Anonymous Dave's comments on some of my earlier posts about Kuvasz temperament and being guarded by a kuvasz led to more comments, traffic and email on this blog than any previous entry. Pictures in this post are of Biggie, but the words are all Anonymous Dave. What I find amazing is that despite Anonymous Dave's rural setting with his boy, and my urban one, there are many similarities in temperament and behavior. So without further ado, Anonymous Dave:
Our background: We got our Kuvasz to guard our house while we lived in a suburban area of Reno, NV in 1996. As he grew into adulthood, we came to realize that everything people who know something about livestock guardian dogs is true, in abundance.
In 1999, we bought a hay farm in central Nevada, where the population density is about one person for every four square miles. Coyotes are in great abundance, red foxes are common in areas near agriculture and mountain lions can and do some down out of the mountains (which range from 8,000' to over 10,000 feet above sea level) during periods of heavy snowfall during the winter.
The Kuvasz is one of several white, large flock guarding dog breeds; the Great Pyr, the Maremma, Akbash, Polish sheepdog, Kommondor, etc. Some of what our hostess has said about Kuvaszok applies to these other breeds; I believe that the Kuvasz is more intelligent and harder than most of these other white flock guarding breeds. Most Great Pyrs used for guarding sheep by the few remaining sheepmen running bands of sheep in the intermountain west are cross-bred with Akbash, Kuvasz or Maremmas to "harden" the Pyr up a bit. The Pyr adds size and mass to the other breeds. The Pyr is a bit more stout, more like a Newfie in proportions than a Kuvasz. The Maremma and Akbash aren't as large as the Kuvasz or Pyrs.
All these dogs were bred to guard sheep. All of them do this with success. The breeding you see most in modern guard dogs out on the open range is a mix of Pyr, Maremma and Akbash. The Kuvasz is used by some sheepmen up in Wyoming, where they also have to deal with wolves and bears.
We own a Kuvasz to guard our house and yard. As a result, we never really worry about locking our door(s).
- So just how big is a Kuvasz?
In his prime, our Kuv was 29.5" to 30" at the shoulder and 120lbs in top physical condition. There was no fat on him. When I say "in top physical condition" I mean he was able to run on level ground at speeds in excess of 35MPH for a quarter mile and over 30MPH for a mile. A greyhound can run at speeds of up to about 45MPH, to put this into perspective. I know our dog could do this because I clocked him while riding an ATV - this isn't some wild exaggeration or boasting on my part. My ATV tops out at about 40MPH. I was once worried I wouldn't catch up to him before he took down an intruding dog from a neighbor.
- How strong is a Kuvasz?
Well, I'm over 6' tall and about 200lbs. When I used to play tug-of-war with him when he was younger, he could yank me off my feet and onto my face with a lunge backwards and a seemingly effortless flip of his snout.
- How smart is a Kuvasz?
The drive of a Kuvasz to run down something he wants to attack should never, ever, be underestimated. These LGD's don't run for the fun of it - they run because they want to teach something in their domain to "respect my authority!" Their domain can expand to multiple square miles. In my experience, LGD breeds want to roam over about a four square mile area unless you restrain them. We restra roam over about a four square mile area unless you restrain them. We restrained our dog, but our neighbors who were running Pyr/Akbash crosses with their sheep did not.
The most fundamental difference between a guarding breed and many of the other working dogs is this: the guarding breeds were and are bred to guard. Period, end of discussion. Not herd. Not fetch birds or balls. Not work your cattle, or act as a guide dog for the sight-impaired. Bred to identify threats without guidance, determine the response to the threat and respond without any command or human interaction. It takes brains to determine what a threat is, and the Kuvasz has brains by the bucketful.
