I talk about this always, to anyone who asks about the maremmas — they are not guard dogs; they are guardians and, in my eyes, there is a world of difference. A long path of gene pool selection fills these dogs with a deep sense of responsibility for and kinship with their flock and a guardian instinct, exquisite and often tender, that makes them keenly special and a delight to observe in action. I am bursting with an over-eager urge to show this to you, to share all of the dozens of stories I have about Sophie, Marco and (more recently) Giada. When I am very old, I will be telling these stories and eyes will be rolling into backs of heads because you have heard these stories a THOUSAND times and I will still want to speak, because they are so dang, deeply meaningful to me. So, to aid me, for now, just for now, I will pretend that there will be endless chances to give voice to all of them and I shall simply begin with these:
Reagan is our oldest granddaughter and one of the coolest people walking this planet Earth. She has a wide-open, earnest spirit and is especially kind-hearted to animals and small children. Reagan was coming to visit us for a week at the ranch. We were in our early learning curve with Sophie and Marco and that means we were still of the mindset that their primary focus was to be on the alpaca herd, not us. Plus at that point, they had been around very few people, besides us, and no children. We prepped Reagan with an abundance of caution.
They need to focus on their work, we said.
We don’t want to distract them, we said.
They might even be afraid of you and that’s okay.
What were we thinking?
The moment he laid eyes on that girl, Marco dropped to the ground in submissive adoration. Reagan wasn’t distraction; Reagan was flock. Still is. Always will be.
It’s one thing to believe you can shape the behavior of a dog, it’s another realm entirely when you witness their independent decision-making and realize how nearly impossible it would have been to “train” that. In their first months with us, Sophie and Marco spent most of their time with the mama alpacas and the young ‘uns who were particularly vulnerable to predators. The newest addition to the herd was just days old when a break in the rain gave us a chance to let the herd out onto the hill for some much needed pasture time. The mamas and their babies stick close together in the pen and I assumed it would be no different in the bigger space. We watched the herd until all seemed settled and went on about our chores. Looking up some time later, the herd was not in sight … they had gone over the hill to seek better grazing near the creek. Everyone, except the new baby. And Marco.
This vigil went on for 20 minutes or more, Marco, watchful and still; the baby snoozing. When the mamas finally meandered back, Marco ducked his head at their presence, but did not move from his spot until the right mama came over and claimed her baby. He, Marco, was not a year old yet; a baby himself. My heart wells up even now when I am reminded of this.
Sophie also showed her own concern for a flock member’s vulnerabilities at an early age. Anyone who knows us, knows about Boo, Reagan’s first pony, still with us even though he suffers from a metabolic disease that can make life challenging for him, especially when the weather is too hot or too cold. Boo was in a low spell and we had to separate him from the horse herd for his safety and to keep a more watchful eye on him. We settled him into the back yard, checking on him periodically as we went about our (yes, we are always doing them) chores. Apparently, that was insufficient in Sophie’s eyes. How she tuned into the situation, I do not know, but she left her post with the alpacas and spent the better part of the afternoon like this:
The look in her eye, even now, intimidates me. She is the warier of the two, by nature, and she was still young then, not yet fully bonded to us. Just to make sure you understand all of Sophie’s spirit, here is a picture of her laughing. She grew into that part of her. It just took time.
I have two more stories to tell … for now … and they are both about Marco. They are also both about death or near-death; you are forewarned.
The Almost Dead Squirrel
Gracie, the terrier, is a killing machine. Mice, chipmunks and squirrels are her particular passion. Now, a squirrel can out-maneuver Grace in the open, but if it is cornered, Gracie has the upper hand because she is fierce and has no regard for her own safety (or yours, if you are in the vicinity). In one such incident, Gracie got her chops on the cornered squirrel, but it managed to break loose and in a flash it was in Marco’s mouth who loped off with it. I gave chase to the back yard where Marco now lay with the squirrel still in his mouth.
Frankly, I was disappointed. My image of him as a gentle guardian had just gotten a bit of tarnish on it. Doesn’t he look a wee bit ashamed of himself as well?
But wait, what’s this? Did that squirrel just BLINK? Why, yes, there it was again! Marco did not kill the squirrel, Marco SAVED the squirrel! I wrestled Gracie into the house before she noticed and went back to tell Marco the coast was clear. He gently put the stunned squirrel down and they sat there for some time until the squirrel revived itself and hopped off.
I was working in the office with the dogs laying at my feet when a loud crash vibrated the window. We all jumped and the dogs alarmed, barking loudly. It registered in my mind that it was probably a bird, but the dogs, not waiting for an explanation, went charging out the door at full tilt. Hoping the bird was merely stunned, I scrambled my boots on and following thinking it would need rescue from the dogs. No one was moving. All the dogs were standing at bay and Marco lay with the bird between his paws. He snuffled it and the bird turned its head toward him, took it’s last breath and died. Marco gave it a gentle nudge, as if to be certain, and then lay like this for a very long time.
I think he was standing guard. This happened, this death, on his watch and it was therefore his duty to assure that no predator came and claimed it for a meal and, liking the taste of that, came back for more. Except, it was a bird, not his “flock” and still, his instincts said to hold the space. I sat with him and when it seemed a respectful amount of time, he let me take the bird away.
Some day, I will tell the story of Marco and Evelyn. I thought I would today, but it proves to be too much, maybe too soon. In the meantime, I relish and cherish this walk down the story path. I hope you see them, Marco and Sophie, I hope you see them as I do — guardians of one small piece of the universe. We are so lucky.