Catahoula Service Dogs

Catahoulas can make wonderful service dogs, but they are certainly not for everybody.  They are independent thinkers, which can be a really good quality in an assistance dog, or as equally as bad a quality.  They are very strong and like hunting small animals.  You can well imagine what happened to me when I was training my first service dog and she spotted a rabbit.  My wheelchair and I went flying very quickly into the woods after the bunny.  And last but not least, they are very very smart.  You've seen those bumper stickers - my Labrador Retriever (insert other breed as needed) is smarter than your honor student.  I've got for the catahoula, except that in some cases I really believe it.

I am confined to a wheelchair and am a nature photographer in Colorado.  You could not pay my enough to go out into the parks and wilderness areas without my dogs.  We have been stalked by a large pack of coyotes, strange men and who knows what else.  Nothing, and I repeat nothing, has ever happened to me.  Not only are they large, and a good visible deterrent, but they are an excellent judge of character and let me know when it is time to get away from a certain individual.  At the same time, they are extremely gentle with children and adults whom they meet on a daily basis as we go about our daily routine.  They have had toddlers run up behind them and pull their tails and smack them on the butt.  They've been stepped on, tripped over and once was kicked accidentally.  Never have they done a thing, other than act surprised.

However, they are not always perfect around other dogs.  My older dog and I were attacked one day by a neighbor's dog.  Ever since then, she has not liked to have strange dogs approach me.  If she is in her uniform (her service dog cape), she will tolerate it, but rather grudgingly.  Out of uniform, she will bark like crazy and tell the intruder to disappear.  She has never once growled, or shown a tooth to a strange dog, but it is clear to me that she would much rather they left town.  Our younger dog is perfectly fine with other dogs, but we made a point of socializing him from the day we got him at 8 weeks old.  I think that tolerance for strange dogs is on an individual basis.

Katya didn't become a service dog until she was around three.  We got Alexei when he was 8 weeks old, and he started training that day.  His training was much easier because he followed Katya's lead and did what she did.  Katya greatly disliked strangers as a puppy and I took her to many many dog training classes and to lots of different locations to meet as many different people as possible.  She would bark at each and every one.  It wasn't until she was given the job as my helper that she not only began to tolerate strangers, but then crave attention from them.  Alexei has been around strangers from day one, and tolerated them well, but is indifferent to their attention, unless there are treats involved.

Katya saved my life on two different occasions.  The first day was the day I decided that I would never again leave the house without my assistant.  I had fallen out of my wheelchair and my legs were sticking straight up and stuck on the fallen chair.  If I had stayed in that position for any length of time, I would probably have gone into spasms, then seizures, then respiratory arrest.  Without ever having been taught this, Katya approached me in my stuck position, put her head through my arms and started pulling backwards until she had pulled my (not lightweight) body off of the chair.  She did this very same thing a few months later.

I have a disease called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD).  It is also called Complex Pain Syndrome (CPS).  It causes an extreme amount of pain and a lack of blood supply to my legs.  Alexei learned as a very young puppy that it felt good on my cold legs when he would lay against them.  He is now so accustomed to being my leg warmer that he will adjust his body position in his sleep to better conform to my leg position.  He also taught himself to gauge how cold my legs are.  If he thinks that they are too cold, he will jump up in my lap and sit or lean on me until I've warmed up.  He can tell when I can't when my circulation is down.  Since he's been performing this task for me, I haven't been to the hospital once for my disease, and it had been a fairly regular occurrence before that.

If you want a catahoula service dog, first you'll need to find the right dog.  They are most definitely not all cut out for the job.  A good service dog won't be too "gritty".  The ones who would make the best in the hog pen, would probably make the worst assistance dogs.  Find a breeder that knows their dogs inside and out.  You'll want one who has search and rescue or obedience bloodlines.  Many breeders will not sell a catahoula for service work.  I feel that the best dog for the task, will be the one with the middle of the pack personality.  You don't want one that is too dominant or one that is too skittish.  You definitely don't want an alpha dog, just one who is confidant is his abilities.  Size will play a consideration depending on what you need the dog to do for you.  Just remember that they are very strong.  If you want to have a catahoula service dog, I would be happy to talk to you about my experiences.  You can contact me at: knippes@justplainpix.com

The catahoula can be quite a handful, and often thinks that they know better than you.  To work with a houla, you'll have to reinforce the training often, so you'll need some skills in this area.  But it can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.  I'd highly recommend training your own if you want one, as they bond so tightly to their original family.  Sure, having a Labrador service dog would be easier, but I wouldn't trade one of my catahoulas for all of the money in the world.  They have given their whole lives to working for me and do it 24/7 every day of the year.  All I have to give them in return is lots of love, dog food and some treats - but that seems to be all they need.  I think that we make a pretty good team.

-Kym

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