They might and will do non-guard things, but they tend to get bored with these other activities quickly because they master them so quickly. These dogs were bred for their strength, their intelligence, their ability to bond to the owners or their flock. They won't fetch more than a few times for you. They're not going to amuse you with tricks. As an example: our Kuvasz will play fetch with you twice. Exactly twice. You throw the ball the first time, he brings it back - as quickly as any Golden Retriever might. You throw the ball the second time - now he looks at your for a moment before he takes off to get the ball and bring it back. You toss the ball the third time. He now looks you up and down pretty closely, takes off at a trot (not a run any more), gets the ball, brings it back halfway, drops it, and sits down. His expression is one of "Hey, you're not going to get me to keep doing all the work. It's your fault you keep losing this stupid ball. You want it? You come meet me halfway now." This carries forward into what you must do to train them - once they figure out what you want to do, they'll do it a couple/three times and then you'd better mix up the training if you want to retain their attention. If you bore them with repetition, you'll lose their attention quickly.
Our dog knows a huge range of commands - up, down, right, left, heel, Our dog knows a huge range of commands - up, down, right, left, heel, wait, stay, leave it, stop, sit, lay down, here, "go to" some person's name, "go to" a specific place (eg, his pillow, his pillow in the other room, the kitchen), he knows when it is time to eat by what I say, he knows "treat," and "cookie" as well as to relieve himself (#1 or #2) on command - and then specifically what I want him to do - #1 or #2. Oh, and he knows when to shove our cat off chairs or furniture on command. He knows to wait until he's told to eat, he's polite in that he doesn't grab treats out of your hand, he accepts them gently as you give them to him.
But let's be forthright here: these dogs were bred to spot predators at a distance, place themselves in position to repel an attack, or kill the attacker. As such, these breeds react with a ferocity and speed that takes most everyone completely off guard. Only those of us who have owned a Kuvasz or other LGD for a significant amount of time (at least a couple years) know what to expect from them. They'll learn obedience commands so well that you think you have them mastered and under control.
You'd think wrongly.
Our hostess has mentioned how she tells when Biggie-Z is "homing in" on something. This is entirely consistent with behavior we have observed in our Kuvasz and in other Kuv's: we call it "the thousand yard stare" -- our dog stops making noise - of any kind. His mouth closes. His ears come forward. His nostrils flare. His gaze becomes calm, intent and focused "out there." There is no stress whining. There is no stomping up and down. There is no chatter, there is none of this yapping, whining, lunging, stomping behavior you see in other dogs. No, there is just this calm focus and silent intent that comes over him.
At this point, we have about two seconds to intercede. If we do not, he launches at his target with everything he has. He's not going out there to give a big, friendly, tail-wagging "hello." If you're not ready for a dog that launches himself at perceived threats with this intensity, please don't own a Kuvasz.
To give people an idea of the drive of a Kuvasz to guard, allow me to relate what they will do:
- He launched himself through a screen door at a campaigning politician. I was in the basement, heard a knock at the door. I came upstairs to find our Kuvasz looking quite pleased with himself. The screen door was destroyed, there was a campaign button, a red-white-n-blue pen and a business card laying on the deck. The next time I was in the bar in town, said candidate came up to me and said "That's a heck of a dog you have there!"
Remember what our hostess said about their ability to "judge" people? It is true. Someone who isn't afraid of dogs, someone who is friendly and open, they get welcomed by our Kuvasz if we say he/she is "OK." Someone who has body language that betrays insincerity or covert agenda? The dog will spot it faster than you will. You will have to "read" your dog in an instant, because that's how long it has taken him to "read" another person and make up his mind.
- Stray dogs that would come onto the farm would cause him to launch off the deck (5' off the ground) in one leap, running at the fence at top speed. He'd skid to a stop two feet from the fence (digging ditches into the dirt), hit the wire fence, grab the stray dog by the face and try to pull him inside the fence where he was going to deal with him. Elapsed time from first glance to grabbing the other dog: About four seconds to cover about 60 yards. When I'd break off the situation, the stray dogs would never, ever return to our farm. People that would be at the fence or gate would be held there. If they tried to push their way into the yard, they were nipped and pushed out, and the barking was ferociously loud as he did this. It didn't matter how many times these people might have come to visit us. If someone was at the boundary of the yard who wasn't one of "his people," they were not getting into the yard. Period.
