Hungarian Puli

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Hungarian Puli

The Hungarian Puli, with its distinctive, Bob Marley-style dreadlocks, is a small herding dog with a long history. While it is for its looks that it is best known by the public at large, it is its personality that grabs the attention of those that know the breed. Although it now rarely works as a sheep-herder, it retains the independent, tenacious, and sometimes bossy personality it needed to work its flock without direction from the shepherd, and it needs an experienced owner who can manage its assertive attitude. As a pastoral breed, it is naturally protective of its flock, which, in most cases, is its family, and it is instinctively gentle and tolerant towards children.

Its working past involved a great deal of collaboration with other dogs, and it is therefore not surprising that it is a sociable character in the company of other canines. However, the Puli does not extend this amiable disposition to smaller pets, and it has a relatively high prey drive that can put cats and other animals in danger. It is also a vigilant dog that is suspicious of strangers, and it makes a good watch dog, though its fondness for persistent barking can prove a headache. Far from being a sign of neglect, the corded coat requires a great deal of maintenance, and some owners opt for the easier option of keeping their Puli’s hair clipped short. Those wanting to keep it in the traditional cords generally take some instruction from Puli breeders or professional groomers on the particular techniques required. Due to ruthless selection processes by Hungarian shepherds over many centuries, the breed has a low incidence of disease, and this healthy breed has a life expectancy of 13 to 15 years.

About & History

The Magyars, a nomadic people from central Asia, settled the region of the Carpathian basin that was to become modern-day Hungary around 1100 years ago, and brought several breeds of dog with them. While they depended primarily on farming for their survival, they were also hunters, and used Vizsla-type dogs in combination with falcons to catch rabbits and birds. The Magyars had two types of dog that were important to them in looking after their flocks of sheep, a smaller breed that kept the flock together and was alert to danger, and a larger guardian breed that could be called into action against predators and would-be rustlers. The latter became known as the Komondor; the former, the Puli. It is thought the Puli’s history can be traced back even further, with archaeological evidence of a similar small dog with corded hair being recovered from a 6000-year-old tomb of a shepherd in Iran.

Despite being a very capable working dog, the Puli suffered an enormous decline in demand during the nineteenth century, as farming practices changed. The breed was essentially rediscovered by Dr. Emil Raitsits of the Budapest School of Veterinary Medicine in 1912, and was subsequently brought back from the verge of extinction through an intensive breeding programme. It suffered further setbacks in the wake of the subsequent World Wars, but the export of several dogs to the United States and other areas of Europe in the 1930s meant that breeding continued on a large enough scale to ensure its survival. It remains something of a niche breed, with less than 100 individual dogs being newly registered by the Kennel Club each year.

Appearance

Hungarian Puli Large Photo

The appearance of the Puli is somewhat deceiving, for it can be difficult to appreciate the frame underlying its dense carpet of hair. It is a medium-sized dog, with a body that is as little as one-third its apparent width. Similarly, while it appears quite stocky, it is actually relatively fine-boned and light. It has a small, narrow skull and a straight, fine muzzle, with no appreciable stop between the two. The nose is small and black, and the tight lips are similarly pigmented. The eyes, usually hidden unless the surrounding hair is tied back, are dark brown in colour, medium-sized, and set obliquely. Its ears are set at eye level and have a broad base and a blunted V shape.

The Puli has a short, strong neck, and a body outline that can be encompassed by a square, with a level back that is equal in length to the height at the withers. Its long chest is very well sprung, and not quite let down to the point of the elbows. The abdomen rises slightly from the level of the brisket to the pelvic brim. The Puli’s tail is long, but this is difficult to appreciate, as it is generously covered in hair and carried curled over the rump. The breed’s athleticism is seen in its well-angulated, muscular limbs, and it has a lively, mincing gait.

While puppies have a soft, wavy coat, the harsher outer hairs and soft undercoat interweave over time, with cords beginning to form by one year of age. These cords take up to four years to fully develop, at which point they may reach the ground. The Puli can be one of several colours:

  • Black
  • Black with rusty or grey shadings
  • Fawn with a black mask
  • Grey
  • Pearl white

Although the breed standards of the past recognised different size categories for the Puli, these divisions have long been eliminated, and males should be between 39 and 45 cm (15–18 in) tall at the withers, with females measuring 36 to 42 cm (14–17 in). Males are also significantly heavier, at 13–15 kg (29–33 lb), in comparison to the typical 10–13 kg (22–29 lb) range for females.

