History of The Kuvaszok
Kuvasz Specialty presentation by Steve Hounsell
Past President, Kuvasz Club of Canada
July 7, 2010
Talk Outline: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about something, that frankly I love to talk about – dogs.
My talk will cover much ground:
History of LGDs and the Kuvasz specifically;
Relationship between the Kuvasz and Komondor – how did two breeds of similar function co-exist in the same country?
The need for LGDs and working Kuvasz and how it all works in practice;
Working vs. companion vs. show dog is there a difference and do we want a difference?; and finally
Thoughts on breed direction and health issues.
My talk is based on my understanding of the breed and some of my personal observations and perspectives. You are free to disagree!
Feel free to ask questions either throughout my talk or if you prefer, at the end. This is very much an informal effort on my part.
History of LGDs and Kuvasz: Myth versus Fact (at least as we currently understand it).
1. The Tibetan Mastiff is NOT the progenitor of the Kuvasz (CKC has it wrong).
2. The Komondor, Kuvasz and Puli are not closely related. The often used statements in printed text of an ancient stone tablet citing ownership of the three breeds in Mesopotamia are wrong. They state that this tablet exists in a British Museum. It does not exist. These breeds are off different origin. More again on that later.
3. Kuvasz is a hunting dog. Yes it has been used in hunting, during the reign of King Mathias, but it was not bred as a hunting breed, any more than any of the other LGDs.
Facts or Best Guesses:
What then, is the origin of the Kuvasz, and how did he and the other flock guardians spread across Eurasia? Some suggest that the Kuvasz is an off-shoot of the Tibetan Mastiff, originating in Tibet, while others suggest his origins to be in ancient Mesopotamia. Dr. Andras Kovacs, a veterinarian and scientist, has undertaken a scholarly review of Kuvasz history and development. He candidly rejects the theory that the Tibetan Mastiff is a progenitor of the Kuvasz. On the basis of archaeological, geographical, and cytogenetic studies of sheep and morphological evidence, he contends that the Kuvasz, and all of the livestock guardians of Eurasia, are from the same stock and arose in the Middle East, probably in the vicinity of Kurdistan. He suggests that the group of flock (i.e. livestock) guards is probably at least 11,000 years old, corresponding with the earliest evidence of domestic sheep (Kovacs 1988). They subsequently spread across Eurasia with the movement of people and their flocks.
Catherine de la Cruz (1995), a respected breeder of Great Pyrenees and devotee of livestock guarding dogs, supports the view of Dr. Andras Kovacs and suggests that the progenitor of existing livestock guarding breeds probably originated in the area of Mesopotamia, where sheep were first domesticated. That corresponds with Kurdistan and roughly includes the present areas of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. She suggests that these ancient livestock guardians spread both eastwards to Tibet (possibly giving rise to the Tibetan Mastiff) and westwards to Spain through a variety of very plausible means.
Certainly, dogs of the Kuvasz type have been used for guarding livestock of all types (sheep, goats, cattle, horses) for centuries, and indeed millennia, and were very successful in spreading throughout much of Eurasia. The dogs invariably accompanied nomadic tribesmen in search for better pastures. That process continues even today. Dogs also accompanied invading armies on their conquests, spreading throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Livestock had to accompany invading armies to feed the troops and dogs were needed to both drive the stock and protect them from predators. Dogs were also trained for war duty, helping to spread various breeds across Eurasia. The Hittites of 2000-1000 BC were such a warrior nation from the Mesopotamian region and undoubtedly helped to spread livestock guards both eastward and westward. Dogs of differing types spread throughout much of Eurasia by such means. The Rottweiler, for example, reportedly accompanied Roman legions as a cattle drover during their conquest of northern Europe. Dogs inevitably were left behind to guard newly established settlements, effectively spreading them throughout much of Eurasia.
