The Kuvasz is a large, white livestock guardian native to Hungary. These majestic animals have long been favored by the Magyar nobility and commoners alike, valued for their companionship and protective instincts. These protective instincts almost wiped out the Kuvasz during the 20th Century as both Nazi and Soviet occupiers made a regular practice to kill these devoted animals. Since the 1950’s, the breed has begun to make a comeback, both in its native land and abroad. Following Magyar language conventions, the plural form of Kuvasz is Kuvaszok.
Much of the history of the Kuvasz has been lost in time. This breed is so ancient that it certainly predates the keeping of dog breeding records, and may even predate the invention of writing. There is even substantial debate over the origin of the word Kuvasz. Some say that it comes from the Turkish word kawasz, which means, “Armed guard of the nobility. Others believe that it comes from the Magyar words ku assa, which mean “Dog of the Horse“. Finally, others believe that the word is simply outdated Magyar slang for mongrel. What is known is that the Kuvasz has been living in what is now Hungary for as long as the Magyar people have been present in the region, having accompanied their masters from their original homeland.
For many years, dog experts assumed that all large livestock guardian breeds were the ultimate descendants of the Tibetan Mastiff. However, in recent years many authorities have begun to question this theory. Records indicate that some livestock guardians were present in Europe prior to the expansion of the Roman Empire, the time period when Mastiff-type dogs spread throughout much of Europe. Additionally, many of these ancient breeds do not closely resemble other Mastiff-type dogs, more commonly known as Mollossers. They do not possess the pushed-in, or brachycephalic heads, of the Mastiff. Because these dogs are more wolf-like than Mastiffs, they are known as lupomollossoids, as lupus is Latin for wolf.
Lupomollossoids share a number of features in common. First, they are all large, livestock guardians and as mentioned above, none have a pushed-in, or brachycephalic face. Additionally these breeds almost all have long hair, which is typically either straight or wavy. Other than a few examples from remote regions of Western Europe, lupomollossoids are all native to Eastern Europe and Asia Minor. Lupomollossoids are almost all dogs of the mountains, found in ranges across Europe. Finally, most lupomollossoid breeds are either solid white in color or primarily white with markings of other colors. There is substantial debate as to which breeds constitute the lupomollossoid family. The Kuvasz, the Great Pyrenees or Pyrenean Mountain Dog of France, the Tatra Mountain Sheepdog of Poland, and the Akbash Dog of Turkey are almost always considered lupomollossoids, and seem to share the closest kinship. Other breeds which are sometimes considered lupomollossoids include the Maremma Sheepdog of Italy, the Komondor of Hungary, and the various Owtcharka breeds of the Caucasus Mountains.
The origin of the lupomollossoids is unknown, however, this family of dogs is surely several thousand years old. It is believed that the first lupomollossoids were kept in what is now the Middle East. When sometime around 10,000 years ago, humans in the region began to transition to a farming lifestyle rather than a hunting and gathering one. This allowed for greater food stability, sedentary life, and larger populations. However, it also created new problems. The new herds of domestic sheep and goats were highly vulnerable to predation from wild animals such as wolves, cheetahs, and bears as well as human raiders. In order to protect their flocks, humans employed the dog, which had been domesticated from the wolf thousands of years earlier. Although wolves are predators, they have the strong instinct to protect members of their pack as well as their territory. They are especially driven to defend against other wolves. Humans began breeding and training dogs that would accept sheep, goats, and familiar humans as members of their pack and defend against all others. These dogs became valuable and loyal guardians and are believed to be the ancestors of modern lupomollossoids.
When agriculture spread from the Middle East, farmers took their treasured livestock guardians along with them. At various times in history, these dogs were probably native to areas from Iran in the South and East to Spain and Russia in the West and North. The development and spread of Mollossers resulted in the eventual extinction of most populations of lupomollossoids, leaving a few breeds to survive in isolated mountain ranges and the vast plains of Russia. There has been a great deal of debate as to which lupomollossoid breeds descend from which others. For example, was the Kuvasz developed from the Great Pyrenees or vice-versa. However, most of these dogs are so ancient that none are likely to have descended directly from another. Instead, these breeds all probably developed independently from a now extinct ancestor.
