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Native to the lush, damp greenery of Louisiana, Catahoula leopard dogs (sometimes called the Catahoula leopard cur) have been developed as remarkably versatile working dogs. In their home state, you’ll find Catahoulas being tasked with herding cattle, acting as watchdogs, retrieving waterfowl, and hunting wild hogs.
Aloof toward strangers, Catahoula leopards develop strong bonds with their family units and can make great family dogs, provided they’re handled with the proper training in mind. Bred with a strong independent streak, Catahoulas aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves and will let you know when they disagree with something.
Catahoula leopard dogs are striking. Since the primary concern of their breeding stock is their working and herding abilities, appearance is often a secondary concern, which has allowed for a stunning amount of variance from dog to dog.
Historically, all of today’s Catahoulas come from three breeding lines, each of which produced dogs of different sizes and colors. Over the years, those three lines have been cross-bred again and again, resulting in the variation we see today. Coats range from single colors such as black, red, and yellow, to brindle and double-brindle coats. You’ll also see coats with the merle or “leopard” pattern that gives the dog its name, in shades of black, blue, and red. The variation is so high that two solid-colored Catahoulas who are bred will often result in a litter of brindle or merle-coated pups.
These dogs typically have a smooth, short coat or a coarse, medium one. The short coat is by far the most common. These coats are very close to the body and glossy, giving the Catahoula an almost painted appearance. Though single-coated, the Catahoula sheds regularly.
In addition to their striking coat colorations, Catahoulas are well-known for their eyes, which frequently come in light colors or “glass” and “cracked glass” patterns that can make them appear slate gray, pale blue, or white. The Catahoula also carries the heterochromatic gene, so they are frequently seen with two different eye colors.
Catahoulas stand roughly 2 feet tall and are slender, well-muscled dogs. Their faces feature thick, broad muzzles and large, light eyes that give the Catahoula a watchful, alert expression. Most Catahoulas have long, thin tails, however, some dogs have bobbed tails that stop after the first or second vertebrae; this is a naturally occurring variation and not the result of docking.
Catahoulas are companion dogs, rather than family dogs, because they are not happy lounging around. They need to be in a setting where they can indulge in their natural inclinations of hunting and herding. If you don’t happen to live on a ranch or in the woods, Catahoulas will do well in houses with large, fenced yards, or other places where they can get about an hour’s worth of strenuous exercise every day. They also do well in agility, herding, and obedience competitions that help keep both their bodies and minds active and engaged. So, the ideal owner is patient, confident, and able to offer the dog plenty of exercise.
Catahoulas are bright dogs who pick up on instruction fairly quickly, but they need to be handled in a very specific manner. Naturally willful and independent, these dogs develop strong bonds with the members of their family, but will absolutely not tolerate rough or impatient handling. A Catahoula who feels mistreated is likely to stand up for himself.
Catahoula leopards do best in single-animal households. They can be trained to tolerate other dogs if they are socialized as puppies, but even then two male Catahoulas are likely to be aggressive toward one another. The Catahoula prey drive is certainly present, though not necessarily overwhelming. This means they can be trained to live with cats they are taught are “theirs,” but cats and small animals outside or in the yard are probably going to be fair game.
How Catahoulas do with children will depend largely on how old they are, and the context they are in. Smaller children will run the risk of being knocked over by the active Catahoula, and children who stand at eye level with them can be mistaken as presenting a challenge to the dog. Older children, especially ones who camp or hunt, will love them as companions.
Catahoulas also make solid watchdogs, as they have a naturally suspicious view towards strangers. Aware of what property is “theirs” but not particularly aggressive, they will sound off whenever someone new approaches. However, Catahoulas are also well regarded as being excellent judges of character and will warm fairly quickly to people who don’t pose a threat.
If you’re a camper, hunter, hiker, or runner, these active, loyal dogs are going to love to go along with you. And, of course, if you’ve got a ranch or farm and something for them to herd, you’ve found your new best friend. Unlike most herding dogs, who are trained to work from behind a herd and direct them from one plate to another, Catahoulas are bred to work directly with a human and present a “canine fence” at the head of a herd, keeping them from wandering off while they are worked from within the herd by a human handler.
Catahoulas' short, single coats will shed regularly, so brushing them a couple times a week will help keep hair off everything you own. It can also act as a great bonding activity with young pups, letting them learn who their family units are, and keeping them from becoming too aloof.
The Catahoula leopard is a fairly healthy breed. Hip dysplasia is the common spector for most dog breeds, and the Catahoula is no different. The other concern is genetic deafness. A Catahoula with predominantly white coloration is roughly 80 percent likely to be either totally or uni-laterally deaf. Similarly, puppies born from litters where both parents are merle-patterned (referred to as “double merles”) have a 25 percent chance of being born blind, deaf, or both.
Born and bred in Louisiana, the Catahoula leopard dog dates to the very beginnings of the Louisiana Territory. Though exact origins are somewhat murky, it's generally assumed the breed came about when de Soto and his Spanish conquistadors came to town and bred their greyhounds with the dogs owned by the Native American inhabitants. From that resulting stock, dogs were additionally crossbred by French fur trappers in the 1700s with their Beaucerons, which has resulted in the dogs we know today.
With an eye towards function over form, Catahoulas have a remarkably varied appearance in coat and eye color, but all share that strong, watchful, working disposition that makes them so handy in herding and hunting.
Originally called the Catahoula leopard cur, the “leopard” descriptor is a reference to the spotted—or merle—pattern the majority of the breed has. That was the name they were developed under when the Catahoula Leopard Cur Association was created in 1976 to help standardize breeding practices and develop the breed standard for kennel club recognition. The name was formally changed to Catahoula leopard dog in 1979, when the breed was adopted as the official State Dog of Louisiana. In 1996, the breed was accepted into the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Foundation Stock Service, but as of 2020 the Catahoula leopard dog has not met the requirements for AKC registration and is not eligible for AKC events. The breed was recognized by the United Kennel Club in 1995.
- Stemming from their Louisiana heritage, Catahoulas have been featured in several works of fiction centered in and around the bayou, including Southern-fried episodes of Veronica Mars and Bones, as well as in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels.
- Piglet is a Catahoula leopard dog who, with her owner her owner, Lori Wells, of Lancaster, Calif., was recognized by the AKC for their search and rescue prowess.