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Filtering by Tag: Hungarian

Breed of the Week: Hungarian Wirehaired Vizsla

Craig Koshyk

At first glance, the story of the Wirehaired Vizsla seems fairly ordinary— Hungarian hunters created the breed in the 1930s and ’40s by crossing smooth-haired Vizslas with German Wirehaired Pointers. But if you consider what was going on in that part of the world during the breed’s formative early years, the story turns out to be anything but ordinary.

Hungarian pointing dogs with rough coats are mentioned in writings as far back as 1886. By the early 1900s, “prickly coats” and long-haired1 coats were occurring in litters of smooth-haired Vizslas as a result of the rampant crossbreeding going on in Hungary at the time. Eventually, when the first standard for the Vizsla was drawn up, only the smooth coat was allowed. However, it is clear that some breeders continued to breed rough-coated dogs—probably because they found them to have an advantage in colder, wetter regions. Then, in the late 1930s, two breeders, József Casas and László Gresznarik, decided to make it official. They bred two Vizsla bitches to a solid brown German Wirehaired Pointer named Astor z Potattal. The best pups from the resulting litters were then crossed.

József Vasas and László Gresznarik where not just everyday hunters or breeders looking to build a better mousetrap in some far off corner of Hungary, both men were well-respected gundog experts. Gresznarik, in particular, was known throughout the region as an experienced breeder of German Wirehaired Pointers, Cesky Fouseks and other breeds. In Slovakia, Koloman Slimák—another well-known figure who would eventually go on to create the Slovak Pointer—also began to work on a wire-haired version of the Vizsla shortly after Vasas and Gresnarik got the ball rolling. However, it appears he may have used a slightly different recipe. According to some sources, he German Wirehaired Pointers, Irish Setters, and Pointers into his own line of smooth-haired Vizslas.

The part of Europe in which all three men lived and worked was not an out-of-the-way backwater. In fact, it stood front and center on the world’s stage several times during the early years of the breed’s development. In 1920, the signatories of the Trianon Peace Treaty completely redrew the map of the entire region. Hungary lost almost 70 percent of its former territory, including much of its northern highlands. Suddenly, millions of Hungarians found themselves citizens of a brand new nation: Czechoslovakia. Eighteen years later, on the eve of the Second World War, the situation was reversed. Hungary regained most of the land it had lost in 1920, and was given a large chunk of southern Slovakia. During the Second World War, the front lines of battle passed over the region twice, completely devastating much of it. After the war, Czechoslovakia was reestablished and the borders were once again redrawn.

It is hard to fathom how men like Vasas, Gresznarik, Slimák and others involved with the Wirehaired Vizsla could have continued their breeding efforts during those tumultuous times. But somehow they did and, somehow, the Wirehaired Vizsla survived—barely. Like its smooth-haired cousin, it had come close to extinction during the war, but its supporters rallied just in time to save it after the hostilities ceased. During the 1950s, a state-run kennel was established for both versions of the Vizsla and, by the 1960s, the breed had recovered well enough to be recognized by the FCI. Since the 1970s there has been slow but steady growth for the Wirehaired Vizsla in Europe and North America, but the breed is still far less popular than its smooth-haired cousin. Although still considered a rare breed, the popularity of the Wirehaired Vizsla is growing. There are now breeders in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Sweden, the US, Canada and the UK. Approximately 200 pups are whelped annually in Hungary, and an additional 100 to 150 more by breeders elsewhere.

The first time I ever saw a Wirehaired Vizsla was at an informal training day arranged by a group of enthusiasts right here in Manitoba. The only Vizslas I’d seen before had smooth, short coats, so i was quite surprised to see one that looked like it needed a shave! I was soon corrected by the dog’s owner who told me that the Wirehaired Vizsla is a completely separate breed.

Watching that young dog work through the mud and reeds of a local marsh—we were training for an upcoming NAVHDA test—was a real treat. He had a lot of drive and his coat looked ideally suited to the cover. Over the next few years, I saw other Vizsla here and there, but I never really got the chance to speak to any breeders or owners. It wasn’t until Lisa and I travelled to Hungary, and met an extraordinary young woman, that we finally began to learn more about the breed.

Zsófia Miczek
does not look like your typical gundog breeder. In fact, she looks like she should be on a movie set or at a fashionable café in downtown Budapest. Her pretty face, blond hair, and youthful personality do not exactly shout “hard-core hunter”. But looks, as they say, can be deceiving. Not only is Zsófia perfectly at home in the hunting field, she’s a familiar face on the field trial, hunt test and dog show circuit in Hungary and beyond. In fact, she’s the founder one of the most successful Vizsla lines in the world.