- Coyotes are very common in Nevada. People in New York complain about cockroaches. We have coyotes in Nevada. Unlike many other dog breeds, a Kuvasz has excellent long-range sight. Our dog could spot a coyote over a half mile down our field at a glance. Our other dog had no clue what the Kuvasz was looking at. She generally couldn't recognize anything, human or animal, beyond about 100 yards. Our Kuvasz amazed us with his eyesight - he could spot a coyote about the same time I could, and I have 20/10 vision. He would then go quiet for a moment, put on his "thousand yard stare," and then launch down the field at the coyote. If the coyote started running, you could see him compute an intercept vector. He was smart enough to look at me before he'd launch and see whether I was reaching for a rifle - and he knew that if I wasn't reaching for a rifle, it was because the coyote was out of range and it was then his job to go pin the coyote and wait for me. I never taught him this. He just did it.
- While our dog never killed a coyote, he was plenty happy to hold a coyote in position so I could kill it. He knew that I could and would kill the coyote so that I didn't have to worry about our dog being bit by a possibly rabid coyote. This goes back to how smart they are.
I've seen other LGD's kill coyotes and they do it in a very business-like manner. They simply mob the coyote to the ground, grab the coyote by the neck, pick it up into the air, whip it back and forth to break the neck and then fling it aside. This is their job. They're not bred to just be pretty. There's a reason why the Nazis killed nearly every Kuvasz they met while marching across Hungary, and it wasn't because the Kuvasz just barks.
- What do we mean when we say a Kuvasz is a "hard" dog?
Let's put it this way: You'd better have a real fence between you and the street. If you think one of those "invisible" dog fences with a shock collar is going to stop a Kuvasz at your yard's edge, you're deluding yourself. If you think he's going to come back to you when he sees a rabbit or jogger, you're about to get a really hard lesson.
This breed of dog will blow right by that invisible fence, shock collar or not. When they're in defense mode, they simply do not care about pain, and unless you've really worked hard, they don't care what you're saying (or more likely, screaming) at them. "Hard" means that they're not dissuaded from their course of action by your commands, the screaming of someone or something they've latched onto, a shock collar, or you whipping them.
- What of this "loyalty" Kuvasz owners speak of?
Their loyalty is their surpassing virtue. These dogs are ferociously loyal, which is part of what becomes the liability in urban settings. To a Kuvasz, the world divides in much the same way as the US Marines are described: "No greater friend, no worse foe." To a Kuvasz, the world is divided into two sets of people/dogs/cats/etc: Their people, their fellow dogs, their kitties - and everything else, where "everything else" is worthy of at least intimidation, if not outright attack. Their people, their dogs, their kitties... get nothing but affection and a playful, intelligent dog with a sense of humor that reminds you of a small child. They love getting into mischief to get a reaction out of you. When you're walking a Kuvasz, they often want to be in physical contact with you - this way, they know where you are. They are loyal to a fault, and they don't like it when you leave them behind.
Unless you live with the Kuvasz, you're simply not on the list of "his people." Ever. You simply must be OK'ed and introduced every time by one of "their people" as being "This is Joe, and Joe is OK..."
- I've heard that Kuvaszok kill cats?
Some might. Most don't. Our dog certainly didn't.
Our Kuvasz had "his kitties" and "unauthorized kitties" on our farm. "His kitties" were never chased; "his kitties" were greeted with affection and a friendly tail-wag. He would allow these kitties to cuddle up to him in winter weather when he'd be outside on the deck. He'd wag his tail to provide "his kitties" with a toy to pounce on. "His kitties" would be allowed to poke their heads into his water dish, or lick on his favorite bone or chew toy.
"Unauthorized kitties" - they got chased up trees. The only way an unauthorized kitty became one of "his kitties" was by enduring a vigorous butt-sniffing. Once kitties were "his kitties," they were defended the same way a Kuvasz defends everything - with a ferocity and speed that takes your breath away. This included leaping on a hawk that tried to take off with one of "his kitties" one day on our deck. If you've ever seen a hawk pounce upon prey on the ground, you know that hawks don't dilly-dally on the ground - they're on the ground for only a moment to kill, get a grip and take off with their prey.