The Kuvasz breed itself was definitely developed in Hungary. It is almost universally agreed that the Kuvasz first entered what is now Hungary with the Magyar people under the rule of King Arpad in 895 A.D. Recent archeological finds from Hungary included dog bones from the 9th Century. These bones are almost identical to those of the modern day Kuvasz. If these bones are in fact from this breed, the Kuvasz would be one of the only dog breeds in the world which is indisputably known from so early a time. The original homeland of the Magyar’s has been lost in time. There have been two major theories regarding their origin, one which says that they are a Sumerian people originating in what is now Iraq. This would make the Kuvasz a Middle Eastern breed, much like the very similar Akbash Dog. Some linguists link Kuvasz to certain Sumerian words. However, most of the available linguistic and historical information does not support this. Most linguists consider Magyar to be in the Uralic language family. Other Uralic languages include Finnish, Estonian, and a number of languages found in Western Russia. This would seem to indicate that the Magyars migrated from what is now Western Russia. There are several potential lupomollossoid breeds found in the region, most notably the Owtcharkas.
In Hungary, Magyar shepherds used the Kuvasz much like their ancestors had for untold centuries. These dogs were tasked with guarding flocks of sheep and goats from the predation of wild animals, primarily the wolf. Most of the Kuvasz’s traits are the result. These dogs have a strong protective instinct which would be necessary for a guardian. They are bold, fearless, and territorial as well, willing to stand their ground against packs of wolves or even bears. Magyar shepherds favored the dogs with the greatest size; as these dogs needed to be as large as or larger than wolves in order to fight them. Finally, the breed’s solid white coat was developed so that these dogs could be easily distinguished from the primarily grey and black wolves found in the area.
During the 1200’s, additional dog breeds entered Hungary with the Cuman people. The Cumans had been driven from their homeland in what is now Russia by Mongols. The Hungarian king allowed the Cumans to settle in his lands, and they brought the Komondor and Puli along with them. Over time, the Komondor became the principal livestock guardian of the low-lying plains and the Kuvasz became primarily a guardian of mountain flocks and the estates of the nobility. For a time, the Kuvasz became so treasured by the Magyar nobility that commoners were not allowed to own the breed. The Kuvasz’s popularity peaked under the reign of Matthias Corvinus the 1st, from 1458 to 1490. Assassinations attempts were common at the time, and there was a constant threat of Ottoman invasion. Corvinus could not trust even his bodyguards. He did have complete trust in his Kuvaszok, and was famous for keeping at least two of these dogs with him at all times. It is said that these dogs would accompany him to his bed chamber each night and sleep in front of his door to protect him. In addition to providing him personal protection, the king used to breed to protect his flocks, his estates, and occasionally for hunting wolves and bear.
Matthias Corvinus set up a large kennel to breed Kuvaszok. This kennel was one of the largest and most highly regarded of any of the kennels found in Europe. Selective breeding there greatly improved the quality of the Kuvasz and is largely credited with the development of the modern breed. Corvinus was known to give puppies to other nobles, both those of his own kingdom and those from visiting countries. Among the most famous to receive the gift of a Kuvasz was the Transylvanian Vlad the Impaler, more commonly known as Vlad Dracula. The popularity of the Kuvasz was greatly increased as a result of the favor of Corvinus. Eventually, these dogs were kept by the commoners, and by the 20th century were thought of as the dogs of the peasantry.
Most of Hungary was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and eventually re-conquered by Austrian forces. The resulting political body was known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and controlled all of what is now Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, along with large portions of what is now Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Germany, and Serbia. In 1883, Count d’Esterhazy, a great admirer of the breed, became the first to exhibit the Kuvasz in a dog show. He exhibited two Kuvaszok in Vienna, the Austro-Hungarian capital. Two years later, the first official Hungarian standard for the Kuvasz was created. Despite the Kuvasz’s continued popularity in Magyar lands, the breed never really established itself in other parts of the empire, or anywhere else. World War I led to the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including traditionally Magyar lands. Millions of Magyars were now residents of countries other than Hungary. At this time, many decided to immigrate to the United States. These Hungarian immigrants brought the first Kuvaszok to the United States in the 1920’s, and American dog fanciers decided to import more of these striking animals. The Kuvasz was first recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1931.