Lisa and I met Zsófia at her home just outside Budapest and spent the better part of a warm spring day with her and her dogs in the field. Having photographed a number of smooth-haired Vizsla the day before, we were curious to see how the two breeds compared. The first thing we noticed, obviously, was the harsh, wiry coat. It seemed to be a slightly lighter shade of “russet gold” than the coat of the smooth-haired Vizslas, but still very appealing. Some coats were longer than others. Zsófia mentioned that breeders have now achieved better consistency in this regard, but that her oldest dog had the “old style” coat— noticeably longer and softer than the others. Dogs from more recent generations had harsh, flat-lying coats with just enough facial furnishings to give them a distinguished look without being too fuzzy. In the field, the dogs were all business. They showed a lot of desire as they hunted at a medium gallop out to about a hundred meters. They responded instantly to Zsófia’s whistle as she handled them across the rolling terrain.

Compared to the smooth-coated Vizslas, the Wirehairs seemed a tad bigger with a stronger, more forceful stride. In terms of character, they were a lot like their smooth-haired cousins: happy, friendly and eager to hunt. The strongest personality that day actually belonged to Zsófia. She is a fiercely competitive young woman determined to prove herself and her dogs in the male-dominated gundog scene in Hungary. Lisa asked her if all Hungarian women were so strong-willed and tenacious. Zsófia smiled, and replied:
I don’t think Hungarian women are known for being particularly tough. I guess I am just an unusually strong woman. I have had to deal with the fact that being blond, female and young is a disadvantage in this sport, because most judges and competitors are men, who just can’t accept my success. It’s as if some of them do everything they can to prove that I am not as good as my record shows. Emotionally, it is very difficult and I have a hard time accepting it because, if there is one thing I hate, it is discrimination. But I am not going to step back. I will continue to prove the quality of my dogs, no matter what! 
To me, Zsófia’s reply perfectly echoed the kind of determination the breed’s creators must have had in the early days. It is nice to know that the Vizsla is still in the hands of such tenacious people today.

Here is a video of one of Zsófia’s dogs working a (planted) quail.

1. pups with long-haired coats—a disqualifying fault in both standards—still pop up from time to time in litters produced by smooth-haired or wire-haired parents. 
2. Gresznarik owned the “Selle” kennel until the 1960s. It was taken over by Stefan Hrncár in 1971.

Read more about the breed, and all the other pointing breeds from Continental Europe, in my book Pointing Dogs, Volume One: The Continentals

Breed of the Week: The Vizsla

Craig Koshyk

Hungarian is not related to most of the other European languages. In an interesting parallel, it is said that Hungary’s national dog, the Vizsla, is not related to the other western European pointing breeds. Some sources claim that the Vizsla came from Asia minor, just like the Hungarian language. However, unlike the rigorous studies that support a non Indo-European origin for the Hungarian language, the evidence for an ancient, Asian origin for the Vizsla is pretty slim.

Vizsla-20100717183719-Edit©2010 Craig Koshyk.jpg

Coming up with an accurate timeline for the development of the Vizsla is not easy. Many of its published histories read more like wishful thinking than scholarly analysis. Claims that the Vizsla has been purebred for over a 1,000 years or that ancient rock carvings depict Vizslas hunting with hawks are repeated endlessly in books, magazines and especially on the internet— without any attempt to substantiate them or to even put them into an historical context. For example, many authors claim that references to the Vizsla can be found in a 14th century manuscript known as the Vienna Illuminated Chronicle. (1)

If true, such a reference would certainly support the idea that the Vizsla is indeed an old breed of hunting dog. However, no one seems to mention that the Chronicle is written entirely in Latin and that the word Vizsla appears nowhere in it. But it does contain illustrations of hunting scenes, some featuring dogs. And if you squint hard enough and use your imagination, you may see one or two dogs that have a vague resemblance to the modern Vizsla. The problem is, they have a vague resemblance to just about every other short-haired hunting breed. They could be anything from Foxhounds to a Ridgebacks. Yet, somehow, a number of authors have concluded that not only are the dogs definitely Vizslas, but the illustrations actually prove that the breed has been kept pure for centuries! Even the AKC falls into this trap with an absolutely ridiculous statement on its website: Apparently, the breed was a favorite of early barons and warlords who, either deliberately or by accident, preserved its purity through the years. (2)

How an organization that exists to help keep dog breeds ‘pure’ can suggest that early barons and warlords accidentally preserved a breed’s purity is beyond me. Fortunately more level-headed people have taken a closer look at the history of the breed. One of the best analyses that i’ve been able to find is in an article written by Géza Frank Say in The Hungarian Review, Vol. 1, Issue 1, 1971:

A thousand years ago the Magyars occupied the land that is now known as Hungary. These people were hunters accompanied by various breeds of dogs, among them a “yellow dog” used for hunting. This information, however flattering, needs thorough research... This writer...regrets not being in the position to elaborate on the early history of the Vizsla due to a lack of available literature. That there was a “yellow dog” is an undeniable fact.

