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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.

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 years2
How an organization that exists to help keep dog breeds pure can suggest that early barons and warlords could have 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 them modern Erdelyi Kopóv (Transylvanian Hound) or Slovenský Kopov (Slovakian Hound) or a sighthound similar to the Magyar Agár (Hungarian Sighthound).

They were undoubtedly used to hunt small game such as hare, upland birds and waterfowl that they flushed for hawks and falcons, and some 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 Cluband 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 re-create the 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