One day, a hawk made the mistake of pouncing on one of our dog's "approved kitties." The kitty screamed. I opened the front door to see what was amiss - and I was blown aside.
That hawk was later found dead, hanging by one talon from a satellite dish, his lung punctured by a Kuvasz fang. The dog blew through me in a partially opened door to make that attack. The door and I were simply slammed aside by 120lbs of mass flying through a narrow opening. Again, I didn't command this response. He just did it.
- What about children?
OK, here's where I have to relate the experience of other farmers/ranchers and their kids & dogs. The Kuvasz is at his most worrisome around kids. Not because he might harm your children, but because if someone who isn't part of "his flock" makes "his children" cry, whoever made "his children" cry is in very big and very immediate trouble. Sure, you might have been in labor for 12+ hours to give birth to those kids, but guess what? After your Kuvasz moved in and took charge, those are now HIS children. You're his too. If some little twerp comes over and punches your kid in the nose and makes your kid cry, the bully could be seriously hurt by the response of the Kuvasz. The Kuvasz doesn't care about laws, civil liability or anything like that. Your kids are now his kids. Anything that threatens "his kids" is going to get a response.
Don't get a Kuvasz to "play with the kids." A Kuvasz around kids is like nanny sitting up on the porch with a Garand while the kids play in the yard.
- What are they like as an inside dog?
Inside a house, the Kuvasz has an amazing tactical sense of area and approaches. Our dog locates himself inside any dwelling, any motel room, houses in which we are a guest - in such a way that there is no way to approach us without going through him, or being seen by him. He likes to locate himself in such a way that if you come through a door, you probably won't see much of him before you're inside the house or room, yet all he has to do is stand up and take a step out of a shadow, or out from behind a corner, and your ass is his. Moreover, he will wait until you've entered a room and shut the door behind you before he comes out of hiding. He wants you fully inside to slow your escape.
If you wanted to be as adept at guarding against intruders as he is, you'd just sit down with a shotgun where he wants to lay down and call it done.
If you have a large house and walk from room to room, be prepared for the dog to follow you. Don't be angry about this; it is his job, it is what he has been bred for: To guard. Blame Mattias Corvinus, who brought the Kuvasz in off the steppe into his castle to guard him. The Kuvasz will follow those he is to guard around the house - he will try to put himself between entrances and the person he's guarding. It can seem as tho he is asleep and you sneak out of the room. Don't bother. Within five minutes, he's going to follow you. They spend very little time in true sleep, and ours tends to sleep with his eyes only mostly shut. If you move across the room, he will notice it. The only time ours truly sleeps is if my wife is sitting on the floor with him; he will lay down next to her, with his body in contact with hers, and then he will truly sleep. As soon as she moves and breaks contact with him, he is awake again.
This has been true since he was about 14 months old. We never trained him to do this. He just does it. The fact that he does this in any setting, no matter where we are, that he does this within an hour or so of arriving to spend the night in any setting tells us that this is not random behavior. Our other dog couldn't give a hoot where she sleeps. She cares only whether her bed is properly fluffed up for maximum comfort. When we visit other people with dogs, even dogs that are trained as guard dogs (eg, Schutzhund), the other dogs just kick back and go to sleep and allow the Kuvasz to become the dominant guard dog of the household - within about 12 hours.
- So just how fanatical are they about guarding? What is their threat threshold?
At about three years of age, our Kuv once took to barking at the front door of our house about three hours after dark without regard for our commands to stop. It finally reached a point where I decided that there was no way to get to sleep until I took him outside to investigate.
So I took a pistol and the dog on a flexi-lead (with pinch collar on his end) out into the dark. I figured it would be something like a coyote in the yard.
We got about 10' outside the front door. He stopped, cocked his head, launched about three feet into the air and came down with his two front paws together.
