There’s an old Czech saying, “Like dog, like master,” and this applies to no one better than Frantisek Horak, the creator of the Cesky Terrier. Horak persevered through World War II and a communist revolution with terrier-like determination to create his vision of a new hunting breed, the Cesky Terrier— perhaps the only breed with no gaps in its studbook. Ironically, Horak’s project was unintentionally assisted by a communist government.
Ceskys (pronounced “chess-keys”)—also known as the Czech Terrier and Bohemian Terrier—are now well established in over 20 countries outside the Czech Republic.
Hunting was an integral part of life in medieval Bohemia, and while the kingdom and other neighboring states would eventually become the Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and finally the Czech Republic in 1993, hunting with dogs is still important to Czech culture today.
The Cesky Fousek or Czech wirehaired Pointing Griffon is the oldest recognizable type. Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, kept a great kennel of these dogs in the 14th century. The first dog organization and studbook—the Central Society for Chase and Hunting Dogs’ Protection—was formed in 1883 to preserve hunting dogs, and subsequent cynological groups followed suit. To young Frantisek Horak, hunting and dogs were inseparable.
After the end of World War I, the 9-year-old Horak began to own and breed dogs under his parents’ supervision. It was the beginning of his lifelong fascination with canine traits and hunting with dogs in the Bohemian forests near Prague. Between the wars, Horak came to believe that a dog’s function should be paramount and took Lovu Zdar, which translates as “Successful Hunter,” for his kennel name.
At the beginning of World War II, Horak had Scottish Terriers and a Sealyham Terrier, two burrow breeds renowned for toughness and hunting ability, but lamented the absence of a Czech terrier that was better suited for hunting rabbit, pheasant, duck, fox, badger, and bringing the occasional wild boar to bay.
Horak liked qualities in both his terrier breeds and believed that selective breeding could create a dog ideal for hunting and companionship. His planned experimental breeding had to be shelved during the war years of turmoil and hardship, but true to their kennel name, his terriers caught game in the forests east of Prague and helped feed both his family and themselves. More than ever, Horak became determined to create his perfect hunting terrier and see it recognized as a national breed.
Two years after the war’s end, a communist revolution transformed Czechoslovakia into an Eastern Bloc country. Around that time Horak’s job as an accountant for an engineering company ended, presumably as a result of the new socialist government. As the communist ideology of “no one unemployed” came into play, Horak was “assigned” to the Physiology Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Science and worked there until retiring at the age of 76. Under the tutelage of a senior professor, Horak studied epilepsy, learning about genetics and the scientific method.
A quick study, he applied these principles to breeding dogs and horses. Like his famous countryman Gregor Mendel, the “father of genetics,” Horak kept meticulous records about his experiments with inheritance. His background in accountancy combined with the academy training was to result in the most thoroughly documented dog breed ever to exist.
Horak’s vision was that the dog should be clever, companionable, and somewhat shorter and narrower than the Scottie and Sealyham to fit down burrows more easily. Temperament was also key and the Cesky Terrier was to be aggressive in the hunt yet friendly with humans. The Sealyham’s drop ear and Scotty’s darker coat color and pigment were preferred traits, but Horak wanted to breed out the wiry over-coat of both.
For a family dog, care and grooming should be simple and Horak decided the tail was to be left undocked and the silky coat trimmed only with a clipper rather than tediously hand stripped. In fact, the precise clipping is intended to show off their musculature, while leaving long hair around the face and underline as some protection against biting quarry. It is worth noting that the function and appearance of the Cesky coat are so important that the manner of clipping is specified in the AKC standard to prevent the dog’s look from being repurposed by overzealous groomers.
Horak bred his first Cesky Terrier litter in 1949 and one puppy survived to adulthood — only to be accidentally shot by a hunter. Undaunted, he persevered until his beloved breed was at last recognized by the FCI in 1963. It was the first national Czech breed, for despite its greater antiquity the Cesky Fousek was not recognized until the following year. There was great interest in this new terrier, and Horak began to correspond with breeders and fanciers all over the world. The volume of foreign letters once caused the feared secret police to knock on his door, demanding to know what international subversion was going on with his correspondents. Horak pugnaciously replied, “You know why they are writing to me, because you have already opened the letters and read them!”
Idealogical change was to play one final part in Horak’s work. After four decades of communism, the Czech people had become disenchanted and their aptly named “Velvet Revolution” ended the regime in 1989. Four years later, Czechoslovakia separated into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. This political change finally gave Horak the freedom to promote the Cesky Terrier, so before his death in 1996 he knew his vision for the breed had been realized.
Most Americans, upon first seeing a Cesky Terrier, exclaim, “What a cute Schnauzer!” Charlene Ewen, president of the American Cesky Terrier Fanciers Association, says this is beginning to change as the public and dog fancy gradually become aware of this scarce bred and its singular characteristics. In the late 1980s, admirers who had lived in the Czech Republic or who had Czech ancestry began importing specimens of the bred to America and working toward bred recognition. In 2011, when the breed gained AKC recognition, there were around 500 Ceskys registered in America and nine breeders.
By 2020, Cesky Terriers remained rare, ranking 191 of 195 breeds.