History of the Catahoula  

Once called a "Catahoula Cur," the foundation of the Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog came into existence through chance breeding and from some planned breeding. The Indians in and around Louisiana used the Red Wolf, which then roamed Louisiana during this period, to locate game, much in the same manner as hunters use their dogs today. Hernando DeSoto had traveled from Florida into Louisiana, bringing with him the "War Dogs" that had made the journey to the New World. The breeds that were referred to as War Dogs were the Greyhound and the Mastiff. Research has shown that the Mastiff type of dog that accompanied him was probably those known as the "Alano Mastiff" of Spain, which are now extinct. These Mastiffs had a reputation of being able to pull down very large game with ease. DeSoto utilized their abilities to persuade the Indians to provide information on the whereabouts of Gold and Treasure. Mostly those already owned by the Indians.

After suffering defeat in battle, DeSoto abandoned his War Dogs which were allowed to roam freely. They bred and interbreed with each other along with the Red Wolf. The offspring of the various breedings were then used by the Indians, and became known as the "Wolf Dog." The Wolf Dog, which is mentioned in Louisiana History, as well as most history books covering this era, was the name given to them by Henri Tonti during one of his visits to Louisiana.

By the early 1700's the French had started arriving in Louisiana. Hearing the stories of Tonti of the abundance of game in Louisiana the French brought with them a dog known as the "Bas Rouge," or Red Stockings. This dog has also been called the "Berger de Beauce." Today that very dog is known as the Beauceron. The French bred their dogs with those of the Indians' Wolf Dog, and together these four canines contributed to the inception of the Catahoula that we know today.

There have been references to Catahoula Indians by many people, but the truth is there were no tribes of Catahoula Indians. After the onslaught of the Indians by the white man, four tribes of Indians settled together in an area where the Red, Black, and Little rivers join. These four tribes were the Avoyelle, Tunica, Ofo, and Choctaw. Because these four tribes remained in close proximity of each other, they were dubbed as the Catahoula Indians. Even the name Catahoula has been interpreted in many different ways. Unfortunately, when researching the Indian language, Muskhogean, it is found that there is no such word. Again, research gives way to a mis-pronunciation or slur of the word "Couthaougoula" meaning Choctaw. What I have written in my book are the documented findings of years of research into the history of the Catahoula Leopard Dog. This is the only book that provides the reader with a bibliography of this research.

There were three distinct versions of the Catahoula which varied in size and color. These lines of dogs were known as the Wright, McMillin, and Fairbanks lines.

  • Mr. Preston Wright's line was the largest of the three, and represented the dogs originally produced by the dogs of DeSoto. His dogs ranged between 90 and 110 pounds.
  • Mr. T. A. McMillin, who lived on Sandy Lake, raised mostly Blue Leopard dogs with glass eyes. These dogs ranged between 50 and 60 pounds.
  • Mr. Lovie Fairbanks' lines were the Brindle to Yellow colored dogs. His line was not as large as the Wright dogs, but larger than the McMillin line. They ranged between 65 and 75 pounds.

These and similar lines are still strong today, but it is due to the crossing and interbreeding of these three lines that there is so much variation in the Catahoula's appearance. Ranchers seem to prefer the slighter build and smaller dogs, whereas some hunters prefer those dogs with a larger build.

Most of the stories surrounding the Catahoula begin around 1850's to date. Those stories tell of what a great hunting and companion dog the Catahoula was. What is told here is how the Catahoula has become the versatile dog that it is, and why those older breeders and hunters (commonly referred to as "Old Timers") took such a hard stand about their dogs. Their stand was so firm, that the only way you could acquire a Catahoula was to have someone give one to you. Catahoulas were not sold back then, and were only used by those that needed them for hunting or work. I'm sure that some of what is read here will have some of you think the practices used were cruel, but try to keep an open mind when reading this. I would also like to thank all of those "Old Timers" and their children for relating these things to me and for giving me the opportunity to tell their side of what actually took place. It is with their permission that I tell this piece of history.

In those days a dollar was worth a dollar, and most of the time it was hard to come by. Most families not only worked at a full time job, they generally worked their farms and those of others just to make ends meet and put food on the table. The family dog was not just a pet as we know it today. If it didn't work or perform some function in the day to day farm life, it wasn't kept for very long. It cost money to feed a dog, and, if it didn't earn its keep, it wasn't kept.

Those folks that used dogs to hunt would keep a few dogs around for hunting and breeding. The breeding was to replace the dogs that were lost during a hunt, better the ones they had, or used in trading for other things that were needed. There was a method used by hunters that was effective in producing the best hunting dogs. That method, if it were used today, would bring outcries of cruelty from animal rights groups. The method has been called "Culling" or "Lining". These are the two references I have heard the most. The manner of "Lining" was for an owner to take up a position where he knew deer had been crossing. An entire litter of approximately 6 months of age would be brought to that location. The dogs would be enticed to track the deer and then released as a pack The last two to cross the "Line" taken up by the owner were shot. The reason for this was that the dogs did not show enough interest in doing their job. The rest of the litter was allowed to go about tracking and/or baying the scent of the deer. As they returned, the first two to cross the line were also shot. The reasoning for this was that they didn't show enough interest to remain with the pack. The remaining dogs were considered the most promising dogs and would be raised up to adults and put to work. This practice would continue from season to season and litter to litter. It would insure that only the best dogs were kept for hunting and breeding. In those days, hunting was not just a sport. It put food on the table. Working a ranch dog meant not having to pay someone to help with rounding up or herding cattle. It didn't make any sense to keep and feed a dog that didn't do the job and do it well.

My reason for telling this story is to answer those of you that ask the question, "What makes the Catahoula so versatile?" The answer is that these dogs were Culled and Lined so much that only the best of the best remained. Today we see it in the dogs we own. It is an unfortunate fact that a lot of good dogs were killed by this method, but it only improved the working and hunting line of dogs that remained. It may be hard to understand their reasoning behind some of the things that were done, but they did the best they could with what they had, and it worked for them at the time.

If you ever get the opportunity to speak to an old Catahoula or Cur owner, you will hear stories that will help you to understand what they look for in a dog. It's not the pretty eyes or the unique coat pattern, or even the color combinations. What they look for is a dog that works, or, as it is often said, "Worth his salt." They do not want to see the Catahoula end up as some of the other groups of hunting/working dogs have. And, those of us that love this breed want to keep these traits alive and thriving.

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