Apifera Farm - where art, story, animals & woman merge. Home to artist Katherine Dunn

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©Katherine Dunn.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

She challenged me more than any animal I've known

The first day at Apifera
Six years ago, Marcella was born. She was born on a working sheep farm in Washington, out of working stock. Her farm owner and shepherd had a regional reputation as being knowledgeable and thorough with his Maremmas-he also travelled the region educating people about this unique breed, teaching them the unique training skills needed to work successfully with a Maremma. I am grateful we found him because I reached out to him many times in the early days.

We were in Oregon then, and we had a working flock of 30 sheep among other things. We were of course taking in needy elder/special needs animals, but we were not a non profit then. I had looked into a livestock guardian years before, but felt I wasn't ready for one. I'm glad I waited. I wasn't prepared to have a Maremma when we first moved to the farm. I had always had pets, not a working dog, and it is a different ball of wax.

Marcella was 8 weeks old when we brought her home. I got a pick of the litter, and I knew immediately she was the one, by her presence and demeanor in the litter that day. That first night, I put her in a stall in the barn, where she could see sheep and goats through her gate. The shepherd/breeder told me that if a Maremma wants to get on the other side of a gate, it will. The second morning when I arrived at the barn, she was frolicking out in the Northwest rain and mud, happy as a clam. Marcella loved rain and mud from her first days, and still does. White Dog on the other hand is not as fond of rain and mud and is rarely muddy, but Mar will come in at night covered, happy. The shepherd/breeder also told me that the next day they are always pure white again...and he was right.

I had been given mental lessons in how to work with Marcella...don't baby her, don't hold her and squeeze her because you are going to want to because she is so damn cute...don't look down to her but show her boundaries right away. She will outsmart you if she needs to or feels threatened...that is her job, I was told. Her food is hers, you will find that out. And if she needs work done on her body-toenail trimming, wounds-they do not like to be worked on, which can prove challenging for many reasons....the latter is also true. Maremmas are prone to not obey commands like a trained pet, calling a Maremma is not usually going to get them to come-that is after all a survival technique for a guard and it is bred into them for a reason.

It took me a year or so to really understand her ways, and what my reactions should be or shouldn't be. For example, I always fed her in the hay room, so she could be away from all animals. She was incredibly territorial with her food, to the point she'd take an animal to the ground if they provoked her around food. The shepherd/breeder told me to never try to work this out of her, simply give her a space to eat alone. Well, one day, I can't remember what the reason was, but she was eating, and I approached too close to grab something, and she latched onto my hand, sinking her teeth in...I was calm, but it hurt like hell, but I knew if I pulled my hand away she'd sink in deeper and rip me up. I waited, I did not speak, and I relaxed the tension in my hand to show her she had won, and she released. But then I thought that I really should correct her. This was not acceptable. I took a rake and hit her on the back, she grabbed it and fought it hard. I left her alone. I called my mentor shepherd/breeder and told him what had happened. He said that one should never hit a Maremma, because it is perceived as a challenge. He said he might have done the same though, depending on the age of the dog and situation. He told me to work on establishing a better boundary, and I did.

And that is the challenge I relented to. There is no reason to challenge her, she knows her job, and I had to learn to let her do it her way.

At this stage in our relationship, Marcella does not growl around her food anymore, she knows if I walk by it is to do other things and she trusts me now, and I trust her. But I'd never take her dish away, and there is no reason too. Working on her body if she has a wound, or mats in her heavy coat in spring mud season, is a 100-step process. But compared to our early years, we work it out. Recently, Marcella slipped through a slider gate in the garden where she had gotten out because a latch was not secure. She was out front near the busy road and my heart sunk when I saw her. I started yelling to her, more in a panic, as I saw her eyeing the road and she knew two dogs were over there. She looked at me, and at the road. Then I snapped out of it, went into a submissive pose [kneeled down, averted my eyes] and I said her name softly, like I do during chores. She came over with her head down, and all was well. I thought how five years ago I would not have known to do that.

A lot of this is her maturing too, and having worked daily with me for years. But I like to think we have a bond now too. I know we do. Every night, she helps me bring the ducks in and she sleeps with them. It is then, for seconds, I look in her eyes, something I do with all my dogs. I tell her it was a good day and thank her. She might not be guarding a flock of sheep, but she still has a job, watching for eagles and other intruders. She is much more outspoken here, because her area is smaller than before. When we have elder visits, I put her in a stall because she just wants to know that these people aren't there to hurt her charges. White Dog on the other hand partakes.

She is by far the smartest dog I've ever known.  Learning to speak Marcella, and let go of pet-thinking, let go of 'this is want I want' is part of working with this breed. One day out West, she was particularly active in the barnyard. I wanted her to come into the barn so I could move hay. Later that day, we realized that Wilbur had been scratched up by a predator, and we noticed blood and marks on both White Dogs. We analyzed the placement and width of the claw marks on Wilbur and surmised it had been a young bobcat-we had one in the barnyard some weeks earlier, a small one. The marks showed us that Wilbur had been on his back while being clawed once. It was probably a young cat, but the dogs did their job, and she was just making sure it wasn't around.

She is also an excellent ratter.

She always crosses her legs