World War II was devastating for the Kuvasz. The war took a huge toll on Hungary, which suffered from the effects of virtual occupation by the Nazis. Starvation killed many dogs, and few people were able to breed them. Many German soldiers became quite enamored by the Kuvasz and sent them back to Germany where a sizable population developed. In Hungary itself, the Kuvasz developed a reputation for fiercely defending its families. This reputation became so well-known that Nazis would frequently kill these dogs on sight. Historical evidence suggests that the Nazis actively hunted down Kuvaszok, in what some may have considered outright extermination. The Soviet forces who later occupied Hungary during the war, discovered that the Kuvasz was no less likely to defend its charges against them than it was the Nazis. As a result, the Soviets also killed many Kuvasz. After World War II, Hungary unwillingly fell under Soviet dominance and remained behind the Iron Curtain. By this time, the Kuvasz was nearly extinct in its homeland.
After the conclusion of World War II, a Hungarian factory owner wanted to have a Kuvasz to guard his factory, but had difficulty finding one. He, along with other fanciers, combed the entire country, but found very few animals. While the exact number of Kuvaszok that they were able to find is debated, all agree that it was fewer than 30 and may have been as low as 12. These remaining dogs were collected and breed examples from Germany were also acquired. The economy was so bad that these dogs were bought and sold for cigarettes, food, and other basic necessities. Initially breeders had to meet in secrecy, as the Soviets considered dog breeding to be a useless hobby of the aristocracy and treated it accordingly. Additionally, the popularity of the Kuvasz as a symbol of Hungary would have been seen as threatening. However, these loyal fanciers managed to save and preserve this ancient breed. Their initial progress was slow, especially as the widespread poverty after the war meant that few could keep these massive animals, and the urbanization of Hungary meant that fewer families had the room for them.
After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Hungarian living standards began to increase, relations with the West were thawed, and Hungarian national symbols were more tolerated. Slowly the Kuvasz began to increase in popularity in Hungary. Additionally, closer relationships were formed with Western Kennel Clubs such as the AKC. Breed numbers began to rise around the world as well, primarily in Germany, Holland, and the United States. In 1965, the United Kennel Club (UKC) followed the AKC and began to register the Kuvasz. The Kuvasz Club of America (KCA) was founded in 1966 and was granted official status by the AKC in 1993. Despite this population gain, the Kuvasz remains rare. Although many believe that the Kuvasz’s status in Hungary is close to what it was before World War II, the breed remains relatively rare in the United States. In 2010, the Kuvasz ranked 144th among 167 AKC recognized breeds in registrations.
Like many ancient breeds, the Kuvasz has been forced to adapt to life in a new time, and is not commonly used for its original purpose of a livestock guardian. Although a small number of this ancient breed are still used to guard sheep and goats in their native Hungary. Additionally, the breed has been experimented with as a means to reduce stock losses in the American West, with much success. However, most Kuvasz are now companion animals, show dogs, or combined companion and personal protection animals.
The Kuvasz is a very large breed. Males are typically between 28 and 30 inches tall at the shoulder and weight between 95 and 150 pounds. The smaller females are typically between 26 and 28 inches tall at the shoulder and weight between 70 and 90 pounds. Although male specimens upwards of 200 pounds and females approaching 150 pounds are not uncommon. In general, the Kuvasz appears considerably less bulky and slimmer than most massive breeds and are surprisingly agile.
The Kuvasz has a face that bears a closer resemblance to that of a Retriever breed than most guard dogs, especially Mastiff-type dogs. The face is considered to be the most beautiful part of the breed and special attention is paid to it in dog shows. The Kuvasz has a long and wedge-shaped head, which ends in a long, wide muzzle and a solid black nose. The lips of the dog are black and fit closely together. Although some dogs may appear to have a little bit of extra skin around the face, a Kuvasz should never appear wrinkly. Kuvasz should have almond-shaped eyes, which are dark brown. The darker a Kuvasz’s eyes are, the more desirable the dog is. The ears of the Kuvasz are v-shaped, with slightly rounded tips. These ears hang down, and should cover the eyes if pulled foreword.