Character & Temperament

The Hungarian Puli is a spirited, tough little dog. It is extremely clever, but this sometimes means it prefers to think for itself rather than behaving as its owner would like. Its loyalty and courage mean that it will often try to take charge of a situation if it feels its people might be in danger. While this is an admirable trait, it does need to be managed, for the Puli is naturally suspicious of strangers, and can therefore be overly sensitive and protective.

Having been expected to work independently with its flock, it may instinctively want to control the movement of other animals and people in the home, and will commonly circle and butt anyone it feels is straying off-course. This behaviour should be discouraged through distraction lest it progress to nipping at people’s ankles over time. Through its history of working collaboratively with other dogs, it has good canine social skills, and it is a very reliable dog with children of all ages. Unfortunately, its tendency to see smaller pets as prey means it cannot be homed with cats or other animals.

Trainability

Photo of Hungarian Puli puppy

A well-trained Puli is an obedient dog, and can perform well at herding and obedience trials. However, its tendency to independent thought means that owners must make training interesting, enthusiastic, and broken into short sessions to prevent boredom setting in.

As this is a good watch dog that will bark persistently on hearing or seeing anything suspicious, it is very worthwhile to invest time in teaching a “quiet” command as part of the Puli’s repertoire.

Health

It is said that the Hungarian shepherds who were originally responsible for the Puli’s breeding were ruthless in culling dogs with health or behavioural problems. As grim as this is to contemplate, it also means that this is now recognised as one of the healthiest breeds, and it has a very low incidence of inherited disease, with the exception of hip dysplasia, which is not uncommon.

  • Hip dysplasia – Malformation of the hip joints, which becomes apparent in most affected dogs by one year of age, manifesting as hindlimb stiffness or lameness. As this is a very active breed, the condition can impact considerably on the dog’s quality of life, restricting its ability to exercise. Various medical and surgical treatment approaches can be applied to hip dysplasia, and feeding a good-quality diet while keeping the dog at its optimum weight is important to slow the progression of arthritic change within the joint. All adults should be hip scored, with only those receiving good scores being used for breeding.
  • Multifocal retinal dysplasia – Congenital defect in the formation of the retina, the structure within the eye that is largely responsible for vision. Puli breeders are encouraged to have their breeding dogs screened for the condition in order to reduce its prevalence, and should be able to produce certificates of ocular health for their dogs at the request of prospective buyers.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Puli is highly athletic, and has the somewhat amusing habit of spinning on the spot whenever it is overcome with an unexpected burst of energy. Despite its relatively small size, it is an ideal jogging companion, and will happily run for an hour in mild weather. Less active owners need to ensure the Puli has access to a garden in which to play, though it must be securely fenced, as it is known to be a capable climber.

Grooming

There are several ways to manage the Puli’s coat. The first is to have it clipped short, thus allowing it to be treated like any other dog, with regular brushing, bathing, and trips to the grooming parlour. Owners can choose to keep the hair long, but to comb and brush it frequently enough to prevent it tangling – this is difficult to achieve, and is frowned upon in the world of dog showing, so it is difficult to see the appeal of this approach.

Traditionally, the Puli’s coat is allowed to form cords, as is its natural tendency. These, too, require a lot of work, for there is a fine balance between cording and matting, with the latter causing pinching and discomfort to the dog. The cords need to be separated and brushed several times weekly, as they attract dust and debris, and as they can reach to the ground, the Puli can gather considerable quantities of both. While the corded coat can be washed, this is an onerous undertaking, with the hair taking around two days to dry, and should not be done unless it is absolutely essential.

Famous Hungarian Pulis

Though it is something of a niche breed, the Puli has had several high-profile owners:

  • Gavin Rossdale from the band Bush, had a Puli named Winston that featured on one of the band’s album covers
  • Mark Zuckerburg, creator of Facebook, owns a Puli named Beast
  • T.C. Boyle, an American novelist, is known to be a fan of the breed

Cross-Breeds

The Puli has a hardcore fan base that does not like to dabble in cross-breeding – to my knowledge, there are no recognised hybrids derived from the breed.

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