The famous “Silk Road” was yet another means by which livestock guards spread across vast regions of Europe and Asia. The Silk Road was used as a major trading route for the exchange of a variety of valuables, linking the wealth of the east, China and India, to the Middle East and Europe. As trade grew along this route, the movement of people, their ideas, as well as their livestock and livestock guards, would also increase. These trading routes allowed the spread of dogs and established their use throughout a vast region spreading from Spain and Portugal in the west, to Tibet in the east. The combination of nomadic lifestyles, repeated invasions of different peoples and increased trading along the Silk Road, all help to explain the appearance of several large white livestock guarding breeds that exist across Europe and western Asia. 3
In brief, LGDs were developed to meet the needs of Nomadic and Pastoral peoples and their livestock. Pastoralism, notably through the notion of “transhumance”, has existed for centuries and still exists today. How many of you are familiar with the term transhumance?
Transhumance is the seasonal movement of people with their livestock over relatively short distances, typically to higher pastures in summer and to lower valleys in winter. Herders have a permanent home, typically in valleys. Only the herds travel, with the people necessary to tend them. Traditional or fixed transhumance occurs or has occurred throughout the inhabited world.
LGDs are still a rarity in NA and certainly in Canada. Of the LGDs, the Great Pyrenees is by far the most common, both in terms of companion dogs and as livestock guardians. The Kuvasz, although present in Canada for several decades, is still a rarity. Just consider the number of breeders we have in Canada. Yet world-wide, LGDs, although not necessarily Kuvaszok, are very abundant, even today. Coppinger has conservatively estimated that working LGDs number well in excess of a million adult dogs moving back and forth in a thousand mile wide band from the western Mediterranean to somewhere east of the Himalayas. These breeds were virtually unknown in NA three decades ago and are still largely unknown in Canada. The point is that we in Canada, or even in North America, are not the centre of this world! There is much going on outside of NA that we can learn much from.
Similarities among Flock Guardians
There are striking similarities within the family of large white, flock guarding breeds in terms of appearance, function and temperament. Their differences, which are minor, are probably due to geographical isolation and restricted breeding (gene pool) over the centuries, which finally manifested itself in “breed standards” from various countries. Breeds very similar to the Kuvasz include the Akbash in Turkey, the Tatra in Poland, the Cuvac in Slovakia (also called Slovak Tchouvatch), the Maremma in Italy and the Great Pyrenees in France and Spain. Only serious fanciers can readily identify the differences between these breeds and the nomadic shepherd didn’t care, so long as the dog did the work. They all performed the same duties and were selected for their effectiveness as guardians, not appearance, throughout the centuries. In fact, the concept of “purebreds” is largely a British invention less than 200 years old and has only been pursued with seriousness over the last century. One must also remember that all of Slovakia was once part of Hungary for over a thousand years. The Slovakian Cuvac and Polish Tatra (Polish Owczarek Podhalanski) emerged out of the same population as the Kuvasz. Recent breed standards proposed by the various countries within the former distribution of the Kuvasz have secured slight variations of breed type. “Excellent” individuals of these breeds are now recognizably different, because of breeders fixing “type”, however medium quality specimens are still very much the same. We are, in effect, selecting for slightly different characteristics under the banner of new breed standards. Antal Kovacs, the father of Dr. Andras Kovacs, both of whom are noted authorities on the Kuvasz, saw several flock guardians in his travels through Italy, Iran and Iraq, which did not differ from the Kuvasz of Hungary.
Debates on the relative effectiveness of the working abilities of these breeds relate more to breed specific biases than reality. Many tend to think that their own breed is superior, without recognizing the common heritage that they all share. The guarding instinct has been deeply ingrained in all of these breeds through centuries and millennia of breeding. They all were, and remain, effective guardians given proper bonding and training. Maintaining the working character of our breeds is a goal well worth pursuing. The history of the Kuvasz, and the other livestock guards, is indeed an ancient and very noble one!
Breed Biases – get over it, yet remain proud of the Kuvasz
Coat Colour in the Flock Guardians
The issue of coat colour warrants some discussion. As mentioned, there are several livestock guarding breeds which are all white, or primarily white in colour. Some have conjectured that white was selected because the dogs would blend in with the sheep and would be more easily distinguished from predators by both the sheep and the shepherd. They also suggest that it would be easier for the shepherd to come to the aid of his dogs when combating wolves at night. That is, the shepherd would not inadvertently strike his own dog.