The Kuvasz has a double-layered coat. The undercoat is wooly, while the outer coat is coarse. Some Kuvaszok have straight fur, while other dogs may have very wavy coats. The Kuvasz has short fur covering its face, ears, paws, the front of the forelegs up to the elbows, and the rear legs below the thighs. The breed has medium-length fur over most of the rest of the body, with feathers on the back of the forelegs, long hair on the tail, and a noticeable mane around the neck, chest, and shoulders. The actual length of the Kuvasz’s coat may appear very different throughout the year, as many dogs shed most of their coats in the summer and then regrow them for the winter.
Kuvasz should only come in one color, solid white. No markings of any color are permitted anywhere on the Kuvasz. Some dogs may be ivory although this is undesirable. Slate grey or black are the preferred skin colors to be found underneath the coat.
The Kuvasz is a working breed, and should appear as such. These dogs should be well-muscled over most of their bodies, particularly around the legs. A Kuvasz has a long tail, which is normally held low, with a slight upward curve. When alert, a Kuvasz may hold its tail level with its body.
The Kuvasz has been bred as a guardian for hundreds, and most likely thousands, of years. Their temperament is exactly what one would expect from such a dog. Kuvaszok are known for being exceptionally loyal and gentle with their families, especially children. However, the Kuvasz is also known for being a one-family dog. These animals tend to be highly suspicious of strangers, and rarely greet them warmly. Typically, this is limited to mere reservation and not outright aggression. Kuvasz are normally aware of which people are in their territory at the desire of their master and are tolerant of them, if very slow to make friends.
Proper socialization and training are key for the Kuvasz, otherwise their protective instincts may make them a liability. Additionally, the Kuvasz tends to be dominant, even to its own family members. This breed must be regularly shown who is in charge, otherwise they will take charge. Kuvasz are known for shifting alliances between family members if one family member, particularly a child, fails to assert dominance. Also, the Kuvasz is first and foremost a protector, and will protect its family from anything it deems a threat. This means that these dogs should most likely be put away from loud and rambunctious children’s playing. Just because a Kuvasz is wonderful with its own children does not mean it will be friendly with all children.
The Kuvasz will typically be accepting of dogs which it has been raised or properly socialized with, and typically considers them members of its flock. However, the Kuvasz also tends to be very territorial and wary of strange dogs. Most Kuvaszok are quite dominant, and may bully other dogs, even ones which they are close companions with. The Kuvasz is likely to drive strange dogs away from its territory or its flock. Proper training and socialization are the key. A Kuvasz is large and powerful enough to seriously injure or potentially even kill, even the most massive dog breeds. It is advisable to be very cautious when introducing a Kuvasz to other dogs.
The Kuvasz has been bred as a livestock guardian and the breed will generally get along well with non-canine pets. Often the Kuvasz will put them under its care. However, the Kuvasz may attempt to be too bossy and protective over cats, which may resent this treatment. As is the case with people and dogs, the Kuvasz is not generally tolerant of strange animals, particularly those that are invading its territory. The Kuvasz is very likely to attempt to drive off new animals. Although the Kuvasz is likely to attempt to deter this invasion with display first, this breed will give chase and sometimes attack other animals. This breed is capable of killing wolves; cats, raccoons, opossums, and similar animals don’t stand a chance. Proper socialization and training are very important. Just remember, a Kuvasz which will snuggle with your cats may very well pursue a neighbor’s cat which has entered your yard.
The Kuvasz can be quite difficult to train. These dogs were bred to work independently of humans, sometimes for days or weeks at a time. They were also bred to analyze a situation and act upon it. As a result, they are independent and dominant. Although a Kuvasz will always want to be around its family, it will rarely want to listen to them. Kuvasz will accept the leadership and guidance of someone they respect as being above them in the social hierarchy, but this respect must be earned and done so constantly. The Kuvasz is an intelligent dog who will respond to training, but the process must be begun early. Also, the Kuvasz is only likely to take orders from a very small number of people. Even those dogs which are the most well-trained are highly unlikely to respond to the commands of a stranger, or even someone that they do not consider superior in the hierarchy of the pack. It is highly important to use a rewards-based training method with the Kuvasz. Yelling, hitting, or other punishments are unlikely to achieve success, and are likely to result in a resentful, aggressive Kuvasz. Remember, the Kuvasz was bred to interpret situations and react. Unless you provide guidance, a Kuvasz will choose to react on its own.
