Tessa the Catahoula Leopard Dog

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Sam Basso
PHOENIX , AZ AREA: (602) 708-4531
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Tessa, a female Catahoula Leopard Dog, is one of my special dog friends. I have very good memories of Tessa, a dog that started out as not liking me and ended up being one of the sweetest and most gentle dogs I have met.

I remember the first time I heard about Tessa. I had received a call from her owner, Linda, saying her dog wasn’t good with strangers, and was especially not friendly with her daughter’s boyfriend. Tessa also wasn’t very tolerant of their other dog, Connor, a 4 year old yellow Lab. As usual, I asked a number of follow up questions and set up an evaluation at a local facility where I did group obedience classes.

When I met Tessa, the first thing I noticed about her was the difficulty the owner had walking her on a leash. That’s always a warning sign of behavioral problems. The other thing was the look she was giving me – and it wasn’t very friendly. I could tell she would bite if I tried to touch her. Linda, her owner, I could tell from the start, was one of the nicest  and gentlest persons you could ever meet. And she was sincere in her desire to do something.

It is always interesting for me to work with some of the rarer breeds, such as a Catahoula Leopard Dog. It is one thing to read about a breed in some book or on the internet, and another to work with the real thing. I have found that the written breed descriptions don’t often line up with what you see in person, especially with some of the rarer breeds. Many rare breeds were never meant to be suburban pets. They were usually bred to do a very specific task, oftentimes things that have no purpose in the average family’s life. I have found the Catahoula Leopard Dog to be suspicious of strangers, territorial, likely to give a warning bite if strangers force themselves on the dog or its territory, and can become spoiled if not properly trained and led. There are 3 main versions of the breed, so the individual dog will trend one way or the other depending upon its breeding. Tessa was more of the herding type of Catahoula Leopard Dog, and in fact, she had done some cattle herding prior to me meeting her, and had apparently done well at that. I consider this breed to be a rancher’s dog, for lack of a better term. Such dogs were expected to do a variety of roles around the ranch: play with the kids, watchdog, move the livestock, and then do a bit of hunting work (in this case, hunting for hogs).

In training, I started by first addressing the biting. During the first sessions, Tessa tried to bite me several times. I have developed techniques over the years to get dogs to stop biting. They worked for Tessa. The success had a lot to do with Tessa’s temperament, and the temperament of her owner. Regardless of how good the training methods are, some dogs are so unstable that they cannot be made trustworthy. It isn’t true that all dogs are born with the potential to be good family dogs. I have evaluated numerous pups of a variety of breeds that were clearly unstable even under 10 weeks of age. Similarly, some owners are just not suited to owning certain dogs, and some aren’t suited to ever owning any dog at all. In this case, Tessa’s problems stemmed from a lack of training, insufficient ongoing socialization, and a well-intentioned owner who didn’t start out knowing how to lead her dog. Another contributing factor to the problems was that Connor, their 4 year old Lab, was also untrained and irritated Tessa on a daily basis.

We got all these issues solved. Linda turned into a great dog handler. Tessa got so good that we were able to enroll her in doggie daycare. Linda’s daughter’s boyfriend could come over to the home, too, without being threatened. And Connor got the training he needed, so he and Tessa got along well after that, to the point they could both be walked at the same time by Linda in public.

Then tragedy struck. Connor died a year later during an epileptic fit. Connor was a great dog, and his passing was a shock to everyone. Linda was devastated. Pet loss is always hard. I remember telling her that at some point she should consider getting a new pup. Linda was a dog person, and there would come a time. I told her that the new dog doesn’t replace the old dog, it just fills the hole in your life, and you’ll find that you love that new dog, too. About 4 months later, sure enough, I got a call from Linda saying she had gotten a new Lab puppy, Gus.

Gus turned into a project, as well. Gus was just not a very sociable puppy. Unlike most Lab puppies that are all over you, Gus would come over to see you, then go and lay away from you. He’d walk away from being petted or praised, uninterested in the social contact. I warned Linda that we should get on this right away or Gus might turn into an anti-social adult dog. As was typical, Linda threw herself into the homework. We started lessons on Gus much earlier than I normally would with such a young puppy. Another issue was that Tessa didn’t like Gus, and tried to attack him. So, we had to get to work with Tessa again. . Further, I uncovered that Tessa had an underlying medical problem that was also contributing to her behavioral problems, something the owner and the vet didn’t identify before I started the training. I keep an eye out for medical issues when training. I can oftentimes spot a medical problem because I know so much about behavior. When a behavior just doesn’t add up, I start to suspect something medical is also going on, and sure enough, it was a contributing factor to Tessa’s problem with Gus.

The accompanying picture to this article tells you all you need to know about Tessa. We put her through a lot, and brought her out the other side a better dog, better family member, and now my friend. Linda is a committed owner, also became my friend along the way, and turned into a very good dog handler. She gets most of the credit, because if she hadn’t made that phone call, things might have turned out much differently, and Tessa might not have made it. Tessa turned out to really like me, and was super affectionate whenever I came over to visit. I remember it all. Tessa is a friend of mine.

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