The Maremma or Abruzzese Sheepdog
The Abruzzese Sheepdog: Wolf-Worrying Protector of the High Plains
The Abruzzese Sheepdog, also known by a variety of other names (but for the sake of simplicity in this article we’ll stick with this description), is an indigenous breed hailing from central Italy, and in particular, the regions of Abruzzo and the Maremma region that encompasses southwest Tuscany and some of northern Lazio.
Although sheep farming has decreased over recent decades in the Maremma region, it is still vital to the rural economy in the wild and rugged landscapes of Abruzzo. It is in Abruzzo were the Abruzzese Sheepdog remains a working protector of sheep flocks, guarding as it has done for centuries against predatory wolves which are a protected species in the regional parks which cover vast swathes of the Abruzzo region.
The Abruzzese Sheepdog can also be found across the world in Canada, Australia and the US where it is, again, used as a livestock guardian.
Other Names for the Abruzzese Sheepdog
The Abruzzese Sheepdog is also known as:
- Cane da Pastore Maremmano-Abruzzese
- Pastore Abruzzese
- Pastore Maremmano
The History of the Breed
From references in ancient literature and many sculptures and paintings, it is believed that the forebears of the breed have been employed as livestock guardians since Roman times to protect sheep flocks from predators and in particular wolves.
Up until 1958, the breeds of Pastore Maremmano (Maremma region) and the Pastore Abruzzese (Abruzzo) were considered two distinct dog breeds, however, on the 1st of January 1958, the two breeds were unified as one breed by the Ente Nationale della Cinofiliia Italiano (more commonly known as the ENCI or the Italian Kennel Club and is responsible for dog pedigree registration services). The reason for this fusion of the two types was due to the seasonal movement of sheep flocks from one region to another, and subsequent intermingling.
Built for Purpose
The Abruzzese Sheepdog is a hardy breed. A tough, thick white coat, ideal for the often extreme weather of the mountain regions hides a solid, muscular body. The breed’s head is large, topped with a black nose and a ringed with an extra layer of fur around the neck.
The breed standard states that males weigh in at between 35 and 45 kilos, and typically stand between 65 and 73 centimetres tall. The female of the breed weighs between 30 and 40 kilos, and typically stand between 60 and 68 centimetres tall. As with all breeds, this is an average, and you may very well come across some giants of this breed which exceed these standards.
In spite of their size and obvious strength, their nature tends to be friendly, and they are intelligent and loyal.
The Working Life
Often, this working breed is introduced to sheep flocks from a very early age to help with the bonding process, usually from the age of 7–8 weeks as puppies.
Apart from sheep, some ranchers have had success bonding the dogs with other livestock such as goats, cows or even chickens—and so have been successful in training the dogs to protect against a range of predators apart from wolves, such as coyotes, foxes or even prey birds such as eagles in some parts of the world.
When working as guardian dogs for the flocks of sheep that dot the high lands of the Apennines or the open plains in the national parks of Abruzzo, the dogs usually work in groups of three or four and this is generally enough to dissuade any wolves or feral dogs from chancing their luck. Actual combat between Abruzzese Sheepdogs and predators is rare; their very presence usually enough to ward off any threats. However, some working dogs may be fitted with a spiked collar (known as a roccale) to protect their neck should fighting erupt.
- Height: 65-73cm (m), 60-68cm(f)
- Weight: 35-45 kilos (m), 30-40kilos (f)
- Distinctive features: White, thick coat (sometimes with yellowing), powerful build and strong jaws.
- Temperament: Very loyal, independent, highly intelligent and strong-willed.
- Where its found: Primarily in the grazing lands of Italy, but also, wherever in the world flocks need protection.
Human Interaction With Abruzzese Sheepdogs
Although the is breed known for its qualities of loyalty and friendliness, it is worth bearing in mind that this breed is also a working dog and as such should always be treated with respect. The most likely place you are likely to come across the breed, apart from dog shows and local festivals in Italy, is out in the countryside where the vast majority of the dogs are employed.
Although Abruzzese Sheepdogs are primarily found in Abruzzo and the Maremma regions of Italy, you may also find them dotted around Europe (or the greater world) wherever livestock and local predators are likely to come into contact. Many of these areas, such as the Abruzzo region with its mountains, valleys and high vistas are excellent walking and cycling country, so the chances of human/sheepdog interaction is increased.
Here are a few tips for dealing with the situation, should you come across a group of Abruzzese Sheepdogs in the wild.
- They Are in Work Mode: First of all, remember, if you meet with a group of the dogs while hiking or cycling in Italy, they will be in ‘work mode’, and their work is to protect the flock (who will be nearby). Don’t make the mistake of seeing them as pets.
- Stop and Let Them Adjust: They will bark, loudly and aggressively; you are a potential predator, their job as guardians of the flock is to protect. This is their first and most successful strategy when meeting any potential threat, so don’t panic as this is normal behaviour. In this situation, stop immediately when you come across the dogs and flock, give them time to assess the situation, remember they are an intelligent breed. Don’t wave or shout at them, your job is to let them know that you are not a threat.
- Walk Away Cautiously: If they continue to bark, often the best option is to back slowly away and endeavour to walk around the flock. If the flock is too spread out to walk around, then carefully work your way through trying to disturb the flock as little as possible. In all likelihood, if you do this one or more of the dogs will closely ‘shadow’ you until you are safely away from the flock.
- Get Off Your Bike and Walk Slowly: If you are on bicycle, the same principles as above apply with the added precaution of dismounting from your bike as soon as you come into contact with them and not re-mounting until you are a good distance from the dogs and the flock.
Would an Abruzzese Sheepdog Guard Anything?
The answer to that question is probably yes, although they can be difficult to train; their protective instincts are strong and not just for guarding flocks of wayward sheep. The breed, already a popular flock guardian in Australia, was put to a more unusual use there in protecting a group of penguins that was constantly under the threat and having its numbers depleted by local predators such as foxes and wild dogs. They are, in essence, probably the best guardian dog in the world.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2019 Jerry Cornelius