Dog trains man

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Once Upon a Time There Was a Mutt

The modern Hovawart
You probably remember the BBC show Pedigree Dogs Exposed. In 2009, it revealed how breeders prefer exterior characteristics above health. Crippled and sick dogs became the winners of dog shows and were used in breeding. The end of the pedigree dog as we know it was predicted.

What about the Hovawart?
During Kenzo's "passing the genes" project - interrupted by his neutering - we did a lot of research and soul-searching if it would be an ethical thing to pursue. And we decided to dig a little deeper into the history of the Hovawart.

Most breeder and Kennel Club websites paint a romantic picture of the Hovawart as a robust dog breed that has been around since medieval times. If you believe in fairy tales, stop reading.

The tale of the Hovawart starts in the Germany of 1922, when a group of German Shepherd dog breeders in the "Härzen" province (in former East-Germany) were disappointed by the decision of their club to stop breeding long-haired German Shepherds.

They decided to "create" their own long-haired breed and found a text in the Schwabenspiegel, the oldest Code of Law to survive from medieval Germany, referring to a type of dogs called "Hovawart". They were mentioned because they were valued dogs and stealing such a dog meant harsh punishment.

The author of the text that eventually led to the "Schwabenspiegel", Eike von Repgow, was saved himself as a little boy by one of those dogs, explaining why he valued them.

Courtesy of
"Hovawart" is old-German for "estate guard dog" and it is more likely the law text was referring to a type of dogs, instead of one particular breed. It attracted the group of breeders nonetheless, also because they found more records describing "estate guard dogs" saving human lifes.

A problem for the group was the texts did not describe how the dogs looked like, and they assumed the breed must have looked something like the dog on one of Albrecht Dürer's drawings (see picture to the left).

The group, led by the German zoologist Kurt F. König, started roaming the country-side for dogs resembling the image they already had created in their minds and crossed them with German shepherds, Newfoundlands, Kuvaczs, Leonbergers and African wild dogs.

König was the mind behind the blond colored Hovawart as well. As he worked on this during the years 1934-1945, and was later accused of "neo-darwinistic" views, we can make a good guess of where he found his inspiration for a blond Hovawart.

Castor Meyer-Busch, courtesy of
In 1932, they created their image of the perfect Hovawart with "Castor Meyer-Busch" and this dog would set his fingerprints on the future generations. He was 45% "type" dog, 12% Newfoundland, 15% Kuvacz and 28% German Shepherd.

I do not know what the effect of all this crossing was on the gene pool for the Hovawart. A lot of breeds contributed to the first Hovawarts. The use of the "type" dog - basically a mutt? - must have added a lot of diversity. But like with all breeding, which individuals were predominantly used? They would have had the biggest effect on the gene pool for later generations.

What also affected the gene pool was the 2nd World War, which decimated the ranks, as Hovawarts were working dogs and were conscripted by the army to die on the fronts. After the war, the Iron Curtain divided the remaining gene pool in two as well. Even today it reflects in the Hovawart. Dogs bred in the West were predominantly working dogs and pets. Which made them more compact and almost loose their undercoat. In the East they where still used as estate guarding dogs living outside, and this made a robust dog with a lot of undercoat.

As with most working dog breeds during the 60-ties and 70-ties, the Hovawart was plagued by hip-dysplasia (HD) and breeding was restricted on dogs with a form of HD in their ancestry. This meant roughly half of the population could not be used in breeding. And although it solved the HD threat concerning the Hovawart, the side-effect of an ever diminishing gene pool soon was revealed. Some lines now had dogs which acted more aggressive than before.

This was counter-measured as well with mandatory mental-testing, but it revealed the dilemma of the pedigree dog once more. Each restriction is made to make the breed healthier, but also shrinks the gene pool and thereby increases the inbreeding factor and future risks.

How the Hovawart will evolve will depend on that inbreeding factor. Seen in that light it is positive the Hovawart show world is not solely focused on external characteristics. You see that when you go to a Hovawart show. They differ in size, coat structure and coloring, and the local "champs" do not resemble each other as perfected clones, even for the untrained eyes.

Is that enough? Or does it only buy time and is the Hovawart already destinated to share its faith with all other "breeds" that are the result of a hundred years of mankind trying to mess with nature? Hovawart breeders face a difficult task. Wrong decisions will shrink the gene pool even more. And good decisions are not rewarded, as the gene pool is never widened.


  1. Excellent post. I've heard before people saying that the hovawart is a breed that is not quite "finished" as there are differences in looks. But that's one of the reason I got attracted to the breed in the first place. A lot of work has been put into breeding a robust, healthy dog with steady temperament and good working abilities. I think many are breeding more and more for looks though and while I would be lying if I was saying that looks doesn't matter to me when selecting a stud dog or a pup, I do hope we will never put that criteria first.

  2. Thank-you for sharing this interesting look at the Hovawart breed! I did not know that there are Kuvasz genes floating around in there.

  3. Wow! What an excellent post! I have to admit that I have been very curious about the Hovawart breed since I have been reading your blog and I really never realized that the Newfoundland was a part of the breed, but the closer I look I can see it, especially in the black one on the left in the top picture. I sure hope the Hovawart breed isn't destined for what other breeds have come too.

  4. @Spicemill
    Good point, and being a "young" breed gives us the unique opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others. It will be difficult to resist that urge towards looks and breeding champs if Hovawart breeding would become as competitive as many other breeds. In that sense I like to think that is still a lot of passion with Hovawart breeders, but we should seek regulation (Kennel Clubs?) before we move there where we actually don't want to go.

    It is, glad I did the research, wonder where all that white fur went? :)

    Thank you! There are 4 lines of Hovawarts with different "mixes", and the Newfoundland is in each line, varying between 8%-15%. And you are right it shows most in the black Hovawart ... How it is possible that one litter of Hovawarts can contain each color is a puzzle to me, but I must admit I do not know enough of genetics to be able to answer that question.

  5. Wow! Thanks for the great informational post. It is fascinating to learn about the different breeds :)

  6. This is a very interesting post on the breed, I was only slightly familiar with them and interested to learn more. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Fascinating -- and funny to think where mistranslations and literal interpretations can lead. I'm glad that Herr Koenig didn't entirely prevail and that all kinds of multicultural, multicolored Hovawarts exist. Great pictures, too!

  8. @Julie
    Thanks! maybe it also tells something about the breeds that could be in Cali as she resembles a Hovawart so much (or is actualy a Hovawart mix :)

    How interesting! How did you come to know them?

    It is with mixed feelings I have to thank Herr König for my wonderful blond pooches. Gladly he did something right in life, although not intended :)

  9. Thanks for all of this information. I imagine some other rare breeds have a similar backstory. After all, messing around with nature is what we humans do best. It will be interesting to see how or if things change. With luck, there will be a much more positive and healthy future for the Hovawarts.

    As a sidenote, I am guilty of a little bit of snobbery when it comes to dog breeds vs. cat breeds. Since most cat breeds are very new, I questioned why humans keep manipulating bloodlines, what the point of creating new feline breeds is. However, clearly many "old" dog breeds are actually quite new. That changes my thought process quite a bit.

  10. Wow! Great research there. Ya know, breeding is solely a human thing anyway. Have you ever seen a dog refuse to sniff another dog's butt at the dog park?

  11. Wow Leo. I cannot believe I missed this post!
    Thank you for sharing the history behind how the Hovawart came to be. I had no idea! It's so interesting to know that Hovawarts can be so different in the ring as well. I was not aware of that but assumed they were similar in size and coloring. Now that I think about it, I don't think I have ever seen a Hovawart compete in any U.S. dog shows. IDo they compete at Westminster?

    I think that many dog breeds are in danger. I hope that breeders do the wise thing and save the breed. They are majestic and beautiful dogs.

    Thank you for educating us on the breed. Just wonderful to be able to learn more.


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