Yet there are other livestock guards that are not all white, such as the Anatolian Shepherd, the Kangal Dog, Spanish Mastiff, Tibetan Mastiff, Caucasian Ovtcharka, Shar Planinetz, and Castro Laboreiro. These breeds come from regions where sheep and goats are typically colours other than white. That is, the shepherds tended to select for coat colours that conformed to the colour of the stock that the dogs were protecting. Arid regions tended to have to have sheep and goats with tawny brown, gray or black coloured coats, while regions with greater water tended to select for sheep and goats with white coats. White wool could, of course, be dyed to any colour, provided water was not a scarce resource. This very plausible explanation was put forth by Catherine de la Cruz (1995). It helps to explain the variety of coat colours among the various breeds and seems to correlate well with both the colour of the livestock that they traditionally guarded and the relative degree of moisture associated with the regions in which they were traditionally found.
More on Kuvasz Colour: Historically cream was quite acceptable in our breed. What was important was working drive, not colour per se. Let’s not get carried away with colour. I can guarantee that the dogs do not care!
Hungarian History – Kuvasz and Komondor – co-existence of Hungary`s two LGDs. Cultural (Cuman of east Asia vs. Magyar/Chuvash – from Ural region) and functional differences.
The Cumanian origin of the Komondor helps to explain one rather interesting puzzle: how could a country as small as Hungary have two different breeds of dogs, the Komondor and the Kuvasz, of similar size and function, and how did the two breeds manage to stay separate over the centuries? The answer is that the Komondor was the dog of the Cumans and the Kuvasz was the dog of the Magyars. For much of Hungary's early history, the two peoples lived in separate areas in Hungary, and, as a result, didn't mix very much. Indeed, Hungarian King Matthias was supposed to have kept several kuvaszok with him at all times as guards. Since the peoples didn't mix, neither did their dogs.
Kuvasz were not just used with sheep, but notably also guarded the vast herds of Hungarian Gray Cattle, which were moved from the Putza to markets in Europe – Austria, Germany and Italy, yes across the Alps. Kuvasz guarded the herds from predators on these drives and also guarded against cattle thieves. Cattle driving, was well established long before the old west in NA was even discovered.
Differences in Guarding Styles: Komondor vs. Kuvasz. The Komondor really is a specialist for the plains, having been developed in the steppes of East Asia and having migrated to the steppes of Hungary – the Putza. Their coat is well adapted to the extremes of open plains, but less so for forests and wet climates. The Kuvasz is more of a generalist and much better adapted to guard in forested and mountainous terrain where wet weather is much more prevalent and in the case of Komondor, a problem. So, the Komondor, tended to be favoured more on the Putza, while the Kuvasz was favoured on more forested and mountainous regions.
Why maintain purebreds? There is the historical argument – to maintain a link to the past. For many breeds their historical function no longer exists (e.g. fighting breeds). That is NOT the case for LGDs. As much as I love our breed, the notion of breeding purebreds comes at great cost to our dogs. That may be controversial to you and blasphemy as a past President of the KCC, but I am now speaking as a biologist. I am not alone in my view.
Historically, interbreeding among LGDs was commonplace and ensured genetic vigour and health. Remember this: the old Austro-Hungarian Empire was huge and Kuvaszok ranged across the empire and adjacent lands. The break-up of the empire saw the birth of new nations which subsequently named their own LGD as distinct and separate breeds, as a function of nationalism and to cater to the new sport of dog shows. Take a good look at the Tatra, Cuvac and Maremma and tell me that they are distinct from the Kuvasz. 6
The Need for LGDs, and Kuvasz specifically: (a) for livestock husbandry; (b) for wildlife conservation and notably for large predator conservation.
The Goal: competitive co-existence, people and their livestock – the human view of the world; and (b) biodiversity conservation – respecting the need for and role of large predators in ecosystems.
Working Kuvasz: an intro to basic canid ecology – co-existence on sympatric range (Wolves, Coyotes and Red Fox) – spatial and temporal `partitioning` of range.
What happens when a smaller canid is in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Now introduce a LGD and you have a new dynamic on the landscape – Think of them as a super wolf.
