Acclimating Your New Benson Ranch Maremma

This article was written for the buyers of Santi (seven month old intact male) and Sancia (one year old spayed female). The buyers have two young boys, and a baby, goats and chickens. My pair of dogs was sold bonded to two young Miniature Donkeys that were born here. Although the article is specific to this situation in some regards, most of it would apply to any young Maremma placed from here, so I have added the article to my site. It is written in specific to how I raise my dogs, in that my dogs have had a very good start with livestock and with people. My Maremmas are very friendly and trusting.

by Cindy Benson     2016

Congratulations on your purchase of these incredible dogs! Living with Maremmas has changed my life. I love how they learn, their soulful sensitivity, and the responsibility that they take on so that I can rest easy at night.

I’ll admit here and now that I am clingy about my animals and it isn’t comfortable for me to let them go. I believe you are capable of providing a wonderful home for my dogs or I would not let them leave the ranch. I want you to be successful with them as much as you do. I have put together some guidelines that I ask that you follow, at least for the first few days. Since I have told you I will take these dogs back if they aren’t right for you, I also want to be sure they don’t learn behaviors that are detrimental to them while they are with you. Over the next few weeks and months you are free to make changes as work best for your lives but right now please trust my presentation of what I think will work best for the dogs. See them as partners, not servants. I will do my best to help you see the world through their eyes. If you do this they will work hard for you.

These first few days provide a unique window of opportunity to set yourselves up for success. It is a time to observe your dogs and work to understand them. It is a time to keep your expectations realistic. This is not a time to place many demands on them or to expect them to adapt to the way you do things. That comes later, and is reasonable to ask, but Maremmas are sensitive dogs and change is challenging for them. It’s important to take things one small step at a time. So, for now, keep it simple.

Do not give them “commands” – at all, in these first days. Please, especially, do not allow children to do this. The dogs have no reason to accept your authority and are likely to learn to ignore you. My dogs will care about making you happy, however, if you try to intimidate them or order them to do what you ask you lose the opportunity to influence their behavior. They will lose respect for you and may decide you are unreasonable. Do NOT punish them – they will see this as torture, not instructive. It will not get you the behavior change you are looking for.

Maremmas are considered adults at about two years of age, but in truth some take longer to settle in, and some seem to get it at six months. For the most part a six to twelve month old Maremma has the mentality of a kindergartner. It is reasonable to expect a little of them, but their attention span is limited as is their ability to handle multiple and varied stimulus. Please keep this in mind as you decide where they will live and what their responsibilities are.

If you find yourself wanting to reprimand or rein in the dog’s behaviors think about what part your own behaviors may have contributed to the “problem”. For instance, if you greet the dog by playing with his muzzle, rather than scratching his shoulder, he is much more likely to fixate on your fingers and want to put them in his mouth. You are not likely to be bitten, so that isn’t the problem, but some breeders feel that a dog that will mouth his humans will do the same with his livestock, and that behavior may escalate into rough play that can become a problem. I have not seen that to be true here but it is something to consider. I try to keep mouthing by my dogs to a minimum. Certainly, if they do happen to be rough with me they get my knee and a firm “no”, followed by a happy distraction. That part is CRITICAL, especially with young dogs, in every training situation. You might get by with one correction, or maybe two, but this will be quickly followed by the dog choosing to ignore you. They can decide keeping you happy isn’t possible or is just too much work. If you set a boundary, as in a knee for mouthing, and then quickly follow that with a snuggle and move off to something you are sure the dog will excel at and then reward for it with your voice, such as just following you off across the field for a bit while to talking with them in a friendly fashion, there becomes a huge payoff to them to keep you happy because it is pleasurable to them. This is a good example of partnering, rather than training from an authoritarian mindset.

These are puppies! Puppies jump on each other and put their feet on each other. My dogs have been taught that I am not a puppy and that I do not want their feet on me, at all ever, but in times of high excitement they can forget. This may be especially true around children. It is important for the dogs to learn, right off the top, what play behavior is allow with children. Since I don’t have children here your dogs may need some effort placed in this area of training. This is how to work with this issue. Dogs often like to go to the level of hands. A short child who raises his hands because he’s concerned he will be jumped on may well be. What the dog sees is a game to jump up to the hands. If you get after him for this, at best you will confuse him, and at worst he will ignore you. Keep in mind that the behavior of the child set the dog up for failure, and that’s not really fair on your part. When I want a behavior to stop I say “off”. If I think a dog may jump on me I will turn slightly away from him at just the right moment so that he is less likely to want to jump on me initially or bump him with my knee while telling him “off”. Don’t say “off” over and over; don’t say it when he hasn’t jumped. Timing is everything, and setting your encounter up so that the dog is less likely to do a behavior that may get him in trouble is better than having to correct him for something you had a hand in creating, and this is truly your job to understand. Most animals are not born with behavior “problems”. They are taught them by people. If your children are an over the top stimulus for the dogs take the children in one at a time and teach them how to behave with the dogs. My dogs have a huge affinity for children and will work hard to give you what you are after, if they understand it and they are mentally mature enough to give it to you, just so that they can be around the children. You might try having the dogs on leash initially, or work with one dog at a time with the children. This brings up another point though. Understand that these are not obedience dogs, as in: sit, stay, heel. They don’t think this way. You may be able to teach them some of this if you really work at it but it will be at a cost to you and them, because you are likely to compromise their cooperation in other areas due to the stress of trying to please you by doing something difficult and foreign to them here. Pick your battles. Teach them the things you need them to learn, not dog and pony tricks, in keeping with their character as a breed, and keep your expectations reasonable.

