Sunday, April 20, 2008

So you think you want a kuvasz?

I happen to think kuvasz are an amazing breed, but they are not for the novice dog owner. First of all, while they can be very mellow, they also shed. A LOT.

They are very, very intelligent. But they are also very independent, which means that they obey only when they think they should. Luckily I have a very food-motivated pup. Who can only ignore the biscuits on his paws if he doesn't even look at them:

It's not really true "obedience," though, because while pleasing you does please them, pleasing YOU is not their #1 goal in life. Their #1 goal is to GUARD.

And this is where the strongest reasons FOR getting a kuvasz are also the strongest reasons NOT to get one:

1. Barking

If you want a dog that will bark when people come onto your property or try to break in, there are plenty of medium-sized and larger dogs that will alert bark without the necessary additional investment needed to teach a kuvasz what is expected. Better yet, get a little yapper or a burglar alarm.

And yes, while some kuvs are quieter than others (Biggie is a "quiet" one - he only barks when guarding, and is pretty quiet otherwise) and you can teach them which noises are ok and which are not, ALL kuvs bark. And since most kuvs are pretty pain-insensitive (which makes sense if you are a kuvasz defending your flock of sheep from a bear or wolf), "training" collars - in addition to being, in my opinion, inhumane - are simply ineffective.

2. Aggression

Yes, I said "teach" up there. These dogs are so smart that they can and do make inferences. It's part of that living-with-the-flock-independently thing. They have to be able to assess the nature and degree of the threat and take appropriate action without a human telling them what to do. So "teaching" them involves showing them when you (the flock member) are comfortable and when you are not. They are uniquely attuned to your stress level, so if you are walking around worrying whether your pup will "go Cujo" on the next person to walk by, he will because he can read that tension in your voice and your body.

So beginning when Biggie was a pup, when Biggie and I walk we have a pretty silly, light conversation, and if we walk by anyone who might seem remotely threatening, I smile and wish them a good day. If something that used to set him off (delivery bikes whizzing in front of his face) doesn't, he gets copious amounts of praise. And even so, there are times when I will walk him out of the way of a potential Situation. And always, treats in pocket. Because if he starts to focus too intensely on someone/thing (he stops, stands very erect and gets this intense stare), I distract and stuff treats in his mouth while telling him calmly that I see the perceived threat. (You know it's a bad sign when he lets the treats fall out of his mouth to the ground. Then, the only solution is to remove the dog from the situation immediately.)

Same with the apartment buzzer when we get deliveries. (Yes, we do order food delivery that often.) Treats as long as he is quiet when the buzzer goes off, and treats from P-Daddy when he gets back in. (Which leads to me separation anxiety, which merits its own section later.)

Needless to say, we have to maintain 100% focus on our surroundings while walking. No talking on the cell phone or listening to the ipod.

The one saving grace about the potential "aggression" is that kuvs do not overaggress and most of the things they are reactive about are understandable. They are far more guardy at night, and then more to large men, loud men, people carrying anything that could be weapon (skis, ski poles, ladders, garden tools, umbrellas, large bags, loud carts...) First they stare, then they may growl, then bark+lunge, then nip before biting. That being said, people tend to freak out (understandably) when a 100-lb dog barks ferociously at them and it is especially bad when they don't understand dog body language. This usually happens when people stare - and stare at Biggie because he is a magnificent looking dog, and Biggie perceives the direct stare as a threat. Couple that with someone walking up and reaching a hand over the head to pet without asking permission first, and you get the idea.

And finally, there are the stupid people who think it's "fun" to test a large dog. Kuvasz when relaxed look like giant cuddlebears and some people seem to think that means they can just run up and snuggle with them. From a dog's perspective, that kind of approach is very threatening and looks like a charge. In the last week I've had teen boys on scooters scoot at full speed toward us even as I shouted, "Not a good idea!" and an adult wheeling a giant noisy crate on wheels back and forth at high speed to see if Biggie would chase him. And he was laughing, not in a good-natured, "I'm playing with your dog" way, but a jeering, taunting, "you are on a leash and I am not, ha ha" way. Seriously, there are times when I feel like - oops! - dropping the leash. But of course, there is no justified dog bite in our society. So instead, if we are stopped for some reason, like on a street corner, my feet are squarely planted and I'm ready to rein him in if I have to.

