Catahoula rescuer says the breed got a bad rap during a trial in Saint John

·6 min read
Shannon Nachajko rescued Lucy and Bandit from Florida. She kept Bandit and found Lucy a new forever home.  (Submitted by Shannon Nachajko - image credit)
Shannon Nachajko rescued Lucy and Bandit from Florida. She kept Bandit and found Lucy a new forever home. (Submitted by Shannon Nachajko - image credit)

Despite what was heard at a trial in Saint John this week, Louisiana Catahoula leopard dogs can make great family pets, according to the founder of a rescue organization for the breed.

Shannon Nachajko said the breed can also be challenging and isn't suitable for everyone.

Like a lot of working breeds, she said "houlas" aren't couch potatoes. They need daily exercise and a job.

"They were bred to have a job, and in today's world, they can still have a job, whether it's going hiking or running or playing," said Nachajko, who founded Catahoula Rescue of New England after adopting her first dog, Poncho, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

She said Catahoulas were originally bred for hunting and many of them still possess hunting instincts.

She said those innate drives can be managed, but people have to take the time to understand the breed, its origin and what drives them.

Shannon Nachajko, the founder of Catahoula Rescue of New England, has helped rescue 231 dogs since 2009.
Shannon Nachajko, the founder of Catahoula Rescue of New England, has helped rescue 231 dogs since 2009. (Submitted by Shannon Nachajko)

Nachajko said Catahoulas are similar to a lot of the herding breeds. Most modern-day dogs don't herd — nor have their ancestors for countless generations — yet many still possess an innate instinct to herd.

The breed is so named because it originated in the Catahoula Lake region of Louisiana, and "leopard" describes the spotting that is often present, although not always.

The breed comes in a variety of coat and eye colours. Its markings can also vary between solid colours to patches, spots and brindle. It's also common for each eye to be a different colour, including a startling pale blue.

According to the American Kennel Club's website, the Louisiana Catahoula leopard dog "requires firm guidance and early socialization, as they can be independent, territorial, and protective."

Nachajko said Catahoulas "are very good family dogs. They are protective and they have to be socialized. They have to be introduced correctly and they have to have a leader in the household."

She said Catahoulas "look for leadership. And if they don't have it, then they take over. They start to get a little pushy and they become a little bully."

And once that behaviour is established, she said "it's ten times harder to rein them back in."

Bayou was purchased at a pet store by a family who grew tired of him after less than a year. He was given away, then dumped at a so-called "kill shelter" before being rescued by Catahoula Rescue of New England.
Bayou was purchased at a pet store by a family who grew tired of him after less than a year. He was given away, then dumped at a so-called "kill shelter" before being rescued by Catahoula Rescue of New England. (Submitted by Shannon Nachajko)

Earlier this week, a Saint John court heard evidence against Michael Edmond Kirby, 58, who is on trial on four counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm, and one of failing to abide by a court undertaking to keep his dogs on leash and muzzled when in public.

The court heard allegations that Kirby's dogs attacked six people between June and December 2018. Most of his dogs were described as Louisiana Catahoula leopard dog mixes.

The lead investigator in the case testified on Wednesday that Kirby always kept a gun handy at his home in case one of his dogs turned on him. She said Kirby told her that he shot one of his dogs in 2015.

The trial is in recess while lawyers for both sides prepare legal arguments over the admissibility of similar fact evidence against Kirby. The case is scheduled to return to court for oral arguments on May 11.

There was no evidence heard at trial about where Kirby's dogs came from. He referred to the last two dogs he obtained as "foster dogs." Those two have been described as lab mixes.

It all started with Poncho

Nachajko said there aren't many Louisiana Catahoula leopard dog breeders in Canada or the northern United States. Most dogs are shipped from the southern states, where they're more plentiful.

She said a lot of Catahoulas were taken out of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In fact, that's when she was first introduced to the breed.

Poncho had been one of hundreds of dogs evacuated in the aftermath of the Category 5 hurricane. By the time Nachajko found him at her local animal shelter, he was only nine months old, but had already been returned to the shelter nine times.

Poncho came with a lot of issues, but he taught Nachajko a lot about the breed and being a better dog owner.

Poncho, a Louisiana Catahoula leopard dog, ended up in a shelter in Maine after Hurricane Katrina. Shannon Nachajko adopted him after he had been returned to the shelter nine times.
Poncho, a Louisiana Catahoula leopard dog, ended up in a shelter in Maine after Hurricane Katrina. Shannon Nachajko adopted him after he had been returned to the shelter nine times. (Submitted by Shannon Nachajko)

Through her rescue, she's helped find new homes for 231 dogs over the years.

During that time, she's learned that Catahoulas don't "show well" in shelters, and often appear aggressive. That's why she would never take a dog out of a shelter and send it straight to a new owner.

"We always put it through a period of assessment, and that's usually a minimum of two weeks where we learn their pros and cons, and we evaluate whether or not they have a prey drive," she said.

"You have to give these animals time to decompress and be a dog again because they've been through trauma … and you've got to give them time to relax and breathe, because they're holding in their breath because they don't know what's going to happen."

Too often, said Nachajko, people don't get to know the dogs before signing up to adopt them when they see pictures online. She said they often act on "flash appeal" of a dog.

"They see how pretty it is and they're just enamoured with that … We get sucked in by things that are pretty, but you have to do your research. You have to know what these dogs are about, what their background is, and that they can be a challenge."

Nachajko said like a lot of working breeds, Catahoulas also benefit from mental stimulation, as well as physical — "anything that's a challenge and keeps them engaged in thinking."

Bandit was a purebred Catahoula rescued by Shannon Nachajko. She ended up keeping him.
Bandit was a purebred Catahoula rescued by Shannon Nachajko. She ended up keeping him. (Submitted by Shannon Nachajko)

Nachajko also cautions prospective owners to slow down and do their research — including about the people who are offering the dogs for sale. Some call themselves rescue organizations, but not all of them are motivated by what's best for the dog. Some are in it for the money.

"There's a lot more transports from the south to the north, and because these dogs are flashy, a lot of the other groups tend to bring them up because they're quick adoptions."

That means dogs aren't matched based on their needs and what the new home has to offer.

"I can't stress that enough. You have to do your research before you adopt. Just don't be spontaneous because it's not fair to the animal for it to end up back in the system multiple times."

She encourages people to ask a lot of questions.

"If someone balks, then there's a problem."