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Nuova Fattoria




When I was looking for my first catahoula, I wanted a guardian and a companion dog. I had no idea that I should ever verify a versatility of these dogs declared by American sources. Nevertheless, websites of American catahoula breeders often show pictures of their dogs hunting, baying hogs, treeing racoons or herding cattle. Such activities are still the most typical for Catahoula Leopard Dog from Louisiana.

However, there are totally different conditions in our country and therefore it is necessary to find new activities or use for our catahoulas. We have realized that we should help to our catahoula owners to find their way how to smooth their coexistence with their dogs and to explore new possibilities. Our gathering in Strašín u Sušice showed that there are many possible activities and everybody can choose according to his own physical ability. Thus, we have tried bike or scooter, coursing, some of us started with agility or obedience training. We have tested tracking abilities of our dogs, blood tracking or baying a wild hog. However, the ability of our catahoulas to handle cattle was still a mystery for us.

Catahoula is a breed that is still used by cattlemen for finding and gathering cattle, particularly in southern states of USA. It is considered very valuable particularly when working with the wild cattle. In southern states with a very hot climate, an aggressive type of the cattle from India needs to be handled. Only strong, selfconfident, rough enough dogs with hunting abilities can succeed in herding the stock under conditions of brushy pastures and terrible hots, where other dog breeds (originated in Europe) failed.

There is only a scarce information concerning catahoula working style. One of the reasons is the fact that there are not so many cattlemen who work with true catahoulas. Another problem is that the cattleman or farmers probably spent most of their time working or on horseback than writting stories. Nevertheless, there are several articles available on the web which could give us some idea how catahoula works with cattle.

Many people are confused about catahoula working style. They have seen usually Border Collie, Australian Shepard or Kelpie that "eye" cattle, tend to approach in a low-to-the ground position, and often fixing attention on a smaller group of the stock. Catahoulas belong to loose-eyed breeds, they work with an upright posture and are able to balance larger groups of the stock. Many people do not understand why catahoulas keep circling the cattle, never letting the cattle go anywhere. The true catahoulas (however, there are also various mixbreed dogs that lost partly their working abilities) do not move cattle. If a cow leaves the herd, catahoulas will run ahead of her to stop her. This is the only time they should ever bite, then only on the end of the cow?s nose. The characteristic component of their working style is barking at (i.e. baying) the cattle and it is exploited also for wild hog baying. Barking could irritate us, the owners, but it is very useful and valuable when it is necessary to locate dogs and the herd in brush or timber or in a rough terrain. Catahoulas are the most efficient when it is necessary to find the cattle and to pressure them to form a herd, then hold it at bay until handlers arrive. One story says that in the evening cattlemen sent two or three catahoulas to find the cattle and in the morning they arrived back to the gathered herd. Their work was just to call dogs off the herd to move it.

From above mentioned, it is necessary to take into account some specific traits concerning catahoulas. True catahoula has the ability to herd the cattle instinctivelly, bark soundly and persistently, to work independently on his master and it is only up to the handler how much time he devotes to training his dog. While training dogs for the above style of work can be accomplished while working and a high degree of control may not be necessary, many handlers are able to train their dogs to respond to a variety of commands. The most difficult but inevitable command is particularly to call dog off a herd, the rest could be let on dog?s natural instincts and experience.

Let?s return back to the Czech Republic and our catahoulas. I had no idea what kind of dogs (from this point of view) I had imported. American breeders, who are looking for catahoulas suitable to handle the stock, have also problems because five or more registries for catahoulas exist, but none of them offers information on dog?s working abilities. Unfortunately, it is similar in most other breeds around the world. Therefore many individuals or linies gifted by marvelous working ability (but not so demanded conformation) are already lost forever.

Fortunately, we have got an opportunity to find out something about our catahoulas and we could not miss it. In summer 2005 we set off for an inspection to Malá Morava farm, where Australian Cattle Dogs (ACD) are used for herding cattle. Mrs. Marika Špárníková, who works with two adult ACD, was also curious for catahoula working ability and she wanted to know how our dogs would handle the stock. She enabled us to carry out our first test for herding ability at their farm. Thus, it happened in September 2005.

Four-year old Crawdad?s Toledo, ten-month old Firtsmate Šumící křídla (his son) and one-year old ACD gyp, Bluespirit Seven of Nine, became the first participants of our testing. None of our dogs have met a cow before and none of us have been training any command for that kind of work, thus we can really call it tests of natural abilities and instincts. We chose step-by-step approach for our dogs to avoid any negative experience at the same beginning. Therefore we started with the herd consisting of fifteen dog-broken young cows that were kept in a rather small pen in front of a stable. First, we led our dogs along the fence without any commands and we watched their reactions. The dogs became immediately highly excited and started run along the fence barking and trying to get inside the fenced area. Toledo tryied to undermine the fence, when he realized that there was no other way to reach the cattle. We were satisfied with the first part of testing therefore we went on with more difficult task. Our dogs were let free one by one into the fenced area and they should have pushed the cattle through the open door to their stable. It happened exactly like we wished even when no commands were given. Opening the gate was the only signal for our dogs. They knew what was necessary to do. Both young ones (Firtsmate and Seven) pushed immediately the cows into the stable and then they were safely called off by their masters. In meantime, Toledo was looking forward to a fresh group of the cattle. In a moment, the cows were back again in the stable together with Toledo who tried to herd them inside the stable. This was a very dangerous situation as young cows tried to loose his pressure and get free. He surely got a few kicks but he did not probably even notice it. I have to admit that we were warried both for the dog and the cows, because a ground in the stable was extremely slippery. The only way to stop Toledo was to catch the dog inside the stable. Cowman, who helped us to release the stock from the stable, was astonished at Toledo's performance and he asked me with admiration in his voice "What kind of dog is that!" No doubt, who was the master of this situation.

