Maremmas, Italian mountain dogs, are a working breed, going out with the sheep in Italy for days at time and in the absence of any human intervention, looking after the flocks on their own. They don’t herd like a Border Collie. They just protect against predators. This responsibility makes them very independent thinkers and they are decision makers. This, in turn, makes them quite tricky to train and unlike a Collie, if they don’t agree with what their owners are saying, they will just ignore a command. Most people find this infuriating and if you are a dog owner who expects unquestioning obedience, don’t get a Maremma.
I introduced Cal, my Maremma, to my Southdown flock essentially the moment he arrived at the farm at 9 weeks old. Since then, we have done daily sheep rounds and I have watched him move around the flock, admittedly paying more attention to their poo rather than the sheep themselves. Until yesterday.
For some reason, two lambs got separated from the flock. I suspect, in the heat, they had just fallen asleep in the shade of the hedgerow and had slept through the fact that the rest of flock had gradually wandered off to graze. Cal went straight up to them but not aggressively. He fussed one up to its feet and then in a leisurely loping gait steered the lamb back to the main flock. Once he achieved that, he turned back the way he had just come and repeated the whole manoeuvre with the second lamb. Job done, he loped back to me and resumed his walk.
I was astonished and delighted. At just over six months old, he knew exactly what he needed to do and executed his role calmly and efficiently. As I watched him snuffle through the reeds, I had to marvel at the power of genetics and how humans have altered breed behaviour over the generations. Of course I praised him, but actually he looked a bit puzzled as if he was saying “Meh – just doing what I was born to do.”