Do not separate these dogs from each other or their donkeys. I’m not talking about a few minutes, or necessary things like a dog that needs to go to the vet, etc. Please understand that they see themselves as one unit and separating them will cause them stress. If you do need to separate them in some fashion please remember how they see it and be respectful. For instance, one dog locked in a stall he can’t see out of is far more stressful for him than if he were locked behind a fence that allowed him to still keep an eye on things. You can certainly take the donkeys out in the yard, for walks, etc. while leaving the dogs at home or in the pasture. It’s fine for them to learn to accept that. But keep in mind that this is stressful for them and do what you can to make the lesson less harsh.

Do not separate the dogs from each other – and by this I mean that two dogs doesn’t mean dogs working apart from each other. These dogs are friends and partners. I am looking for an agreement from you that you will not separate them, and that you will NEVER sell one. If you ever come to a time when this particular partnership stops working please get in touch with me and I will help you put together something that works for all of you.

These are not big fluffy house dogs. They will not look to you for instruction about how to do their job, as “domestic” dogs do. Maremmas as a breed are somewhat feral, very territorial, independent thinkers. They are guard dogs, and begin to know this at about three weeks of age. It’s impressive. They do not have an “off” switch. They will see any area they live in as their responsibility, and any animal in it as part of their family, so understand and accept that.

Do NOT take them out of the area you expect them to guard, at least for the first few weeks. You can snuggle with them as much as you’d like as long as it is in the area they are responsible for. Make sure the greatest emotional payoff for them is in the field with their livestock, not in the house, car, or going for a walk. This is critical.

You and your Maremmas are in partnership in the management of your property and animals. My dogs are well loved and are likely to adore you right from the start, but do not expect them to defer to your authority. The right to provide direction to these dogs is earned. It is important to build trust with them in these first days. Set them up in an environment with limited demands so that you are not in the position of having to discipline them, which pretty much won’t work in the beginning. This is your responsibility. For instance, if you put them right in with chickens and goats, which they have not lived with to this point in their lives, they are likely to be bouncy and you may find the need to control the situation. My dogs have no reason to accept that you are in charge, so if you give them orders they are very likely to ignore you, thereby learning that this is an option. They do not know that yet! If you let them live with the donkeys and share a fence line with the chickens and goats they will come to understand that these creatures belong there and they will accept them. Know that to accept them the dogs will probably feel the need to touch the new animals. Don’t scold them for this. I like to introduce new animals to my dogs with a 20′ length of parachute cord attached to the dog. In that way I can reel them in if I need to, but they feel like they are independent of me, so I have a pretty good idea of what they would do on their own without me around.

Maremmas are nocturnal workers, for the most part, so don’t be fooled by that somewhat lazy daytime countenance. When you go to bed they get up and go to work. As I think of it, when I close my eyes they’ve got my back. It is a privilege to live with them. They will bark! This is one of the key ways they deter predators. NEVER put a bark collar on them and do not confine them at night. If you have the option of confining them to a smaller pasture for the first few nights it may help them adjust to the new noises while feeling responsible for a smaller area, but never lock them in a stall or crate at night. In the first few days the dogs are likely to be noisier than they ultimately will be. It will take them time to understand what is normal and acceptable in their new environment; it may take young dogs much longer to learn this. They know they are supposed to bark, and they care about doing a good job for you. If they are noisy and you yell at them they are likely to try even harder – be noisier! If they are noisy and you go out, check out what they think the problem is, and let them know that you think everything is OK they are likely to relax a little and feel like they have everything under control. It’s all about building confidence for them. The more exposure they have to what is normal for your property the more accepting of it they will become, and the quieter they are likely to become.

I know I have put forth a lot of “only do this” information. I’m trying to help both my dogs and you. I hope I have, and ask for your patience if I have frustrated you. Please know that I am happy to answer any questions that ever come up about my dogs and you, for as long as you own the dogs. You can ask a million questions, for years! You will not annoy me so please do take advantage of this opportunity if you think it might help.