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As you research the Catahoula, you will find breeders and owners that will make reference to working dogs who are opposed to show or performance dogs. These statements may leave the inexperienced individual confused as to which type of Catahoula they actually want.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines Working Dog as: (n.) Any of various breeds of dogs developed or trained to do useful work, such as herding animals, pulling wagons or sleds, or guarding property.
The Working Dog classification used by multi-breed dog registries and clubs define dogs that assist humans in their daily work, such as: herding sheep and cattle, draft or sled dogs, tracking dogs, police dogs, rescue dogs, and service dogs. In a single breed registry, there is no designation, because all of the dogs registered are of the same breed and type. There is no distinction between working or non-working, but simply a Breed Standard by which all dogs within the registry must adhere. In some other countries, the breed registry is divided into dogs that perform a working function, such as herding, and are separate from those dogs that enter the conformation ring. In these cases, the working dog must demonstrate its ability to perform its intended task, whereas the conformation dog does not. In the United States, there is no distinction between the dogs within the registries.
In accordance with interpretation of law, a working dog is described as a dog that performs a specific function for the benefit of man, and is not merely a pet kept for companionship. This means that any dog performing a specific function on a regular basis in which it assists humans is considered a working dog. Whether it is a rancher managing cattle, or a service dog assisting its owner, as long as it is performing the function for which it is trained, it is considered a working dog.
The above paragraphs describe the legal interpretations of working dog for clubs, registries, and legal purposes. The difference of opinions between the rancher, hunter, and showman will probably rage on for eternity. Having had the opportunity to put a Catahoula to work in a discipline that had long been thought of as one for German Shepherds and Labradors, I have great pride in our accomplishment. It has given the Catahoula the opportunity to prove itself as a dog that can be used in many disciplines, and not those previously thought to be traditional.
What you will hear from most of those working or hunting with a Catahoula is, "I don't care if my dog is pretty or dances around in a ring. I want a dog that will do the job, and not a 'lead and feed' dog." I understand these statements more than most breeders, because my mentor was a man who used these dogs for hunting and herding. What these working and hunting people are looking for is a dog that has the grit to face a full grown boar head on and still hold its ground, or face a herd of scattered cattle and have the wit and forcefulness to gather them up, hold them, or drive them to a specific location. The Catahoula has been thought of as a dog that was capable of doing all of this, even to the point that the same dog could be used to accomplish both tasks. The working people are looking for a dog that will stand up to the challenge and meet it without question or delay, a dog that is "worth its salt." This isn't hard to understand when you think that some of these people are making a living out of working cattle or hogs. This dog is a tool that is just as important to them as the hammer is to the carpenter.
Show people attempt to breed dogs that will fit the breed standard of structure, and not just breed for a pretty dog. In the conformation ring the dogs are being judged not on their looks, but on their physical makeup. The teeth are examined for proper bite. Are the teeth straight with a scissors bite? Is the jaw shaped properly? Without a proper jaw shape and teeth, a working dog is useless. After all, they have no hands and are dependant on their teeth to perform any holding functions. Are the eyes of proper shape? If a working dog can't see, or is impaired by an eye problem, it can't work. Is the skull and muzzle properly shaped and sized? If there isn't enough room for the brain, there isn't much brain to use and a strong muzzle is necessary for a working dog to breathe. Is the skeletal structure proper for this type of dog? Does the dog stand properly with its forelegs straight and well defined? Is there proper layback in the shoulder? Are the rear legs properly angulated? Does it have a straight topline? Does the dog display the proper gait (movement, walk, trot, run) in a manner that provides good motor function and ease of travel? If the dog cannot move properly, it will tire more easily and quit before the job is done. Then there is the matter of temperament. Judges will not tolerate a dog that does not allow the judge to touch or examine it. This may seem like a trivial matter, but it's one that demonstrates the dog's temperament and displays acceptance of someone other than the handler. Does this mean that the dog will not be protective? No, it gives merit to the dog to know the difference between friendliness and threat.
Showing a dog in the conformation ring is for the purpose of having your dog judged on its own merit and in comparison to the Breed Standard. Judging in this manner aids the breeder in knowing where they are in their breeding program, and what areas require more attention. Of course, there are a few misinformed working and hunting people that would have you believe that this is nothing more than a beauty pageant being judged on looks alone.
Can you have both looks and function? Yes, you can. Most Catahoula breeders realize that the working ability is just as important a trait as is its structure and beauty. The Catahoula was bred to work. It lives to work. It needs a job. Occupying the mind of a Catahoula can sometimes be a challenge, but it's that trait that makes the Catahoula what it is. A dog that is structurally correct will work easier and better than one that has to overcome some structural deficiency. So it stands to reason that if the working traits are kept alive and the structural soundness is maintained, you can have a dog that can win in a show ring and perform in the field trials.
Is it really necessary to breed Catahoulas with working abilities in mind? Yes, it is. It's those traits that make the dog so desirable, and it's the first thing that gets changed by those groups that want a "Lap Dog or Companion Dog." I've watched dogs with a working ability be bred into a show ring situation that has all but destroyed the breed's natural function. Take for example the French Poodle. Here is a dog that was bred to retrieve game from frozen waters. How many people are using the French Poodle for this purpose today? I promise you, if a French Poodle were brought into a duck blind in Louisiana, the owner would be shot. Most Poodles are being kept as pets or have the honor of being displayed in a show ring. The working abilities are there, but they are so minute that it would take years of breeding to bring it to the foreground again.
Most of the Conformation Standards used by Breed Clubs were formulated by those owners of working/hunting dogs. The standard states the factors that are important in breeding the dogs. The outline is designed to produce a dog that has the working traits in addition to being built structurally sound. Color is not as important as work. After all, color is just an aesthetic and doesn't help or hinder in any way.
With all of this stated, I must say that I am a person that presents dogs in the Conformation Ring, but, I breed my dogs with working and hunting lines and abilities. I have placed dogs in the areas of hunting wild boar, deer, coyotes, mountain lion, and black bear. Our dogs are being used to herd cattle and horses, and I have placed dogs with search groups that are performing tracking, trailing, and recovery. Many of my line are performing blood trailing for wounded animals. Some have been used in narcotics and arson detection. The message I'm trying to convey is that working, hunting and show people should be working together, and not fighting over what discipline is more important than the other. We should be working to produce the best Catahoula possible and have all the things that are required by the breed standard for the enjoyment of all. In other words, have the best of both worlds while ensuring that the dogs are of the caliber required to perform the job, while meeting the outline of a Conformation Standard.