Balance of Power – true for all social and territiorial species, particularly people. The same applies for LGDs in their job. Remember the very best trained fighter does not stand a chance against a gang. The same applies for our dogs. A single LGD, of any breed does not stand a chance against a large predator or a pack of wolves, or coyotes. Balance of power is absolutely key. Be fair to your dog. It applies to people, to nations, to hyenas vs. lions and to LGDs vs. wolves or bears.
How it works – they are not hunting dogs, although some have been used as such, nor should they be `killers. They should discourage and drive off. How – marking, barking, bluff charges and a last resort is fighting.
Bonding to stock (critical period for social development: 2 – 16 weeks of age),
Training – discourage play with stock; monitor the teen years;
Fencing – Quite simply it is needed, at least in the s. Ontario context. Remember farmers can shoot stray dogs that come on their property and there is the ever present danger of roads and cars. Reinforce your dog’s sense of territory with a good fence.
Strength in numbers: start with one then let the mature successful guard mentor the young. Cite the example of Dennis Loxton, or the Australian example (Ninian & Ann Stewart-Moore (Australia – use 24 Maremma for 12,000 sheep on 46,500 ha of rangeland (predators are dingoes and dogs)); or Robert Denlinger.
Different styles of guarding: the Kuvasz is athletic and active – the scout constantly searching, doing perimeter checks. Other LGDs like the GP and Komondor, tend to stay close to flock. Think of the old west and wagon trains – the scout and the guard back on the wagon train. It is an effective system and the dogs do it all on their own. We do not train them. They sort out their own roles.
Basic Rules: There are a number of essential elements to the success of running livestock protection dogs, which I have borrowed from those with working experience:
All problems are solved by successful bonding of the dogs to the livestock that need to be protected. This process ideally starts as soon as the pups’ eyes are open and continues until around 7 months when they are mature enough to desex and be put out to work.
Do not; do not use entire (intact) males or females in a free range situation. Keep any breeding stock under control near the house. Not only is there a risk of interbreeding, there are no other unwanted distractions and there are no downside effects.
It is also essential to be absolutely sure of the pedigree of any dogs purchased. A half breed Maremma will look like a Maremma and have very confused and undesirable instincts.
Do not over humanise pups as they are growing up, they will tend to want to come home to be with you and leave their stock unprotected.
It is a fine balance of being able to handle them when needed, whilst allowing them to be with their livestock as a priority.
There are many other do’s and don’ts but all negative you have ever heard, I guarantee, will be because of non adherence to these 4 points.
Other Working Roles: protection from unruly bulls (remember their use in driving Hungarian Gray Cattle) and stallions during the rut. Bull-dogging takes on a whole new meaning. Cite Robert Denlinger.
Other Duties as Required: some were pressed into hunting, particularly during the reign of King Mathias, others into war dogs. That is also true for other LGDs, including Akbash, Anatolian Shepherds and Great Pyrenees. Regardless, their traditional role has been that of a LGD.
Wildlife Protection – Maremmas used for protecting penguin colony from introduced foxes, south of New Zealand (won an international conservation award).
Socialize – you and the vet must be able to handle your dog. Your dog should not be a threat to people.
Good Sense and Confidence is Key – Sound temperament is, in my mind, priority number one, be it as a working dog or companion dog. Unnecessary aggression is a liability and will destroy our breed’s reputation. And we do have examples of very sharp lines. That does not make them a better guard and poses serious risks and liabilities in our highly litigious society. We do not want the Kuvasz to suffer a similar fate to the pit bull breeds.
Note: There is as much variation in temperament within the breed as between LGD breeds. That is both a plus and a negative. I can personally attest to that reality.
Size – needs to be improved, but in balance with strength and athleticism – consider their function. Consider that the Hungarian and hence FCI standard calls for a larger dog – up to 137 lbs for males, 110 for females and up to 30” for males. Why is both the Canadian and American standard different? They should be the same and follow the country of origin.
Height at the withers are: males: 71-76 centimeters (28 – 30”), females: 66-70 centimeters (26 – 28”). Relative measurement for different parts of the body is in percentage to that of the withers: length of body: 104%, depth of chest: 48%, width of chest: 27%, measurement of the girdle: 120% (also called circumference at the withers), length of head: 45% length of muzzle: 42% of the head length, length of ears: 50% of head length, weight for males: 48-62 kg (106 – 137 lbs), weight for females: 37-50 kg (82 – 110 lbs).