We all were satisfied with our dogs. However, Marika judged our dogs from the view of an expert and thus she noticed that Toledo?s pressure on cattle was too strong and under certain circumstances it could be lethal. Nevertheless, it must be taken into consideration that our dogs did not have any previous experience, particularly those negative, therefore they were not very aware or respectful in the cattle?s presence. We decided that we would repeat it also with other catahoulas and tests would be more difficult.

Next time we invited a few friends with their dogs. This time five catahoulas from four different kennels and one ACD participated. In November, the snow was already over the whole Malá Morava. The dogs, which did not participated in our previous testing, started as we did last time, i.e. with young cows in fenced area near a stable. They responded differently but all showed some interest in the cattle. Therefore we went on with a small group of ca 20 sheep. Our dogs showed a variety of reactions depending partly on their age or their previous experience. One-year old catahoula, who knew the cattle from his home farm, kept a proper distance from the group but he tried to keep the sheep in the herd. ACD and another one-year old catahoula, who did our first testing with the cows, behaved too roughly for the sheep. We tried also five-month old catahoula gyp. She respected sheep, but when supported by ACD, she proved that she would be able to work properly. Finally, sheep awoke some interest also in another catahoula (three-years old male), who was not excited about the stock until then. We can make some conclusions of this experience. Adult and selfconfident catahoulas or ACD that have not got any previous experience with the sheep behaved too roughly. If dogs experienced the sheep in their earlier age, they can be probably trained to be more gentle and more respectful for such animals. Therefore sheep should be used only for young catahoulas if testing for their herding ability.

The summit of our programme was testing our dogs with the group of eleven adult bulls. Their average weight was ca 1000 kg. Marika chose them for their higher tolerance and steady behaviour. When we arrived to a large fenced pasture, the bulls were peacefully resting, scattered on the whole grassy area. This was really idylic view, but our courage vanished with worries about our dogs and ourselves. Young male catahoula, who was familiar with the livestock from their home farm, was the first to encounter the bulls. However, his approach was very loose and he hold a wide distance from the livestock not hurrying to interfere with them. The bulls awoke only when 14-months old ACD gyp hurried to help him. Since then none of the bulls stopped its movement. The master of ACD was trembling until she saw that her gyp distinguished perfectly the difference between the bulls and the sheep and her approach to the livestock was more calculated and respectful. We let our dogs work according to their natural instincts as none of us trained the dogs for such a work. The dogs gathered the bulls into the herd, they tryied to turn back challenging stubborn individuals and then drove the herd along the fence. Then ACD became a companion for another young catahoula and then also with three-years old male. The view of our dogs working properly and easily soothed us and everything looked very save. The dogs worked side by side giving each other confidence and courage and they were able also to coordinate their actions. However, the differences in approaching to the livestock were apparent between catahoulas and ACD. ACD used her quick instinctive grip low on the leg to move the bulls and the movement of the whole herd was rather the result of her acting. Catahoulas were baying and rather circling around the herd to hold it together. Finally, we released Toledo alone, because the presence of ACD was not needed to support him in this case. Immediately, when he became free, he run barking to the bulls and tryied to herd them. He was circling around them, occasionally he used more pressure or even bitting to gain control and get the stubborn bull back into the herd. Some bulls challenged him, but then they got a proper bite into their nose or forehead. He was so concentrated on his work that calling him off became the main problem. We succeeded only when all bulls were immobilized in one herd and thus the work was done.

Further programme of our visit was just a relaxation and we went for a walk with our dogs except for those late coming, who had to try all alone with Marika again. Thus, another 15- month old catahoula male managed all this alone without a support of another dog.

In conclusion: Why should we test dog?s working ability? It is not necessary to train or prepare a dog for it except for a basic obedience and call off that are needed anyway for a normal life. However, we can find out by this simple way, if dog has a real ability to work with cattle or not. If not, then it is better not to loose time and try another activity which would be more appropriate for them.

If we realize that our dog has a good ability for this type of work, then it would be great to develop its skills. It is more easier to utilize natural ability and instincts for a particular work then to train hardly with uncertain results.

We know that dogs from our breeding programme are mostly of perfect conformation. However, this is not enough to preserve the original working abilities of the breed. Testing for working ability is necessary for a conservation of this trait. Therefore we aim to test as many individuals as possible. Maybe that time comes when it would be useful and valuable to know it and to choose suitable partners when breeding for a particular work.

Written by Gerhard Stein and Helena Synková

Translated by Helena Synková


© 2008 | Marek Macola