Updated: Jan 22
Well, maybe not what you think.
There is a graphic out there that depicts a Maremma guarding sheep. In the graphic, there is a small flock of sheep with a Maremma close by. The next graphic shows a Great Pyrenees guarding sheep. The graphic shows only the flock of sheep – no dog. Does that mean that Great Pyrenees do not bond with livestock? I don’t think so. I think it reflects a difference in guarding styles only.
As a rancher, I want to know two things: Are my animals safe, and are my dogs happy. If the answer to both those questions is “Yes” then I am content with the balance I have within the animal community of the livestock and dogs. If my animals are safe, I consider that to be effective guarding behavior by my dogs.
As a human, I really enjoy watching moments of obvious affection that LGDs often shower upon their livestock because it warms my heart. Those are some of the golden moments in my life every day and I cherish them. However, I do not think less of my dogs who never make these displays. I have learned that kisses do not equate better guarding skills.
As a breeder, I selectively bred dogs who showed this behavior, not because they are better guardians but because buyers liked it. People new to LGDs who may not understand the subtleties of LGD behavior are comforted by seeing these obvious displays of behavior. This can give them an early window into understanding this new, and very different, type of dog. That may help my pups stay safer out there with their new owners. That matters a great deal to me, so even though I know these kissy-face dogs are not better at their job than an LGD who does not do this I find the behavior desirable for my stated purpose.
As a science geek, I’ve worked hard to understand the language of my dogs. I have learned to just watch them rather than to jump to a conclusion about what a behavior means. Sometimes I experiment with my dogs to test my own theories. For instance, is that dog on the back fence truly unaware of what is going on with his faraway flock? I make a squeak – the dog come flying! Nope. He had it handled all along.
I think it is important to consider the senses LGDs have available to themselves. LGDs have powerful olfactory capabilities. With their eyes closed and from a great distance an LGD can be actively guarding and not appear to be doing anything, from a human’s perspective. Animals that are afraid, including humans, produce a chemical substance called “cortisol.” Dogs can smell cortisol. If their livestock population became afraid it is quite possible that the dog would know this just because the animals now smell differently. I’m surmising here, this is my hypothesis, but I think this is true. The state trapper told me mountain lions could smell prey from two miles away, so what is true for dogs? I don’t know but I do know that dogs are capable of actively protecting their livestock from farther away than a human might think is appropriate. I think it is up to the dog to decide.
Natural selection targets weak and injured animals. LGDs often pay special attention to animals such as these. There have been many times that my LGDs have alerted me to a health situation with an animal that I was not aware of. Is this bonding? I’m not sure, but it is a trait I admire and seek in my working dogs.
The many LGD breeds were specialized for use in their countries of origin. This is one of the reasons Maremmas guard differently than the Great Pyrenees do. There are more common features than differences but the differences can matter to an LGD owner. The expansive guarding style of the Great Pyrenees can provide a lot of frustration to a hobby farmer with only five acres for the dog to guard, but five acres can be perfect for the intimate guarding style of the Maremma. My Maremmas seem to prefer to stay near their livestock regardless of how demonstrative they are about how they feel about their flock or herd. Maremmas tend to be kind and nurturing with their charges and ferociously adversarial to anything perceived as trying to cause harm.
From The Dog's Perspective.....
Maremmas own the ground they stand on, typically defined for them by the perimeter fencing. A Maremma entering a field for the first time will raise his head and take a quick look; then his nose will go down, his tail will come up, and off he’ll go for a perimeter check. This behavior is typical of Maremmas and begins early in life. I have seen six-week-old pups do perimeter checks.
Animals found within this perimeter belong to the dog. This includes livestock, household pets, fowl, and humans! All become the responsibility of the LGD.
I don’t know if other LGD breeds seek the perimeter fencing as my Maremmas do. I know that in Italy it is common for Maremmas to work in large areas with no fencing, so maybe this trait has been selected for in the United States? I am not sure. But for Maremmas, the anchor of their world is their livestock.
Within a flock or herd, there are often specific animals that are favorites of the dogs, and sometimes there are antagonist animals. I chose to sell animals like that rather than allow them to create friction in the animal community. Any new animal gets a good sniff by the dogs. This is particularly true if a new species is introduced.
From a science standpoint, I am not sure what drives guardian tendencies. LGDs have been selectively bred to greet novel situations with suspicion. They patrol their property watching for anomalies. They watch for this among their flock or herd too, which may be interpreted as bonding. They have an innate ability to discern what is a threat and what is acceptable; this becomes more pronounced as pups mature. Sometimes it can seem as if pups just bark at air (says my husband) but I don’t think so. I think they are responding to their great olfactory and auditory abilities.
Guardian behaviors cannot be taught by humans. The behavior comes from the genetic blueprint of the dog. LGDs have been selectively bred to almost eliminate the normal prey drive of a canine. If this strong genetic blueprint is there, with proper support, a pup is likely to be successful at his job. However, some breeds (including Maremmas) have been selectively bred to be pets and show dogs. When these genetics creep into the good working bloodlines desirable in a working LGD problems can arise. I once owned a Great Pyrenees who had no guardian aptitude at all! He was produced by working parents. Some of his siblings went on to be working dogs and some are pets.
Inbreeding can also wreak havoc on a dog’s guardian potential. An LGD crossed with any prey drive breed can create a very conflicted and unpredictable animal. It is not possible to teach a dog to have prey drive or not to have it. The genetic blueprint must be there for an LGD to be a trustworthy working partner.
In summary, I certainly have my preferences for guardian styles based on what I need from my dogs on my ranch, but with regard to “bonding” just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The task of an LGD is complex. They are wired to read and respond to subtleties of behavior humans cannot even be aware of. Remember my two rancher questions: Are my animals safe and are my dogs happy? Yes? Good to go, Kissy-face or not.