They look majestic, have a wonderful way with all creatures great and small, protect their flock but one thing is certain – they are not suited to a life of domestic family bliss, trapped in a suburban home and unable to carry out the duties they were born to do. Welcome to the world of the Maremma.
Before the 2015 film Oddball, Maremma Rescue Victoria had rehomed only two puppies, but following the film’s success they have rehomed hundreds of young maremmas. Jodie Cawood is the leader of the four-woman operation and has fostered 500 in her home alone.
“People just see something cute and grab it,” Ms Cawood said.
The Italian sheepdogs were made famous in the film Oddball where an eccentric chicken farmer, played by Shane Jacobson, trains his mischievous maremma Oddball to protect a penguin sanctuary from fox attack. While it tried to inform people maremmas are not a suburban backyard dog, Ms Cawood said the film made things much worse.
With rescue groups in every state except Tasmania — many of which were formed after the film’s release — the number of dogs rehomed since 2015 numbers in the hundreds and most likely in the thousands across states.
The ‘Oddball effect’
The two dogs that acted in the film were supplied by Maremma Rescue Victoria and the RSPCA. Ms Cawood worked with promoters to create additional material on the breed to present with any marketing of the film. This included information like maremmas are loud dogs, they need something to protect, and should not be confined to the home without a role and purpose. “Even though we gave people the right information, it still fell on deaf ears,” Ms Cawood said.
“[People] still went ahead and got them in the wrong setting and they all ended up coming to us.” A rise in backyard breeders emerged, with farmers mass-producing maremmas to bring in quick cash.
Puppies flogged for $500 on social media.
Ms Cawood said unlike other family breeds that can have a hefty price tag and year-long waiting lists, maremma pups started popping up anywhere and everywhere. And people were buying them.
“I couldn’t tell you the amount of times [people said] ‘I saw it on Gumtree and the guy had them in the back of his car, in a car parked at McDonald’s,” Ms Cawood said.
“So many of our dogs have come to us like that.”
Lisa, who did not want her real name used, was looking for another dog in early 2019 after the loss of her family pet of 12 years. After a quick search online she was overwhelmed by affordable, cute maremma puppies with no waitlist. They picked an Adelaide breeder they thought looked legitimate and paid a visit.
“We thought that if there was anything to be aware of they’d tell us but they didn’t,” Lisa said.
She was told maremmas “don’t even shed that much” and are “really easy to maintain”.
“He said that if we didn’t make the decision — because he had other people coming to see Arlo as well — if we didn’t adopt him right then and there we’d miss out.”
She paid the breeder $650 and took eight-week-old Arlo home.
Not suburban dogs
Lisa trained Arlo for nine months.
She went to puppy school and sought advice from other maremma owners on a SA Facebook forum.
While she could deal with his bark, her neighbours could not.
They filed a formal complaint without her knowledge.
“There were forms, it became very formal, I had to go in and have a meeting … it was very interrogating, I didn’t like it at all,” she said.
When council imposed a Barking Dog Order because of the severity of the complaints last year she made the tough decision to part with Arlo.
She was sure Arlo, only entering his teenage years, would not lose his bark.
“We would never end our battle with the neighbours, they’d never understand,” Lisa said.
“If we didn’t comply with any of the documentation, or his training wouldn’t work out, we’d end up in court.”
Wonderful workers in their element
Bo was the first maremma Liam Brokensha adopted from Maremma Rescue Victoria four years ago.
The grazier farmer in South Australia’s south-east needed protection for his new chook fleet.
“She was an incredibly nervous dog, she would salivate and quiver and shake,” Mr Brokensha said.
“That’s possibly to do with what happened in her previous life before meeting us.”
She was out with the chickens pretty soon after.
“It all seemed to come to her pretty naturally,” Mr Brokensha said.
Maggie, Hazel and Yoshi followed.
“We’re grateful for being in a position to be able to actually rehome some of these dogs and have them in a working environment,” Mr Brokensha said.
“We couldn’t do it without them.”
Rescue process a ‘gut-wrenching’ job
Rehoming these dogs can be a tough calling, especially when removing the maremmas.
“[One kid] told me I wasn’t allowed to steal their dog and they were trying to hit me. It broke my heart,” Ms Cawood said.
“We’re just here to pick up the pieces for the dogs and try to make it as easy as possible when a family’s falling apart.”
Still, it is a calling she cannot ignore.
“On the one side it’s really gut-wrenching, on the other side it’s really joyful,” Ms Cawood said.
Last weekend she delivered a rescue to a family with autistic children.
“It’s going to make the biggest difference to their lives,” Ms Cawood said.
Still members of the family
When paired with something to protect, Ms Cawood said the maremmas can also adapt to happy family life.
The homes they seek out for adoption provide both a work life and a family life — just how they were raised for 2,000 years in Italy.
“They spend their first two years with their shepherd,” Ms Cawood said.
“They sleep with him, they eat with him, they spend all their time with him and learning what their job is, before they go to work.”
That has been the case for Dawn Cowley in the Adelaide Hills.
The Cowleys adopted their first maremma Gertie, from Maremma Rescue SA, six months ago.
When facing a fox issue with their rescue chooks they looked for solutions.
Ms Cowley was lined up to buy a pup from a breeder when a friend suggested otherwise.
“I didn’t realise there would be a rescue, I just thought there weren’t that large a number of dogs around,” she said.
Ms Cowley was prepared for Gertie to be a predominantly outdoor dog but that has not been the case.
Gertie slotted into the home so well that the Cowleys decide to keep her within a week.
“[I didn’t think] she’d end up being a part of the family and actually move quite easily between the two environments,” Ms Cowley said.
“The more love you give, the more they’ll take.”
Want a maremma?
Ms Cawood said there are rescue organisations and good, registered breeders in every state except for Tasmania, which Victoria covers.
“We never have shortages of homes,” she said.
“We have dogs waiting to come in, we have homes waiting for dogs; It’s just a matter of matching the right ones up with each other.”
It is a big job but one she is prepared to continue doing.
“I don’t want the dogs to be displaced, so I do what I can to make sure families can either keep them or, if I think we’re a better option, I’ll do what I can to get that dog in.”
Ms Cawood urges anyone considering the breed to do the research, provide the right environment and access the right breeders.