written by Krisztián Vas
Before I jump into the topic and provide some specific details and trends on the use of Kuvasz as livestock guardian dogs (hereafter LGDs) in Canada, please allow me to briefly introduce myself and why I am involved with this breed. Some of you who already know me are probably aware that I am the newly nominated President of the Kuvasz Club of Canada. I am also the founded and owner of Hungarikum Kuvasz Kennels. However, my Kuvasz story began much earlier when I was just 10 years old, when I received a Kuvasz puppy (Max) from my uncle. Initially, I was overwhelmed and frustrated with the puppy, as it was clearly too much dog for me at the time. However, as I grew bigger and stronger and the more time I spent with the dog, I fell in love with all the quintessential Kuvasz qualities and traits, such as the never back down or give up attitude, loyalty to the point of self-sacrifice and its overall independent spirit. Once Max passed away, I went off to university to pursue my bachelor, followed by a Master’s and PhD, which added up to 12 Kuvasz-less years. Although I did not own a Kuvasz during these years I always followed what was happening in the Kuvasz community. Moreover, I always knew that sooner or later I would have Kuvaszok again, and about two years ago when I visited a local kennel, the slow burning Kuvasz flame that was always burning inside me, suddenly erupted into a big bondfire. This is when I decided that it was “now” the right time to get actively back into Kuvasz.
What is a Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD)?
I think it is important to first and foremost define what is meant by LGD within a North American context, because it is a more encompassing definition than just a flock guardian. In some places like Transylvania or Turkey when one thinks of a shepherd dog (or in Hungarian - pásztorkutya) they usually think of dogs guarding sheep in a pack in an open range and/or public land environment. Although this traditional form does occur in North America (especially in the West), the notion of LGD also includes the guarding of any livestock or animals, from sheep, goats, cattle, alpacas, pigs, lamas, ostrich/emu, horses and even poultry. Moreover, much of the guarding occurs on private lands, farms and ranches, which are often fenced, but not always. As a result, dogs face varying conditions and duties and their numbers range from a single working dog to traditional larger packs. In Canada, Kuvasz are used in a number of these different LGD settings, which I will detail below.
The Use of LGDs in North America
I think in order to better understand why the Kuvasz is in the position it finds itself in Canada as an LGD, it is also important to briefly detail the history and general trends of LGDs in North America. Although LGDs are one of the oldest group of dog breeds, their use in North America is a rather new phenomenon, which began in the 1970-80s. Prior to this time predator control was usually done through lethal means (i.e. poisoning, shooting, trapping, etc.). As more legislation was passed limiting such activities, particularly the ban of Compound 1080 poison (Arons, 1980), new solutions were needed. As one possible solution, the Livestock Guard Dog Project was started in 1976 at Hampshire College, Massachusetts. Notable professors, R. and L. Coppinger involved with the project initially imported Maremma sheepdogs (Cane da pastore Maremmano-Abruzzese) from Italy, Anatolian shepherds from Turkey and Sarplaninac dogs from Yugoslavia (Coppinger et al., 1988). They placed them into various working environments to evaluate their effectiveness and to compare which breeds were potentially better. As the program evolved, more LGD breeds were incorporated into the study both through added imports as well as acquired dogs from U.S. breeders. Kuvasz were also utilized in the study, but were soon removed because they did not prove themselves worthy. I have a good friend who lives in Massachusetts and has spoken to Coppinger in person back when the program started up and asked him why the Kuvasz was removed from the study and Coppinger replied that it was very hard to obtain good LGD working capable Kuvasz from U.S. breeders. This was an important historical point for the Kuvasz in the U.S. as from the 1980’s onwards; Kuvasz in the U.S. have been predominantly bred and kept as show dogs and pets. In Canada similar trends were present, whereby the biggest and most notable breeders also mostly focused on the Kuvasz as a show dog and pet. However, there were some kennels who recognized the potential of Kuvasz as LGDs and began marketing the breed for such a purpose. The two biggest breeders who were show oriented have mostly retired, which opened up more opportunities for LGD focused breeders. This has lead to the current trend whereby at least 50% of Kuvasz puppies born in Canada end up as LGDs. From my last litter 6 out of 8 puppies ended up in LGD homes. These seem like very promising statistics and paint a very bright future for Kuvasz as LGDs in Canada; however, there are still numerous challenges to overcome.
In many ways the Kuvasz faces the similar challenge in Canada as it doe sin Hungary, which is to overcome certain misconceptions and stereotypes. One of the biggest challenges is raising awareness about and marketing the breed. Many people/farmers have never heard of the Kuvasz and there are those who perhaps have, but not in a positive light. Those North Americans who have encountered Kuvasz before often seen pets or show dogs and have a hard time accepting that a pampered, brushed out, blow out, overly refined, elegant dog in a show ring has any chance in protecting livestock from predators. Simply put, most serious farmers and/or ranchers who have heard of the Kuvasz do not really want to give the breed a chance and will look to a different breed. This is made even worse by some people publishing articles describing the Kuvasz and most other white LGDs (like Maremmas and Great Pyrenees) as unable to handle serious predators like wolves. Urbigkit and Urbigkit (2010) describe potential wolf-fighting LGD breeds including, the Turkish Kangal, Sarplaninac, Central Asian Ovcharka, the Transmontano Mastiff and the Karakachan. Meanwhile, they claim that most Great Pyrenees will not survive an encounter with a wolf and that 61% of LGDs killed by wolves were Great Pyrenees. This finding is very skewed in my opinion because over 50% of all LGD working in North America are Great Pyrenees so there is of course a greater probability of Great Pyrenees being fatalities. Personally, I do not believe any dog has a realistic chance in a battle with a wolf.