3. Territoriality
Kuvasz will expand their territory and their concept of territory whenever able. Obviously, our apartment is sacred ground. However, our building lobby and hallway are Biggie's "territory" too - the only other people he grudgingly allows in "his" hallway are the other people on our floor. In the lobby, all building residents and social visitors - even if they don't like him - are ok, but delivery and service people are not. We did not teach him this, he just decided to draw his own lines. In Vermont, our cul-de-sac and all the residents there are part of his flock. He's better about visitors to the condo (than visitors to the NYC apartment) because we have guests and houseguests almost every weekend we are there. Again, socialize, socialize, socialize! The learning process never ends.

5. Separation Anxiety

Read the poo disaster post here. One characteristic of kuvasz is that they are able to spend long periods of time without humans around. In other words, they don't necessarily crave human contact as human contact per se. This makes them a reasonably good breed for people who work full time. But always remember dogs are social animals and they need interaction with others. Otherwise, why'd you get a dog in the first place?

Anyway, back to the separation anxiety. For a kuvasz whose family is his flock, the daily departure of his flock for school or work can feel a little like failure. How can he guard if he can't see you? Terrible things could be happening to you when your pup is not around to keep tabs on you. Anyway, be aware of the signs of separation anxiety early on so you can address the problem before the pup gets too noisy or, worse yet, destructive.

6. Children

This is where socialization is the most important. Whether you have children or not, it is important to get kuvasz used to these little people. They don't move the same way adults do, they can be really noisy, and sometimes they act a little like prey! Kuvasz have a reputation for being very understanding and attuned toward children, but no matter how even tempered they may be, NEVER LEAVE A CHILD UNATTENDED WITH A DOG.

Biggie's gentleness and understanding of children has always amazed me, because he seems to know that he needs to give them some space so they aren't too scared of him. He is innately protective of them and understands how to play with them. In Vermont, he has barked at children climbing snow piles until they come down. Or, he has to get up on the snow pile and watch every move they make. Last week in the dog run, Biggie wasn't playing with the other dogs. I saw him standing at the fence with a smile on his face, staring at something on the other side and gently wagging his tail. Turns out it was a family with a toddler and a baby, and Biggie was watching the children. When the dad brought the kids into the run, Biggie walked up slowly and sniffed and let the toddler approach him, standing for inspection.

This goes back to the "sense" that kuvasz have; somehow they understand that children are vulnerable and should be watched carefully. Again, however, just because a kuvasz thinks he's a good babysitter doesn't make him one. A kuvasz could see children playing and mistakenly guard his own child from rough play by other kids. Don't leave a kuvasz alone with kids.


Mango said...

Biggie -
What a great public service announcement. Some people get full sized doggies without really understanding what it means. I have similar "issues." Especially on walkies. I am very calm walking with Momma, but then people come right up to me staring me in the eye and I think they want to hurt Momma, so I bark at them.

And jeez! I thought I was shedding a lot, but you have me totally beat.


Biggie-Z said...

Yes, I am just like that too. When my humans get back from vacation in Curry I'm getting stuck with the Gentle Leader again because I caused an Incident the last night before I went to the kennel.

People think I look like a friendly fluffy labradude, and then they come to close to my people and I have to tell them to leave, but not til I'm done sniffing them. If they don't put up with the inspection I have to put my mouth on 'em to tell they can't leave yet.

Biggie, NOT a labradude or labradoodle

Balboa & Mommy said...

WOW, thanks for all the information on Kuvasz, its always nice to learn about other doggies.

Frenchie Snorts