Thursday, August 16, 2007

Kuvasz thoughts

I started this post back on Biggie's 3-month birthday (almost 2 weeks ago), as a rumination on being a first-time kuvasz owner, but work travel caught up to me. On top of that, it's a whole lot more fun to play with a flesh-and-blood kuvasz puppy than it is to write about one. But, I had intended this as a tribute not only to the kuvasz breed, but also to Biggie's biological parents, brothers and sister, and also to his human mom, Clare, and human aunt Cindy, who made this all happen.

I first heard about kuvasz nearly 20 years ago. My sister's violin teacher, Boro, is Hungarian and had a kuvasz. I'd only seen the dog once or twice and then only from a distance and through a sliding glass door, but I remember being struck by his beauty and his presence. Boro's 3-year old daughter would toddle up to him and hug him and lean on him. I never even knew his name, but one story remains with me, and anyone who knows the breed probably has stories like this one:

One evening, Boro went to a convenience store with his dog. When he went inside, he left his dog in the truck with all the windows down. When he came out, there were 2 guys leaning on his truck and drinking beer. You know the type, no matter which part of the country, they are the guys who have nothing better to do, no better place to go, than to hang out at the Circle-K drinking whatever beer happens to be on sale, and hollering at people coming in and out of the store. Boro walked up to his truck and asked them to move. Now Boro is not a small man - far from it - but these guys apparently thought they were 2 on 1 and decided to try to pick a fight with him. Clearly they were not counting the dog. At that point, without any signal from Boro, Boro's kuvasz jumped out of the open window of the truck and pinned one of the men to the ground. He didn't bite or bark or anything, just took the guy down and held him there. Needless to say, there were at least 2 more people that night who, even if they didn't know the name of the breed, gained some healthy respect for kuvasz!

Pretty much all dog owners think their breed is the "best" and that their dog is the "best" dog ever. I am certain, however, that kuvasz really are the best. Biggie projects a confidence and calmness that I've never seen in a puppy, let alone one as young as he is. Which is not to say he doesn't get playful or silly, (right now he is napping next to me with his adult-sized tongue sticking out the end of his puppy-sized mouth by about an inch - see this example) but he also intuitively knows if now is not a good time. He's attentive without being clingy, and learns so quickly that it's a challenge for me to devise new "problems" for him to solve.

His confidence and judgment are easiest to see when he is playing. He can make his fun with anyone, and knows instinctively that he needs to play differently with different-sized people and dogs. With big dogs, like Zodi the 100-lb Akita, he bounces up with his puppy smile, tail held high and tightly curled over his back. He pays his respects by a quick sniff to her mouth, rolling onto his side and back with appropriate submission (but the tail is untucked). As he coaxes the cautious Zodi over for a closer sniff, he quickly rolls up and takes a nip at her foreleg. She jumps away and returns for another sniff. He lets her step over him, and this time goes for a hind foot before darting out, play bowing, and jumping and bouncing in front of her face. Zodi wasn't sure what to do with this silly pup.

With a smaller dog, he is calmer, letting them approach him. He will sit, letting them climb all over him if they want to, and letting them take him down and gently swatting them with his bear paws as they climb all over him. Then, to have his fun, he will (gently) take them down too. (See Biggie and Useless)

With a puppy close to his size (most of whom are older and stronger), it is no-holds-barred Puppy Kombat! Zola, his #1 girlfriend, is the judo master because she grabs his collar, ear or neck with her mouth, and then wrestles him back and forth with her paws rocking him off-balance and then using his momentum to push him over. Biggie, on the other hand, is the sumo master. He outweighs her and is generally larger, but his main strategies are to head butt her or to immobilize her head and then try to body slam her to the ground.

Biggie is fascinated by children. He approaches toddlers with moderated exuberance. Yesterday, at the Stratton snow-making pond here in Vermont, he was trotting off-lead as we went to find a place to set down our stuff. He came upon a toddler sitting in the shade of a large cooler. I ran up with horrific visions in my mind's eye of Biggie taking the toddler's lunch or, worse yet, deciding the toddler looked as juicy as the chicken backs he's been eating. When I got there, the toddler was giggling and holding her chubby hand out to him, as he sniffed and licked her. I said to the parents, "I'm so sorry, we didn't see her there, and he just loves kids!" The parents (I wish there were more like them) laughed and said, "How could you see her? She was behind the cooler. She loves dogs."

Biggie seems to understand that children deserve special care, and yesterday he "adopted" a brother and sister, about 9 and 5 years old, who were playing in the shallows of the pond. Even though he's not crazy about swimming, he followed them as they waded in the water, poking and overturning rocks, sniffing at each new discovery they showed him. The adults didn't understand the game, but he did.

With us, Biggie is at turns the protector, monitor and the baby. On walks, especially at night, he watches people on the sidewalk, standing alertly and watching them. Not menacingly, and rarely barking and never growling, just watching. When P-Daddy and I are in different places, he is not content until he knows where we both are, and ideally he can keep an eye on both of us. His favorite spot in the NYC apartment is where he can keep an eye on the front door, the bedroom and the dining room table (where we do work), all at once. In Vermont, if we are on different floors, he lies on the stair landing in between. If he can't see both of us from his position, he will get up periodically and come check on us before returning to his post. He's quiet when he does this, and his gaze is a calm one. "Just making sure you're where I left you," seems to be what he's saying. Until I got a kuvasz, I was never the subject of a head count by a puppy.

Yet Biggie is not always so serious - he loves to climb into my lap when he has the chance, and he loves to be near us. His favorite place to play with a chew toy is anywhere he can lie on or next to our feet, and if he falls asleep near us, he keeps a paw in contact so he will wake up if we move. He loves to be hugged, loves his belly rubs, and never ever complains. When we get up in the morning, or when he first sees us after work, he loves to cuddle, and for him that includes gently holding our hands or forearms in his mouth. When we were teaching him not to nip, we debated long and hard whether to let him mouth us at all. We interpreted some of the mouthing, at least, to be an attempt to connect with us. (Some of it was annoying puppy nipping.) After a few sessions of showing him what was and wasn't appropriate, he no longer nips at our bodies. While fluttery skirts and bathrobe sashes dangling at eye level are too tempting not to bite and tug, when he takes our hands or arms in his mouth he's being calm and affectionate. When he's "holding hands" this way, he is so gentle his razor-sharp puppy teeth don't even scratch me.

The adult kuvaszok I have met are similarly calm and gentle, yet I always get a sense that they are monitoring me. They seem to have an innate understanding of what's "appropriate" levels of behavior, and learn quickly. They are not slavishly obedient, but if they trust you and judge you worthy of attention, they will respond. Of course training and socialization are absolutely necessary, especially with such a large breed, but I have found that with a kuvasz, we are starting with a far better baseline of comprehension, understanding, and yes, intelligence.

No comments: