The Coming Of The Vizslas –  Conquering Hearts: Hungary’s Iconic Companion

There are certain aspects of history that will never be known. It is a daunting thought to consider that way less is known about the past than anyone can possibly imagine. Put simply, much more has been lost than preserved. This is especially true when it comes to pre-modern history. Before the era of mass literacy (largely a 20th century phenomenon), documentation was limited. The past only survives in fragments, whether on paper or parchment, in slowly disintegrating ruins or beneath the earth waiting to be uncovered by excavation. Because of this incomplete record of the past, historians and scientists are often left to amass evidence wherever possible. This makes it nearly impossible to say when and where many things began.

Such is the case with the Magyar Vizsla, that most iconic of Hungarian sporting dogs. Ancestors of the Vizsla are believed to have been with the Magyar (Hungarian) tribes when they first arrived and conquered the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century. Exactly when the Vizsla breed originated is open to conjecture. The starting point for when a breed of hound resembling the Vizsla enters history is not open to speculation. It is commonly given as 1357, the year generally agreed upon when a Vizsla first appears in the historical record.

Distant Ancestors - Illuminated illustration from the Chronicon Pictum

Distant Ancestors – Illuminated illustration from the Chronicon Pictum

A Gift To The Future – Illuminated History
In the mid-14th century, King Louis I of Hungary (reigned 1342- 1382) decreed that an illuminated chronicle be created depicting the history, culture and life of Hungary. Officially it was known by its Latin name of Chronicon Pictum or Chronicon (Hungariiae) Pictum (also known as the Vienna Illuminated Chronicle), which in translation means “Illuminated Hungarian Chronicle”. That name is an apt description of the magnificent volume created. It contains 147 illuminated pictures (as well as text) that provide some of the best visual information on the culture, court life and lifestyle in the upper echelons of medieval Hungarian society during the reign of Louis I.

The illuminated artistic renderings are a tribute to the artistic ability of Mark Kalti, a priest who produced the work. Such was the combination of intimacy and accuracy in the Chronicon’s that it took Kalti nearly fifteen years to complete the work. It was then given by Louis to King Charles of France upon the engagement of the Louis’ daughter to Charles’ son. It would turn out to be more than a gift between royals, it was also a gift to the future that would come to inform a great deal of history, including that of the Vizsla.

Kalti’s work included the first documented representation of a dog resembling a Vizsla. It is found in a section of the Chronicon that provides information on falconry. Prior to the advent of firearms, hunters relied on falcons as their weapons of choice in hunting wild game. The role of finding and pointing out such animals was left to hounds that were most likely ancestors of the modern Vizsla. There has been a great deal of speculation as to what dog is portrayed in Kalti’s rendering. It was likely a yellow Turkish hound or a breed of hound from Transylvania. The hound’s appearance in the Chronicon is similar enough to the modern Vizsla that many believe this to be one of its forebears. Other references to dogs of similar stature and skill can be found in Hungarian documentation throughout the centuries leading right up to the modern age

The Vizsla - Hungarian Born & Bred

The Vizsla – Hungarian Born & Bred (Credit: Antoniodog)

A Rare Breed – On The Edge Of Extinction
During the period from the 18th through the mid-20th century, the Vizsla was quite literally an aristocratic dog. Most of the owners were the social elites of Hungary. This meant that a relatively small number were bred. Ownership was closely guarded by those who saw the Vizsla as much a symbol of wealth and refinement as it was a hunting dog. By the late 19th century, the Vizsla had become overwhelmed by pointer breeds in Hungary that were dominated by an influx of English setters and German Weimaraners. The number of pure bred Vizslas left in Hungary was miniscule. If something was not done, the Vizsla would soon become extinct. A group of breeders scoured the countryside, where they were able to collect a dozen pure breds. It was from this stock that the Vizsla rose once again in numbers and prominence over the course of the first four decades of the 20th century. Their growth prospects look assured until they took a disastrous turn for the worse during the Second World War.

Like everything else Hungarian, the Vizsla breed suffered irreparable harm when the fighting between German and Soviet forces came to Hungary during the latter part of 1944. As the Red Army fought its way across the country, the Vizslas, much like their aristocratic owners were subjected to murderous treatment. They were possessions of the wrong class, in the wrong country, at the wrong time. This led to the decimation of nearly all Vizslas in Hungary. The situation was dire by war’s end. Once again, the Vizsla was facing extinction. Fortunately, some of their aristocratic owners who had fled to the west took their Vizslas with them. Though they once again numbered little more than a dozen, this Vizsla stock would provide a resurgence in numbers. What also helped matters was that Vizslas were taken abroad to peaceful and prosperous countries such as the United States and Canada where they would soon thrive.

Growth Spurt - A healthy population of Vizslas have returned to Hungary

Growth Spurt – A healthy population of Vizslas have returned to Hungary (Credit: Adam Ziaja)

The Embodiment of Hungary – A Special Breed In A Special Land
The transport of Vizslas to the west following the Second World War was the beginning of a buildup that led to the healthy population that can be found throughout the world today. They have also returned to prominence in Hungary, valued as hunting dog, loyal companion and family pet. Their intelligence, beauty and grace has made them highly valued. In many ways, Vizslas are reflective of the land where they originated and the Hungarians who revere them. They are a special breed in a special land, seen by many as an embodiment of Hungarian greatness. To see a Vizsla in the Hungarian countryside is an unforgettable experience, a fascinating reminder of this iconic breed’s deep roots in the land of the Magyars.

A Breed Apart – The Hungarian Vizslas of Edgemont South Dakota: Going To The Dogs

According to a website that references U.S. census records in calculating the ethnicity of cities and towns in the United States, the most Hungarian place in South Dakota is Selby, a small town located just east of the Missouri River in the north part of the state. In case you did not know, South Dakota has never been known as a hotbed of Magyar immigration. That makes Selby something of an anomaly. Supposedly 2.88% of the town’s residents claim direct Hungarian descent. That doesn’t sound like very much, but it is more than twice the percentage of any other town in the state.

My own experience with the town did not reveal any signs of Hungarians. I traveled through Selby twelve years ago, during the dead of winter, only stopping to top off the gas tank. The temperature was hovering in the single digits and few people were around. It would have been an unlikely occurrence to meet any Hungarians there, almost as unlikely as Selby having the highest proportion of ethnic Hungarians of any town in South Dakota. I have no idea why a handful of Hungarians settled in the area, but this little piece of trivia I came across online lodged itself in my memory. Later, I wondered if it was true, especially after visiting another rural area in South Dakota. This is where I discovered another settlement with a modest proportion of Hungarians. The number and type of Hungarians turned out to a surprise, especially considering the location.

Ready For Action - A Vizsla In Standard Statuesque Pose

Ready For Action – A Vizsla In Standard Statuesque Pose (Credit: Tito Hentschel)

Dogged Existence – Living On The Edge
Edgemont, South Dakota lies on the edge of the southern Black Hills in the extreme southwestern part of the state. It is a forlorn town not on the way to anywhere other than equally remote parts of eastern Wyoming. Edgemont is little more than a service center for the ranches spread out across a vast area beyond the town limits. The town has been bleeding population for years and looks the part, with plenty of abandoned buildings in the central business district. The young leave, birth rates decline, the remaining population tends toward the elderly. On the surface, this seems to be about the only thing Edgemont has in common with anywhere in Hungary. The rural areas in both places are slowing dying off. Edgemont can hardly afford to lose any citizens either in the town or surrounding countryside.

From what I have seen there is only one stable population group in the area. Just 15 minutes north of town, tucked away where the Black Hills begin to rise, is a community consisting entirely of Hungarians and Germans. One which manages to replenish itself year after year. Their home can be found off a dirt road bordered by sandstone and intermittent pine forest. This community lives without the worries or stress found in more populated locales. What is the secret to their success? It is quite simple, the community has gone to the dogs. That is because two distinct breeds call the area home, they are Hungarian Vizslas and German Weimaraners sired at Blue Creek Kennels. The Vizslas sometimes number as many as twenty. If we divide 20 by the latest population figure of 711 for Edgemont, then that means the Vizslas are 2.8% of the population of Edgemont. That puts them on equal footing with those of ethnic Hungarian descent in Selby. And unlike Hungarians in Selby, the Vizslas of Edgemont are pure breeds with a blood line uncorrupted by interbreeding.

Pick of the Litter - Blue Creek Kennel

Pick of the Litter – Blue Creek Kennel (Credit: Blue Creek Kennel)

Pointed In The Right Direction – On The Hunt For Vizslas
Of course, Vizslas are not people, but they are certainly Hungarian. The Vizsla has become synonymous with Hungary and vice versa. It is their homeland, from where they first came to prominence and then spread around the world. They have also become a favorite breed of those searching for the finest hunting dogs in the world. Vizslas are pointer dogs valued for their keen instincts which make them masters at locating prey. They were prized by Hungarian aristocrats for their prowess on hunts and have lost none of that over the centuries. These same qualities are still valued by hunters all over Europe and North America today. They also make excellent companion dogs, known for their calm temperament and loyalty, the Vizsla is now as much a family as it is a hunting dog. Such traits convinced me and my wife to purchase a Vizsla from their newest home away from Hungary just outside of Edgemont.

It only took us five minutes to select the one we felt would be right for us. Standing affectionately, but calmly behind several other Vizslas leaping and lunging forward, was an eight month old pup with the stature and grace befitting one of the most regal dogs in the world. This Vizsla was soon in our arms and stole our hearts. We named him Tisza, after the great river of eastern Hungary. The river can never flow as fast as he can run. Tisza, like other Vizslas, can run at speeds up to 40 mph (64 kph). His personality turned out to be just as exuberant as his energy level. It took him no time to become a beloved member of our family, a constant reminder of the proud and refined nature of this most beloved Hungarian breed.

Tisza the Vizsla - A Hungarian Icon

Tisza the Vizsla – A Hungarian Icon

Something Of A Miracle – Return Of The Vizslas
The fact that Tisza and other Vizslas can be found in South Dakota is somewhat surprising, especially in a place as remote as the area around Edgemont. The fact that Vizslas can be found anywhere in the world today is downright astonishing. They are something of a miracle, brought back from near extinction in the mid-20th century. Hungary’s calamitous 20th century brought about the end of its aristocracy which had done so much to raise Vizslas to prominence. Many Vizslas suffered the same fate as their masters, but some managed to escape. They were carried away from communist Hungary by their owners, continuing their history which starts with documentation all the back to the late Middle Ages and continues today in such far flung areas as the American Great Plains. The Vizsla lives on both in the present and past.