The e-mail was brief but ebullient:
Bud: Friday at 11 a.m. is fine! Have a terrific day! – Jack
It was Jack Sharkey’s response to my request for an interview. The Vizsla Club of America’s Dr. Sylvia Kerr, a noted breeder-judge and my club contact for this story, said if I was going to write about the Vizsla I’d want to talk with Sharkey. She knew what I would soon find out: He’s a great guy with a great story—make that many great stories—to tell. But all I knew about Sharkey when I received his e-mail was that I liked his enthusiasm: 10 words and two exclamation points. A 10:2 word-to-exclamation- point ratio is excellent; it indicates the interviewee is gung-ho about his object of expertise.
In this case, the object was Hungary’s russet-coated dog-of-all-trades, the Vizsla. As I discovered while talking with the breed’s American fanciers, the exclamation point and the Vizsla were made for each other. If this breed could talk (one of the few things it can’t do—yet) it would say things like “Yes I can!,” “Go for it!” and other such interjections that defy question marks and periods. After acknowledging his sleek, aristocratic beauty, the thing that strikes you about the Vizsla is his boundless enthusiasm for work, for play, and for that one subject that fascinates him beyond all others: the person lucky enough to own him.
You Can’t Ignore a Vizsla
The Vizsla was developed by the Magyars, Asian nomads who swept into Europe after the disintegration of the Roman Empire and established a home base in the land now called Hungary.
The Magyars were a kingdom on horseback, one whose fierce, lightning-fast cavalry charges routed the plodding armies of Western Europe as far afield as France. The fortunes of these marauding horsemen depended on breeding mounts of great speed, endurance, and maneuverability, traits the Magyars also bred into their dogs.
Magyar chieftains were proud men, sensitive to the “barbarian” label hung on them by the Romanized peoples they conquered. They strove to acquire the trappings of nobility, the better to meet on equal footing the rulers of post-empire Europe. And, as the ancient Egyptians taught the Romans a thousand years before, a nobleman looks a bit nobler with an elegant dog by his side.
During centuries of European upheavals, this elegance never left the breed, and it arrived in the United States intact. “There’s not a big difference between the elegance seen in the ring today and in the photos of the early foundation dogs from Europe,” says breed historian Marion Coffman, of Ocala, Florida.
Elegance is a word that crops up constantly among fanciers, almost as often as the word versatile. Coffman, who bred the first AKC Triple Champion of any breed (a Vizsla, of course), is so enamored with Vizsla versatility that she recites the dictionary definition by rote: “ Capable of adapting easily from one to another of various tasks, and the Vizsla fits that description.”
Interlude: Under the Iron Curtain
The American servicemen had been to Europe, and those hunters among them had seen, firsthand, the efficacy of the now so-called ‘Continental’ breeds, which include the German Shorthaired and Wirehaired Pointers, Weimaraners, Brittanys, Vizslas, and Wirehaired Pointing Griffons. These were all marvelous, utilitarian breeds that put game on the tables of those American hunters who were fortunate enough to own a specimen.” – A. Hamilton Rowan Jr., 1984.
After World War II, the Allies divided the continent of Europe into spheres of democratic and communist influence. Winston Churchill coined the phrase “iron curtain” to describe the grim isolation of Soviet satellite states in the central and eastern sectors. The Communist regime in Budapest was notoriously repressive. Hungarian patriots resisted in every way they knew, including wholesale revolt.
“Some refugees resolutely found ways to steal across the border with their dogs to find a better way of life,” wrote Vizsla breeder Anne Denehy in a 2000 Gazette article. “There are many stories of valorous Hungarians attempting to flee with their beloved Vizslas, some of whom lost their lives in the effort.”
Sari was a Vizsla owned by a refugee who smuggled her into Rome. Frail and emaciated from the ordeal, Sari recuperated nicely and was bred. Meanwhile, her owner gained passage to Israel, only to discover that Sari would be barred entry.
Vizslas in the U.S.
Emmett Scanlon was a U.S. State Department employee posted in Rome. He heard of Sari and contacted his friend and Kansas City dog man Frank Tallman. The Vizsla was a breed known only by reputation in the United States, and Tallman was intrigued. Sari and her get, Tito and Shasta, were flown from Rome to Kansas City.
They arrived stateside in 1950, the first of many boot-legged imports who became the foundation of the Vizsla in America. Tallman received AKC permission to exhibit Sari and her pups in the Miscellaneous classes at the 1951 Heart of America Kennel Club how. It was the breed’s debut in the U.S. show ring. A year later, Sari again made history by whelping the first American-bred Vizslas.
The club that would be renamed the Vizsla Club of America was formed in 1953. Tallman was president, and Scanlon vice president. Today’s breed fancy acknowledges a debt to them and others who planted the Vizsla in America. From Denehy: “They focused their energies on the many detailed steps required to develop the bloodlines, gathering available pedigrees— of which almost none existed after the war—and providing the necessary generations of documented pedigrees to satisfy recognition requirements.”
In 2021, the Vizsla ranked 32 of 197 breeds.