Males smaller than 68 centimeters (27”), females smaller than 63 centimeters (25”).
Demand will increase for good working stock. Remember the words of Sarkony and Oscags – the Kuvasz should never be diminished to the status of a mere pet. It should be a hard working dog.
The competition of other working breeds is growing. Let`s keep the Kuvasz as a premier working dog.
Companion vs. Working Dog – sound temperament is key to both roles, as is an assertive owner. Do not be dismissive of fearful, shy or aggressive behaviour. It is a liability in ALL situations. Breeders have a huge responsibility. Take it seriously and if in doubt, precaution should prevail.
Conformation vs. Working – form follows function – never forget the function and keep the LGD in the Kuvasz. If you want a dog that acts like a Golden Retreiver, and they are great dogs, then get a Golden. Do not transform the Kuvasz into a big, white Golden.
By the way, if form follows function, then one might think that all LGDs would be alike. To a certain extent it is true, but clearly “form” is quite plastic and flexible. Character, drive, good sense, reliability and courage are at least of equal if not greater importance. Conformation trials cannot assess those characteristics. That is why people seeking working dogs always prefer to buy from breeders who have demonstrated working success. That is the key determinant for working dogs, not titles in the ring. That is not a put-down to conformation, but rather is a statement that conformation is only one small facet of any breed.
Breeding Goal: A structurally (conformation) and temperamentally sound Kuvasz should be able to excel as a working LGD, as a home companion and as a show dog, but first and foremost let’s keep the Kuivasz as a pre-eminent working LGD.
We need well adjusted, confident, sound dogs that have the good sense to know a real threat from a non-threat. That is what we should be striving for in our breeding programs. Those types of dogs can live harmoniously in a proper family setting, or out on the range working with stock as did countless generations before them. And they do exist and I had the wonderful good fortune of living with one, my Shadow.
Beware of what has happened to other breeds and avoid the pitfalls: show German Shepherds in NA are much different than the premier working German Shepherds of Germany and Eastern Europe. The same applies for Labs, and many other working and sporting breeds. We end up with working lines and show lines. That, in my view, would be a mistake. I do fear that we have been moving in that direction.
The recent interest of some of our breeders in promoting our breed for its original function is in my view, a very healthy change in direction for our breed.
More responsibility. Overall my perception is that we have a healthy breed, BUT the breed is not problem free. First we have a very limited gene pool, which does not bode well for the long-term.
Bloat is a reported problem. Robert Denlinger, a very colourful proponent of the working Kuvasz and LGDs, no longer uses Kuvasz because of his repeated bad experiences in losing Kuvasz to bloat. 10
Joint Issues – Knees (bad cruciate ligaments and hips) – need to monitor lines and eliminate breeding of lines with repeated cases of these issues.
Noise Sensitivity – How many of you have Kuvasz over the age of 7? Of those how many show panic during thunderstorms or at the sound of firecrackers or gunshot? That is a problem. If panic sets in stock will be unprotected. Robert Denlinger’s favorite Kuvasz, and his reported best LGD was a Kuvasz who died in his prime presumably of a heart attack during a severe thunderstorm. Both of my Kuvasz experience acute issues as they got older. I do have a hypothesis as to why this may be occurring in our breed and it gets back to selection pressures during the Second World War. Bold dogs would have been first to have been killed. Dogs showing sensitivity to gun fire would hide and probably were among the remaining very few survivors.
Health Registry of Problems – Monitoring and transparency in reporting is needed to protect the health of our breed. Health issues should be tracked well into adulthood and breeders should cooperate in eliminating genetically based diseases.
I have tried to place our breed into its historical context as a distinguished member of a large and ancient, but poorly understood group of dogs – the LGD.
I have tried to make the case that their working heritage has much relevance today and in my view, can play a significant role in conserving large predators from human persecution, while also protecting livestock from unwanted depredation.
I have been candid in what I see is needed to help maintain and protect the essence of the breed that we care so deeply about.
My plea is this: let’s maintain the true working character in our Kuvasz and continue the heritage of this ancient breed. We owe it to the breed and to all past breeders.
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