cars, so we made a proactive decision for all concerned. Yes, it was inconvenient, but the end of this story is wonderful. Katie has proven to be a very capable puppy trainer, and the pups are a good fit for her property - a natural fit.
Raising Eevie & Banks - Feeding and Manners – Katie W. - Shaping: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/raising-eevie-banks-feeding-and-manners-katie-w-shaping
What about Rocco and Isla? Rocco is a social butterfly! He now lives in a home where he is a part-time guardian as well as a part-time Maremma goodwill ambassador when tours of the ranch take place. He is 120 lbs of pure joy when that happens. Isla lives here with me. She has never wandered or given me one moment of a challenge. I thought I would find her a new home with one of the current pups, but I suspect I won't. I have decided to step down as a breeder, so these are my last Maremmas. I think I'll just keep her.
Rosie was in training with me until she was five months old. At that point, she moved to her new home with a partner dog from here, and all was well. Rosie is much beloved! But after she had pups, her character changed. For whatever reason, she decided roaming was lots of fun, taking her partner with her. After many desperate retrievals from places far away that often included traveling down a busy road, Rosie came here to me. Not once has she ever made any effort to dig under my fences. Why? I don't know but what matters is what Rosie says she needs because if I listen to her and accommodate her, we all live in harmony.
Echo and Pax came home to me when they were two years old because their owners divorced. Pax went on to be a breeding dog for my friend Kim Crawmer of Prancing Pony Farms. Echo is a brilliant partner for Rosie! I have never seen her happier than she has been in the last few months. The right home may come along for this pair of dogs, but for now, they are here gainfully employed.
Lupine is one of the pups that came back to me from Katie S. I did a site visit with him recently. A local prospective buyer has an existing Maremma who needs a playmate and working partner. Lupine was a dream dog on our visit, but he didn't want to play with Zora, and that was part of what was needed. So, back to the drawing board. I have other male pups to choose from. In a couple of weeks, I will ask the same question of a different pup.
These blog posts show Lupine in action. He is a great dog! He is also currently available with his female partner Sage, who is also home from a visit with Katie S..
The Language of Animals - New Home, New Sheep - Katie S.: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/the-language-of-animals-new-home-new-sheep
Lupine & Sage & The Elk: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/lupine-sage-the-elk
Is it really necessary to go to such great lengths to keep dogs happy??!! Well, that depends on what is important to you. I love harmony and will make every effort to live that way with my animals. If I listen to them and make adjustments we all can be happy together, usually. Sometimes my ranch isn't the right stopping place for a dog, and I have to shed the tears as I let them leave.
Also to be considered is how much of a gambler you are as well as your tolerance for loss. Approximately 30% of the LGDs in this country are euthanized due to learned, preventable behaviors that owners decide they can't live with. Much of this is a result of expecting a dog to live in a situation he is not well suited to. If you don't make adjustments for your dog, you may be faced with making the very difficult and costly decision of euthanizing him and starting the whole process over with a new pup. That is a VERY steep learning curve for an owner, and the dog paid with his life. I am not much of a gambler, and I have zero tolerance for senseless loss. For me, making these many adjustments for the dogs in my life is what is owed to them, as well as being the least stressful choice for me.
In one of Ray Coppinger's wonderful books about LGDs, he states that 80% of the LGDs he had experience with re-homing were successful in their second home. For me, that number has been much higher. I think this is because much was learned about the needs of the dog in the first home. I do not view the need to re-home a dog as a failure on anyone's part, and certainly not on the part of the dog. I see it as a second chance for me to get it right.
I appreciate the opportunity to step in and do this before the dog learns behaviors that may threaten his ability to have a future as a working LGD. To this end, I sell dogs on a 90-day trial period contract only. This has been wonderfully successful for all. The buyers of my pups appreciate that they will be supported in this way.
In closing, I'd just like to point out that it doesn't matter if you think a dog "should" do something. You can have your shoulds and be right every day of the week. I've been there. But dogs do what is immediately reinforcing every time. If your expectations of your dog are not realistic, you both have a lot to lose. Listening to your dog and making adjustments as needed can mean that you both win. It's just that simple.