By Marton Dunai
KISUJSZALLAS, Hungary (Reuters) - When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife visited Hungary in May, social media sites lit up with people guessing why the high tech tycoon was in the country.
It turns out he owns a Puli, a Hungarian shepherd dog, wanted to learn more about it from a breeder and check out a kennel, surprising locals with a visit.
"They were very down-to-earth, and clearly in love with the pulis," breeder Ferenc Antal told Reuters.
The Puli is a mid-sized dog that grows long black or white fur which looks similar to dreadlocks. It accompanied nomadic Hungarian tribes more than 1,000 years ago. Its intelligence and affectionate nature make it a popular family pet.
With nine such unique dog breeds - Vizsla hunters, Komondor guard dogs, and others - Hungary could be a big canine exporter.
However, demand has been decimated by the sluggish global economy and the relaxed bureaucracy of the European Union and cheaper dogs without pedigrees have been outselling pure-bred dogs with official papers.
According to Andras Korozs, chief of the Hungarian Kennel Club, some dog varieties are on the verge of extinction because of this competition from undocumented dogs.
"Ten years ago, we gave pedigrees to 80,000 dogs per year," Korozs said. "Last year, we issued 20,000. This doesn't mean births are down, but owners don't spend the extra on pedigrees, because it's not worth the investment."
Zuckerberg come and gone, Ferenc Antal returned to his Pulis and brought another litter to the world in July. The puppies all found buyers within weeks - but Antal is still deep in the red.
"We have lost money on this for years," he said. "I breed cows for a living. Dogs are a hobby...few people can make a living out of breeding dogs alone."
One who can make money is Zsofia Miczek, a young woman who breeds wire-haired Vizslas, a version of the classic short-haired pointing dog, on a tiny spread near Budapest.
Because her dogs have won hundreds of trophies, they sell for over 1,000 euros ($1,300) abroad, making Miczek's business sustainable. She also trains dogs for hunting, which raises the price tag to several thousand euros.
"Such a dog is a big investment," Miczek said.
($1 = 0.7623 euros)
(Reporting by Marton Dunai, editing by Paul Casciato)