The Kuvasz is not known as a high energy dog, and is generally calm indoors. However, this breed is certainly not a couch potato either, and needs to be regularly exercised. If unexercised and not properly stimulated, these highly intelligent and massively powerful dogs will often become vocal, destructive, nervous, and aggressive. Even a very young Kuvasz is capable of completely destroying a living room. It is extremely difficult to provide the proper amount of exercise for a young Kuvasz. These dogs must be limited from most strenuous exercise to prevent damage to their growing skeletons. However, they are also very energetic. A carefully planned exercise regimen coupled with affection and stimulation to make up for the lack of exercise is important. It is important to keep a Kuvasz on a leash at all times when not in a secured area. While these dogs are not particularly known for wandering, they will do so and their willful nature means that they may be difficult to call back. Any area in which a Kuvasz is kept should be very secure, these powerful, intelligent, and surprisingly agile and athletic dogs are very capable of going over, under, or straight through most fences.
One aspect of the Kuvasz which may cause problems for many potential owners is the breed’s voice. As a guardian, the Kuvasz was tasked with alerting its masters of the approach of any potential danger. The Kuvasz still makes an excellent and alert watchdog, and will alert its owner of any possible intrusion. This breed has an incredibly loud and booming bark to do so with as well. Most Kuvasz kept in urban or suburban locations should be kept indoors at night. Otherwise they will attempt to announce the approach of every car, owl, or strange creak; most likely angering your neighbors in the process.
The Kuvasz has a surprisingly easy coat to maintain. Unless owners live in a warm climate and wish to shave their dogs to make them more comfortable, the Kuvasz will not require professional grooming. Their coats are naturally resistant to mats. The Kuvasz also rarely requires bathing as these dogs have a coat which repels dirt and grime, and are known for being odorless.
None of this means that the Kuvasz is not a shedder. In fact, the Kuvasz is one of the heaviest shedders of all dog breeds. One would be hard pressed to find a breed that sheds more frequently and with greater volume than a Kuvasz. The breed is known for shedding almost its entire coat multiple times each year. Your entire house and furniture will regularly be covered in very long, very noticeable, white hair. You and your clothes will be similarly covered. Make sure that you are really comfortable with this before considering sharing your life with a Kuvasz.
The Kuvasz is one of the healthiest breeds of large dogs, regularly living until 12 or even 14. These dogs have been bred almost exclusively as working animals for untold centuries. Any genetic conditions would have likely led to the death of an animal in harsh working conditions, or would have been eliminated through selective breeding. This does not mean that the breed is immune to health problems, it just means that these dogs are less prone to genetically inherited conditions than most other breeds. However, there are some problems which are known to occur in this breed.
One of the most, if not the most, common genetic disorder present in the Kuvasz is Progressive Retinal Atrophy, or PRA. In some European lines, up to 50% of all Kuvasz are carriers. This condition results in the degeneration of a dog’s retinas. While not fatal, the disease does reduce a dog’s vision, and will often lead to complete blindness. As a breed used to independence and control, blindness is particularly hard for a Kuvasz to accept. Additionally, these naturally protective dogs are likely to become overly vocal, nervous, and even aggressive as their vision deteriorates and they are less able to make judgments about how they should respond. Luckily, there is now a test for PRA and Kuvasz breeders are working towards eliminating the condition.
Another frequent health problem of which Kuvasz owners must be aware is the danger presented by cooked bones. Cooked bones are very likely to splinter. Eating a splintered bone is likely to cause serious damage to a dog’s mouth, throat, and digestive tract. Sometimes, splintered bones will get lodged in the esophagus and cause a dog to suffocate. The Kuvasz has a powerful mouth, and splinters bones far more easily than most breeds.
Other health problems which have been found in the Kuvasz include: