The Catahoula Leopard: Not your average stock dog
February 17, 2014
"A Catta whatta?"
That's the most common response that owners of Catahoula Leopards get after answering the question, "What kind of dog is that?"
The largest breed of stock dog, a Catahoula, typically weighs between 60 and 90 pounds and stands between 20 and 26 inches tall, and has webbed paws and floppy ears.
Often, their eyes are light, although it's not unusual to find "marbling," or even two distinctly different colors. The short-haired hides are "patterned," meaning there's a variety in hair colors ranging from blue (gray with black patches) to red (liver and brown) to basic black and tan.
Some even come in what's known as "patchwork," or several different colors, which form large, blotchy patches. They also come in brindle, yellow, and white, although white ones — the result of a "double merle" gene — are usually deaf.
What makes a cattie truly unique, however, is their stamina and attitude.
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Bred to circle and hold cattle, wild boars and bears, they'll fearlessly plunge into thickets or marshes, or climb mountains (and in some cases, trees) to catch up to their prey. Raising their heads high, they will wind a scent, and the baying can be heard up to a mile away. But don't expect them to pull away from what they're focused on, or simply come when you call, unless they've been exposed to lots (and lots) of steady, consistent training, praise and reward.
Anyone who has ever spent time with a Leopard dog will admit they're a challenging mix of hard-headedness and independence, and if not handled firmly, can be aggressive.
This is one dog that definitely needs an alpha for an owner.
They're protective of their family members and property, as well.
"I usually have three with me in the truck," says breeder Denise Casey of Co. Comanche Catahoulas, located in Pritchett, Colo.
"If I stop at the store and don't feel like carrying my purse or keys inside, I know that nobody is going to grab them."
Her dogs did lots of cattle work before the drought forced her to sell out, but now they're used primarily to tree raccoons.
Although she has a waiting list for puppies, Denise won't sell to just anyone. Natural-born athletes, these dogs love to run, and need lots of open spaces. In other words, they aren't good pets for city dwellers, since leash-walking isn't nearly enough.
And if left idle for long periods, they can be destructive. Just try it. You might return to find your couch reduced to chunks on the living room floor.
"We only have one litter a year," states Dawn Marx of J Bar T Paint Horses, in Castle Rock, Colo., "because they're so much work. They must be socialized extremely well."
Her original female, "Cami", had four litters, each sired by Denise's male, "Cajun" before he passed away. (Dawn and Denise refer customers to each other, as well.)
"I got Cami from a breeder in Florida," Dawn explains, "after first seeing Catahoulas at the National Western Stock Show in Denver 15 years ago. They were amazing."
She spoke with the handler after the performance, "then spent the next five or six years speaking to other breeders and doing careful research on the bloodlines."
Today, both women have long waiting lists. There is no need to advertise, since "the people who know the Catahoula — and are specifically searching for one — find us."
Dawn and her husband, Gary, raise paint quarter horses, and although they don't use their two male and two female catties as working dogs, "they get their exercise by going with us when we ride. Plus, since we live far out in the country, a mile from the nearest neighbor, they have plenty of space to run and play."
Yet even with no yard fencing, "they stick around."
Some of the most telling traits with these dogs, in addition to their hard working abilities, is that they are deeply loyal, loving, and intelligent.
Catahoulas have such an eccentric genetic background that we may never know exactly what they're made of. They're said to be ancestors of the "war dogs" — a mix of Greyhounds, Mastiffs, and Bloodhounds, which were brought into the U.S. by Spanish explorers in the 1540s. They've also been traced to the Carolinas, or "Indian dogs" that are related to Dingoes and Jackals. Researchers claim Irish wolfhounds, Plott hounds, English shepherds, and even red wolves might be part of the mix. Yet another ancestor is the Beauceron, which has leopard spots, and was imported from France in the 1600s, spreading primarily throughout Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana.
According to the American Kennel Club, the actual Catahoula Leopard dog breed "originated in North Central Louisiana, in the geographic area around the Catahoula Lake. The word "Catahoula" is of Choctaw Indian origin, and translates as "sacred lake." So prized is this animal in the deep South for its hunting ability, Louisiana has since named it their official state dog.
The variety in coloring that results from so many mixes, as well as the natural instinct to create a "canine fence" around livestock, makes the Catahoula a truly unique animal.
"Even their heads are different from dog to dog," concludes Denise. "They range from slim to block-type. Personally," she adds, "I like the big, old block heads, myself, with big jowls."
So next time you pass by a stock truck with a wild-patterned dog in it, that has strange, light eyes, and an attitude that dares you to get any closer, compliment the owners if they confirm it is a Catahoula.
But think very, very carefully before getting one for yourself … they're a handful. ❖