On the other hand, I understand where this sort of article is coming from. In the case of the Kuvasz, we must recognize and understand that those big white dogs that are said to be Kuvasz in North America are very different from the Hungarian ones and they are without a doubt “softer”, less tenacious, less canine aggressive, have less endurance, agility, etc. Perhaps it is the same situation with Great Pyrenees and Maremmas in North America. Maybe specimens in their home countries are also more tenacious. I do not know enough about these two breeds to be able to form a definite conclusion. However, in the case of the Kuvasz I know what North American dogs are like and they portray a very different picture of the breed from what it should be. Even long time Kuvasz owners and breeders in Canada think they understand and know the breed, but in fact what they know as a Kuvasz is far from what the actual breed should be like.
Types of Kuvasz in Canada
There are three main types of Kuvasz I see in North America.
- A heavy-set dog on relatively short legs, long trunk and body. Big dome-shaped head, weak pigment, very thick and heavy hair. In some ways these dogs look like Great Pyrenees or Polish Tarta Sheepdogs, hence why some people (not me) call these types of dogs “pyrvasz” At first glance someone familiar with Hungarian Kuvasz might not even recognize these dogs as Kuvasz. Their temperaments are also much more mellow than that of the Hungarian dogs. They are more-easy going, have less energy and prefer to quietly sit close to livestock. The issue is these dogs do not engage predators as aggressively as they should. These types of dogs are more characteristic of older Canadian bloodlines.
- A smaller, overly refined, fine boned, elegant, sometimes straight coated, fox-headed, a sort of petite Kuvasz. These types of dogs are more characteristics to the U.S. show circuit where elegance and grace in the show ring seem to be most important. Some of these dogs weight as little as 30kg. Course they are bred to the AKC standard which calls for males to be 100-115lb and females 70-90lb. Because of their finite features, pointy heads and brushed out straight coats, some call these types “Samivasz” (Samoyed sized Kuvasz). These dogs are also seldom utilized as LGDs both because of the lack of physical ability as well as temperament.
- The Hungarian type: Realistically there should not be a Hungarian type Kuvasz, rather just one, but here in Canada, the term “Hungarian type” is often used. To Canadian this means a potentially sharper dog, potentially more aggressive, high energy, more active, harder to handle. These are some of the common misconceptions Canadians have of Hungarian bloodline dogs. Not to mention that looks-wise they also identify a “Hungarian type”, such as the ear set, wedge shaped head, more streamline body, etc. There was a long time Kuvasz owner when she first saw a Hungarian import Kuvasz, asked what breed is that? Such a comment clearly illustrates the vast difference amongst the types.
I have had experiences with all three types as I leased various females and had numerous litters with them. I had the opportunity to evaluate them and to come to my own conclusions. I prefer the Hungarian bloodline dogs because I feel that they are more stable and predictable in temperament, (less fearfulness etc), are healthier with less genetic issues and have more of the physical traits necessary for an effective LGD. For a long time, I head over and over that the Hungarian dogs are too aggressive and sharp. Yes, in a situation where the dog needs to seriously guard they are; however, I think I have also proven time-after-time that I can take my dogs anywhere and put them into any situation and they will handle it well and never attack without reason. I believe a confident, dominant, sharp, etc. dog posses less risk than one that is unsure of itself and is fearful. Moreover, such a dog will have less of a chance to be killed by predators. Thus far we have had zero losses of Hungarian bloodline dogs, but we have had 3 Kuvasz fatalities thus far that I am aware of (1 dog imported from the Netherlands and 2 Canadian bloodline dogs). Some will say I am just biased and prefer the Hungarian dogs because I am Hungarian. NO…it was through trial and error that I came to these conclusions.
What Needs to be Done Going Forward?
Education and Raising Awareness: We must continue to educate the pubic and farmers/ranchers that the Kuvasz exists and that it is a serious contender amongst LGDs that can face any type of predator. Currently, as a club we are doing well selling to smaller farming operations or hobby farmers, but we need to establish the Kuvasz more amongst serious ranchers. Education is also vital for the existing and new breeders so they can really understand what the Kuvasz is to be like, so we can eliminate the idea of a Canadian vs. American vs. Hungarian type Kuvasz. Breeders also need to understand what to look for in selecting puppies for LGD work and even more importantly, what to keep for future breeding.
Working Together for a Unified Goal: Currently we have a tremendous opportunity here in Canada to breed Kuvasz for its intended ancient role as an LGD. Not many places in the world have this vast wilderness that we have here and this abundance of large predators. This presents the Kuvasz and us as a club with a great opportunity to try and preserve a breed that is already globally threatened. Currently we breeders do not all see eye-to-eye regarding breeding strategies, selection criteria, correct type, or level of quality that should be achieved. However, we are all enthusiastic and believe a Kuvasz is first and foremost an LGD and not a sport or show dog. As new president this will be my hardest challenge, to manage people and various ideas.
Documentation: There are currently probably over 200 Kuvasz out there that have been placed into working LGD roles in the past decade, but we do not know their exact progress or success rate because nobody actively tracks it in the club. It will be one of my priorities to assign somebody with this task because statistical evidence will be our best proof of how successful Kuvasz are as LGDs in Canada.
Arons C. (1980). Raising livestock guarding dogs. Sheep Canada. Fall: 5-7.
Coppinger R., Coppinger L., Langeloh G., Gettler L. and Lorenz J. (1988). A decade of use of livestock guarding dogs. In: Proc. Vertebr. Pest Conf. Crabb A.C. and Marsh R.E., eds. University of Calif., Davis. 13: 209-214.
Urbigkit, C., & Urbigkit, J. (2010). A review: The use of livestock protection dogs in association with large carnivores in the Rocky Mountains. Sheep & Goat Research Journal, 25, 1-8.