Okay, the ancient Magyars had yellow dogs; fair enough. Were they similar to the modern Vizsla? I doubt it. My hunch is that they were actually some kind of hound similar to the modern Erdelyi Kopóv (Transylvanian Hound) or Slovenský Kopov (Slovakian Hound) or a sighthound similar to the Magyar Agár (Hungarian Sighthound).

The yellow dogs were undoubtedly used to hunt small game such as hare, upland birds and waterfowl that they flushed for hawks and falcons, and some of the dogs were probably taught to “set” when hunting with a net. At some point, they began to be called Vizslas, but even today the word “Vizsla”—whose etymology is still pretty murky—is a term used to describe a type of dog, not a particular breed. Like the French term chien d’oysel, it may have originally been used to describe any dog that “served the bird” but nowadays it is used like the French term braque. Vizsla simply means “pointing dog”. (3)

In any case, efforts to develop a modern breed of pointing dog in Hungary did not get under way until about the middle of the 18th century when Hungarian hunters, like hunters across Europe, started to shoot birds on the wing. They probably began by crossing whatever local dogs were on hand to the pointing dogs that were spreading across Europe from Spain, France, Italy and, later, from England. By the mid-1800s there was probably a fair number of locally bred pointing dogs called Vizslas, and by the 1880s we find the first records of Magyar Vizslas (Hungarian pointing dogs) in public competition. In 1881 a field trial club was even established for the breed and hosted its first trial near Budapest in 1882. Several Vizslas were entered but it is not known if they were purebred or, as some speculate, actually crossbred with German Shorthaired Pointers or English Pointers.

Whatever they were, they failed to spark much interest in the format among Vizsla breeders. By 1886, the field trial club was disbanded. At around the same time, new hunt tests were being developed in Hungary, but not many Vizslas appear to have participated. It seems that Austro-Hungarian hunters were abandoning their native breeds in favor of the more fashionable English Pointers and Setters. By 1900 there were so few Vizslas left in Hungary that many worried the breed could disappear completely. Fortunately, a few dedicated supporters decided to take action. They searched the country for any Vizsla that appeared to be of “pure” blood and managed to find about a dozen. Out of necessity, they crossed them with other breeds. It is not known which breeds they used, but it is very likely that Transylvanian hounds (Erdelyi Kopóv), German shorthairs, English pointers and Irish setters were used.

Unfortunately, despite these efforts, the breed’s decline continued. By 1914 it was nearing extinction. Then, in November 1916, in a last ditch effort, Dr. Tibor Thuróczy published an article in the hunting magazine Nimród Vadász Újság appealing to his fellow hunters to save the Magyar Vizsla. He succeeded in rallying enough support for the cause and breeding efforts were renewed. In 1920 the breed received another tragic setback. With the signing of the Trianon Peace Treaty, Hungary lost huge parts of its territory to Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. Many Vizslas remained outside of Hungary and were lost to breeders trying to revive the breed. But the situation did lead to increased nationalism in Hungary and patriotic Hungarian breeders redoubled their efforts. They established the Hungarian Vizsla Club and the first stud book for the breed in 1920. The first official standard was published in 1928 and in 1935 the FCI recognized the breed. In 1936 the stud book for the breed was closed. Crossbreeding was no longer allowed from that point forward and the breed was declared “pure”.

By 1940, the population of Vizslas in Hungary was approaching several thousand, and it looked like the breed was out of the woods. Then, yet again, the ravages of war dealt the Vizsla another near-fatal blow reducing the population to dangerously low levels. The club disbanded, and the original stud book was destroyed by fire. In 1947, reconstruction of the breed got underway in a state-sponsored breeding farm at Gödöllő, east of Budapest. Dogs with known pedigrees, and those without pedigrees but meeting all the criteria for appearance and hunting ability, were used to create the modern Vizsla. In 1956, a new Hungarian Kennel Club was established, and accepted by the FCI in 1963. 

By the 1970s, performance tests and trials had once again been established and breeders started selecting for dogs with a sleeker, more athletic build and a faster, more dynamic working style. The Vizsla’s popularity grew enormously, both at home and abroad, with clubs forming throughout Europe and North America. Unfortunately, along with very rapid and uncontrolled growth came the inevitable development of show and pet lines within the breed. Today, most Vizslas are still naturally gifted, easily trained gundogs. However, the breed continues to struggle with a growing popularity among non-hunters, even in the its native land.

1. The full name is Chronicon Pictum, Marci de Kalt, Chronica de Gestis Hungarorum.
2. American kennel club, “vizsla history”, 
3. For example, in Hungarian, the name for the German Shorthaired Pointer is Német Vizsla and for the Braque Français is Francia Vizsla.

Read more about the breed, and all the other pointing breeds from Continental Europe, in my book Pointing Dogs, Volume One: The Continentals