Catalan Sheepdog

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Catalan Sheepdog

For centuries, the Catalan Sheepdog, also known as the Gos d’Atura, has been working with farmers in the northeast of Spain to herd and protect their flocks, but it was forced to recover from near-extinction in modern times. Now, with a small but healthy and growing population, it is gaining popularity as a pet by virtue of its playful, mild-mannered nature and high intelligence. Although it is a wonderfully placid and gentle pet for children, it is a natural protector, and will defend its family and their property when needed. It generally mixes very well with other pets, but its strong herding instincts sometimes need to be curbed to prevent it harassing smaller animals, and even people at times.

As a working breed, it needs a lot of exercise, and benefits from having access to a garden. Those owners having the time and opportunity to enrol their dog in herding, agility, or obedience trials will find that the Catalan Sheepdog is an enthusiastic and able competitor. Such sports provide the type of mental stimulation an active, clever breed requires, and will prevent boredom and destructive behaviours. The long, wavy coat needs regular combing to aid in detangling, but is otherwise easy to keep. This is generally a very healthy breed; however, it is rare enough that there is some uncertainty around whether it suffers any heritable illnesses. It has a life expectancy of around 12 to 14 years.

About & History

Unfortunately, the Catalan Sheepdog’s history is not well documented, the breed having developed long before such written records were customarily kept. However, the Romans were known to keep two types of dog – one a large, aggressive type used for battle and personal protection, from which many of the modern Mastiff breeds are derived; the other, a smaller herding type. The latter provided the foundation for the Bergamasco, and, it is believed, the Catalan Sheepdog. Certainly, the two breeds share similar physical and behavioural characteristics, but unfortunately there is no firm scientific evidence to confirm this theory at present. A more romantic version of the breed’s history involves the amorous ramblings of two dogs belonging to the Emperor Charlemagne, who accompanied their master across Europe sowing their wild oats, producing long-haired offspring bearing a passing resemblance to the Briard. As one might imagine, the evidence for this version of events is even more scant.

Whatever its origin, the Catalan Sheepdog found itself the irreplaceable workmate of the sheep farmers of Catalonia from the Middle Ages, and its versatility and amiable personality meant that it was a ubiquitous presence throughout the region. In more recent history, it was trained as a messenger dog during the World Wars and Spanish Civil War. However, the changing agricultural landscape of the 1960s led to a precipitous decline in the numbers of Catalan Sheepdogs, with the breed verging on extinction by the 1970s. Too few pedigrees remained on the region’s widely dispersed farms to support continued breeding at this point. Thankfully, a group of enthusiasts came together to purchase many of the remaining dogs, allowing them to be gathered together in an organised breeding programme. This proved to be successful, although the Catalan Sheepdog’s small average litter size of three to four pups has meant that the increase in numbers has been gradual, and it remains a rare breed today. The Kennel Club granted the breed full recognition in 2009, and has registered double-digit numbers of new entrants in each of the years since.

Appearance

Catalan Sheepdog Large Photo

The Catalan Sheepdog is a medium-sized, well-balanced dog with a rectilinear outline, its back being slightly longer than the dog is tall. It has a strong head, with a skull that is slightly domed to the front and flatter at the back. The length of the muzzle is slightly less than that of the skull, and it tapers to its black nose. The lips are relatively thick, though not pendulous, and they cover large teeth in a strong jaw. The expressive eyes are round and a dark amber colour, and are surrounded by black lids, while the triangular ears are set high on the head and covered in long fringes of hair.

The breed’s spine is notable in the relative shortness of the neck and length of the back, and both are strongly muscled. The withers and croup should be at the same level, though the latter is often thickly covered in hair, giving the dog the appearance of having a back that rises to the rear. The chest is broad and capacious, and the short abdomen is distinctly tucked. The low-set tail is remarkably variable, being absent in some dogs, and long and curled in others.

The forelimbs are lean and vertical when viewed from all angles, though there is a marked angulation at the junction of shoulder blade and upper arm, while the hindlimbs are more heavily muscled and well-angulated throughout all joints. The breed has a supple gait, and is most often seen at a short trot, unless pursuing an errant sheep, in which case it is capable of a speedy gallop.

It has a long, slightly curly or flat coat of rough hair, with a thick undercoat that is especially well developed on the back half of the body. The head has well-developed eyebrows and moustaches, and the tail and limbs are also abundantly covered. The mixture of fawn, red, grey, black and white hairs seen throughout all Catalan Sheepdogs’ coats combine to give dogs that appear to be coloured.

  • Fawn
  • Sable, white and black
  • Grey and white
  • Grey and black
  • Black and tan

The breed varies in height from 45 to 55 cm (18–22 in), and in weight from 16 to 20 kg (35–44 lb), with females tending to be at the lower end of each range.

Character & Temperament

Many of the breed’s major characteristics can be explained by its working background. As a dog that would wander amongst the sheep, keeping an eye out for predators and keeping the flock together, it displays intelligence and a certain degree of independence; although it is extremely devoted to its family, it is not a clingy or needy dog.

It continues to show the instincts of a guardian, being somewhat wary of strangers and quick to protect family members, especially children, if it feels they are threatened. Children tend to be treated like lambs, and the Catalan Sheepdog can display extraordinary tenderness and consideration around the very young. When at ease, this is one of the most placid and mild-mannered of all dogs, and will silently blend into the background until called into action, whether for play or protection.

Trainability

Even the most inexperienced of owners should find the Catalan Sheepdog a pleasure to train; it lives to work, and has an eagerness to please that makes it a very quick learner. One issue that can arise is its tendency to want to herd children and other pets, manifesting as circling and nipping at heels and feet.

While this is not aggressive behaviour, it should not be tolerated, as it can result in inadvertent biting, and owners should employ techniques to distract the dog from this activity.

Health

Although it is less easy to generalise about the health of a rare breed, such as the Catalan Sheepdog, there is nothing to indicate that it suffers any significant breed-specific health problems, with one possible exception:

  • Hip dysplasia – A very common problem in many breeds, this malformation of the hip can cause lameness in growing dogs, as incongruity between the ball and socket of the joint causes discomfort. Although this is largely a genetic problem, it can also be triggered by poor diet and excessive exercise

Exercise and Activity Levels

The physical and mental wellbeing of a working breed cannot be separated, and it is vital that the Catalan Sheepdog is given plenty of exercise. While providing around an hour of walking every day might meet the breed’s minimum requirement, most dogs will be more content if given the chance to participate in challenging, high-intensity activities like flyball, agility, and herding trials.

Grooming

As befits a breed expected to live much of its life in the field, the long coat largely takes care of itself. Its natural weatherproofing can be reduced through frequent washing or clipping, so simply combing the hair two to three times a week is the preferred approach.

The breed exhibits an unusual moulting pattern that is especially noticeable during the heavy moults of the autumn and spring. Hair tends to be lost first from the front half of the body, then from the rear, giving the Catalan Sheepdog a slightly odd appearance for a time during the process!

Famous Catalan Sheepdogs

The breed has made several high-profile appearances in the realm of popular culture.

  • Einstein and Copernicus in the classic film, Back to the Future
  • Cobi, the official mascot of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics
  • Colonel mostly famously known from 101 Dalmations, which is a 1996 Disney film based on Dodie Smith's 1956 children's novel called The Hundred and One Dalmatians

Cross-Breeds

Being a rare dog, most Catalan Sheepdogs are used only for pedigree breeding, and it produces no recognised hybrids at this time.

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