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The Impact of Imported Bloodlines in the United States Maremma Gene Pool

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

Is this our future in the US? I hope not.

From my earliest memories of my association with this incredible breed I have had many conversations with breeders and owners of these dogs concerning how grateful they are that Maremmas are not yet a recognized breed by the AKC. I have heard breeders state with pride that the Maremmas in this country have been bred based on their working merit alone.

I have owned many Maremmas. I have never met a Maremma that didn’t have guardian skills. In the beginning, I owned three Great Pyrenees dogs. I encountered what happens with many breeds that become specialized for the show ring or bred to be pets; these three dogs were very inconsistent around the livestock and as property managers. I did not keep them. Rescues and shelters are overrun with these dogs; they were purchased for a job and it didn’t work out.

As a general statement, when an animal (or whatever) is selectively bred to enhance a specific trait, some other trait may diminish. In our working dogs, their strong work ethic could take a backseat to selecting for what pleases a dog judge’s eye. That has absolutely nothing to do with what is special about Maremmas, in my opinion, which is their innate ability to understand their job from the time they are just pups.

I have been increasingly astounded that anyone would brag about importing a “show champion” from Italy, or anywhere else because that show status is something the caretakers of the breed in this country have tried so hard to avoid for so many years.

We avoid AKC but import show dogs instead?! What sense does that make?! I think this situation is very scary and I feel that it threatens the integrity of our great breed in this country.

The form for registering Maremmas through the MSCA has a second page that asks how the dog is being used. If the dog is being used as a guardian, the letter “G” is awarded after the dog’s registration number. This is a badge of honor for those of us who use our dogs as working dogs.

It is possible to visually scan a pedigree and identify registered Maremmas that are being used as something other than working dogs. I honestly think that imported show bloodlines should be identified similarly so that breeders can make informed decisions. They can then choose to avoid these dogs that have a questionable heritage as it pertains to working skills; maybe a “C” at the end of the registration number would do it.

There seems to still be this perception that “increasing the diversity in the Maremma gene pool” is a good thing. I agree, however, adding diverse kennel-raised bloodlines to our good working dog gene pool is not progress towards a goal I hold dear. And, in truth, the pedigree database is a whole lot more diverse than most breeders think it is.

It is also true that many imported dogs have pedigrees that are very similar to dogs that are already in the US. When I was the MSCA club secretary building the pedigree database for our breed as I entered all the dogs already registered in this country it became clear to me that genetic diversity does NOT necessarily come from imported dogs. Many of these imported dogs were coming from the same show kennels, ones with websites and an interest in marketing. I don’t happen to think that shepherds market much.

So, the same genetics showed up over and over. The software would back-fill from any dog already in the system. By the time I had most of the registered dogs in this country recorded the imported dogs would back-fill at about the third generation, mostly. These buyers who were spending tons of money on dogs that are “better than” or “special” were actually duplicating bloodlines that were already here.

There is this human nature thing that makes something novel valuable to us or something difficult to acquire special in some way. I can tell you that from a marketing standpoint this is a powerful truth to understand. I sent many Miniature Donkeys overseas to people who saw the world this way. I also cared very much about what they were trying to build overseas, in terms of a nucleus gene pool, so I always sent my very best even if the buyer would not have known any better. I knew. I felt that responsibility.

There is a prominent Code of Ethics breeder who seems to have built her whole breeding program around this very thing, this human nature shortcoming, in my opinion. I don’t know if she really believes it (that imported show dogs are special) or if she is just trying to sell it, but my oh my it is front and center for any naive Maremma buyer to stumble across. She also isn’t the only Code of Ethics, or otherwise, breeder doing this.

Now, here is a point to complicate the picture. Not all imported dogs are from show dog stock. Most of them are, because the people who show dogs are also willing to build websites and market to sometimes unsuspecting Americans, but not all of them. They may not all be kennel-raised dogs, but it is very difficult to really know much about them. On a pedigree, they all look the same. The breeders who export dogs have the time and knowledge necessary to market their dogs, so I doubt that means they also manage flocks of sheep, but maybe they do.

One of my most incredible Maremma mentors was Kristina Lawwill; Peavine Hollow. She bred Maremmas for twenty-five years and retired shortly after I became a BOD member. She shared with me that over her 25-year career as a premiere Maremma breeder she went to Italy six times to see Maremmas working with flocks of sheep and their shepherds. She had enough relationship with these people that they were willing to sell her pups from the stock she watched work. The dogs she imported are truly authentic working Maremmas and the gene pool in this country is lucky to have them! If you see a pedigree with Peavine Hollow in there pay attention because those are valuable bloodlines.

Kristina retired several years ago. I wonder what she would think about all these show Maremmas coming into this country and permeating our Maremma gene pool. It makes me very sad.

I know that one of the challenges Kristina ran into is that the shepherds she wanted to buy from often didn’t care too much about registering their litters. Unregistered Maremmas, however wonderful, were not going to serve Kristina’s purpose so that gave her fewer dogs to choose from.

I have a female Maremma, now retired, whose sire and dam are the last two Maremmas Kristina imported. This lovely dog is incredible in every way. She had one litter for me; I kept three of her pups in my breeding program. Those three dogs outshine every other pup ever produced here before them. They have all produced litters of pups for me, and those pups are exceptional too. A few of them are out there now, as immature dogs in the hands of carefully selected breeders who are ready to carry these important bloodlines forward through their own breeding programs.

This stuff matters! Dogs like Kristina imported improve the quality of Maremmas in this country in MANY ways. Imported show dogs do not. In my opinion, those dogs are dangerous to what has been carefully created here in this country with our Maremma gene pool. There have always been a few of those dogs in our pedigrees, but the recent surge of “show dogs are wonderful” really worries me.

Puppy buyers – you fuel this market, so as you make decisions about where to purchase pups please keep in mind that you have influence in this situation, you have power. It is just one of the many factors to weigh when purchasing a pup.

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