In the dirt & leaves, under the creeping vine ground cover, was a now completely flattened deer mouse. That mouse was d-e-a-d, dead - like roadkill dead. Our dog looked up with glee on his face and immediately returned to the house. No more barking.
Their tolerance for small things like this increases with age, but if there comes a time they're barking without stopping when commanded, you'd best take their advice. There is likely something wrong.
- What about the hair?
Resistance is futile. They produce more hair than you can possibly believe. They never stop shedding. The shedding is worst twice a year when they blow their winter and summer coat, but there is shedding year-round. Since they like to lean up against you to show you how loyal they are, prepare to be covered in fur.
One of the upsides of the Kuvasz is that they do not smell when wet. If you've ever been around something like a wet lab or golden, you know what I mean - that "wet dog funk" smell. The Kuvasz has none of that. They're very well mannered inside a house after they "grow up" and they're often content to sleep on the floor, between your bed and the door. Just don't beat on the dog for leaping at the front door if someone knocks - that's what they were bred for.
If you want to do something productive with the hair, leave it outside where birds can get to it to use for nesting material, or go buy yourself a spinning wheel. I've seen the hair spun into some pretty nice yarn.
Some people might perceive that I'm simply bragging on the ferocity of my dog. This is not the case. I've seen several male Kuvaszok in the last 12 years and our male (who was neutered at six months) isn't special. He's quite normal within the breed in size and behavior. He's harder than a Great Pyr, about the same as a Kommondor, and Akbash and Maremma could be as hard, harder or softer than a Kuvasz, depending on breeding.
Uncut males are the most ferocious, followed by cut males, then females.
I'm simply advising people who might think about owning a Kuvasz to please, please - do not own this breed of dog unless you're willing to recognize what changes are necessary from you, both in how you handle dogs and how to socialize the Kuvasz properly. These are guard dogs. If you're thinking that having owned some toy breed prepares you for owning a Kuvasz, you're simply wrong, and this will soon be be proven to you in a horribly tragic way. Owning something like a Mastiff will have taught you about size and strength, but not the guard instinct or hardness. What you have here is size, strength, hardness and ferocity all in one package.
The point I want to drive home to people is that the breeds people think are "guard dogs," eg, Rotties, GSD's, Dobies, large sheep dogs, etc - they're fundamentally herding dogs, not guard dogs. They can be taught/trained to exhibit guard behavior on command - through training like Schutzhund, etc. Regardless of how much training these herding dogs have to turn them into guard dogs, they're not and never were/are guarding breeds. They're working breeds that have a moderate level of aggression that can take guard training.
The Kuvasz needs no training. He comes with a 1,000 years of breeding built in to do what he does. He will guard whether you want him to or not. He will bond with those in your family he determines are least able to defend themselves - your wife or your children. He will act in ways you find inexplicable - until you think about how you'd live your entire life to respond to an attack in less than five seconds. The description of the livestock guarding breeds as "hard" means that they really don't care what you say. They really don't. They know what their job is, and they don't need to hold a confab with you, the human, before they do their job. If you want to own one of these dogs, you have to be able to break through this hardness to get them to listen to you when they revert to type.
If you're not ready to be guarded by a dog such as this, please, I implore you, do not own a Kuvasz. Our hostess does realize this and is not telling wild tales about her dog.
They're a beautiful, loyal dog. Their "IQ" is higher than any other dog breed I've ever seen - and I've been around a lot of dogs. They have actual problem-solving logic going on in that fluffy head of theirs. They have a sense of humor and a personality far in excess of any other breed I've seen. Their beauty and cute face (and they know how to turn the "cute" up to "11" when they want) makes getting attention from women in Petsmart or out in a dog park about as sporting as shooting fish in a bucket with a shotgun. It is effortless to get a cluster of women from eight to eighty around you when you have a Kuvasz at your side.
But think of them as a Marine in dog form: Forever loyal, ready to respond with overwhelming force at the drop of a hat, and you'd be close to understanding what they are.