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Head of our Department of Coyote Control

Head of our Department of Coyote Control

I warned Gordon before we moved from the city to our little farm to live full time (we had spent only weekends before) that coyotes were going to be a problem, particularly for our free ranging chickens and beloved cats, and that I would likely have to shoot some. This was not much of a problem for me, as I come from a hunting family and am used to killing animals for food (or to protect food) but Gordon, who loves dogs (all dogs) was having none of it. The principle in our house is that my darling gets what my darling wants, and so I canvassed my farmer friends for possible alternatives.

“You need a Maremma,” said my buddy Brian, a sheep farmer northeast of us. If anybody knows about predator control, it is sheep farmers in Canada’s northern boreal forest.

“What’s a Maremma?” I asked.

“Dog,” said Brian. “It’s a dog. I was losing a ton of lambs and then I got a Maremma from my cousin and I never lost another. So I got two more dogs. And I have puppies. Well, they’re mostly Maremma and a bit of Great Pyrenees.”

“How much?” I asked. But before I spit into my palm to seal the deal, I did some research. Maremmas are an Italian dog used to protect livestock/endangered species (eg. Penguins in Australia) and are appreciated by environmentalists because they make it possible for livestock to coexist with predators such as wolves and coyotes. When they’re raised to protect sheep, they are raised in the pens with the sheep, and bond to them instead of to humans. In fact, when I told my brother (a professional trapper/hunter) about the plan, he warned me against it.

“I get called to shoot a lot of Maremmas,” he informed us. “They don’t bond to people, and then they decide they own the place. I’ve seen people trapped in their own kitchens by these dogs.”

But Brian said that his were gentle. “They lie around the yard all day but then they get busy at night. You can see that they have a plan to guard the whole place: one will stay in the yard and a couple more will go on patrol.”

I did more research and discovered that we shouldn’t expect obedience from these dogs, as they are bred to make their own decisions. Requests will be considered and possibly discarded, and anybody who cohabits with a Maremma has to be okay with that. They also need to be treated with great kindness and gentleness or the tentative bond they have with humans will be destroyed and they may regard you as an enemy.

I was pleased to read that they don’t tend to use violence in order to guard. They bark, they mark their territory, and they take measures to avoid violent conflict with predators (such as behaving insanely in order to freak them out).

I told Gordon everything I had learned, and suggested that we ought to go visit Brian’s dogs, and maybe get a couple of puppies in preparation for our move to the country. Three extremely large white dogs met us in Brian’s yard when we drove up. I briefly wondered if we were going to get torn to shreds by the dogs my brother described as being so vicious. But in fact they were extremely gentle and shy.

So we got a couple of puppies. They looked almost exactly like polar bear cubs. They were about the shyest little pups I have ever seen. It took them months to make eye contact with us, and they remain extremely gentle and shy. While they are now enormous, they remain the most polite, sweet dogs I have ever met. Many of our cats sleep with them. When they’re in the house, they are very quiet and loving, and tend to stay away from the action (unless we shake the cookie box).

New Recruits

New Recruits

Predator control has been a snap. When we see a coyote (or even a neighbour’s dog) in the yard, we simply release the hounds. Our dogs chase them off, generally non-violently. The other day, we came across three coyote puppies in our hay field and the Maremmas simply barked at them. On the other hand, the big dog from across the road demonstrated a reckless lack of respect and got his butt handed to him. He doesn’t come around any more.

I try to start most mornings by patrolling the perimeter so that they dogs get to mark our territory. If I cannot, the Maremmas announce the beginning of the new day with a half hour of constant barking so that all the predators know they’re on the job. We bring them in when the barking gets to be too much, and every night (as we like our neighbours and want them to like us).

Because of them, we have lost no calves or cats to predators, and our only poultry losses were a few chicks abducted by a squirrel).  I haven’t had to shoot a coyote, skunk or fox. If good fences make good human neighbours, livestock guardian dogs are the key to harmonious cohabitation with pesky predators.