In “Hungarian Dog Breeds,” published in 1977, authors Pál Sárkány and Imre Ócsag address the almost mystical relationship that has existed for centuries between the shepherd and his eager and intelligent sheepdogs: “A shepherd who took pride in his job would boast of his clever Puli, who was more than just a dog in his eyes.”

According to Sárkány and Ócsag, the name Puli appeared for the first time in literature in 1751. The word refers to small active sheepdogs that are thought to have arrived on the Hungarian Steppe with the Magyars more than a thousand years ago.

The Puli Club of America’s Illustrated Guide to the Puli supports a link between the breed and the Hungarian people. “Records indicate that the Puli was working the plains of the Puszta as early as the 9th century, but there are those who believe the Puli existed as a working sheepdog for thousands of years prior to this, perhaps as early as 4500 B.C.”

Whatever the breed’s exact origin, the name Puli was given to any small and willing sheepdog. Bred for centuries for its intelligence and working ability, shepherds gave little regard to their dogs’ outward appearance, concentrating their efforts only on those dogs that could perform. As Sárkány and Ócsag indicate, “It has been noted that shepherds were willing to give their whole year’s salary for a good dog…”

In the 19th century, the names Puli and Pumi were both used in different parts of Hungary to describe these dogs, until the latter – the result of crosses with various French and German breeds – was standardized in the early 20th century. Controlled breeding of the Puli only began prior to the first World War in an effort to save the breed from extinction.

Dr. Emil Raitsits, a professor at the Hungarian University of Veterinary Medicine, undertook the task of writing the first standard for the Puli and its cousins in 1920. His description of the Puli in those days emphasizes both the breed’s unique physical appearance as well as its true working nature: “He is lively, very alert, nimble, faithful, loyal and most apt to learn.”

In 1935, the U.S. Department of Agriculture imported four Pulik (plural for Puli) to conduct experimental exercises with sheepdogs. A 1990 cover story in the AKC Gazette indicates that a total of 35 purebred Pulik were introduced, with crosses made to German Shepherd Dogs, Border Collies and Chow Chows. “World War II brought the program to a close without any conclusions, and the remaining Pulik were sold,” according to the article.

The first Puli was registered with the American Kennel Club in 1936, and the Puli Club of America was formed in 1951.

As might be expected, most Pulik no longer work sheep, even in their native Hungary. As noted by the PCA’s illustrated guide, “Today the Puli is content to be both pet and protector, substituting his family for the former flock of sheep, adapting quite readily to home or apartment living.”

Tough and talented, with an inscrutable appeal, the Puli has enjoyed the support of fanciers who delight in the charms of these captivating mystics. Registrations for the breed in 2012 place it 145th of the 175 AKC-recognized breeds.

The Puli is a hard-working herder with an ancient history and an inscrutable appeal. Photo by Dan Sayers.

Square Appearing
One look at the Puli and it’s easy to understand why shepherds considered the breed to be something other than merely a dog. “Vigorous, alert and active,” according to the General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard, this Hungarian herder’s dramatic good looks and sprightly action combine in a wholly original form.

The Puli is compact in construction, with a well-balanced square body. Measuring 17 inches in height for dogs and 16 inches for bitches, the Puli is considered a “medium size” breed and “medium boned.”

Its “tightly knit” body is distinguished for its moderate substance and proportion. Length, as measured from point of shoulder to point of buttock and ground to withers, should approximate a square. “An inch over or under these measurements is acceptable,” according to the standard.

In an AKC Gazette breed column titled, “The Issue of Size,” Ann Bowley addresses the need to protect breed type by maintaining correct size. “The Hungarians say that too big is a problem, too small is never a problem,” she notes.

The parent club’s illustrated guide warns against illusions created by the coat. “Hands-on examination is more important in this breed than in others in order to insure that proper proportions are present. A heavily coated Puli may appear disproportionately long due to the masses of cords on the front and rear, and the extension of the head and neck when in motion. Squareness should always be measured on the table and not when the dog is moving.”

A Striking Coat
A “shaggy” coat is one of the hallmarks of the Puli. The breed’s “dense, weather resistant” pelage is profuse on all parts of the body. The coat, a combination of a wavy or curly outer coat and a soft, wooly and dense undercoat, “clumps together easily” to form cords in the adult dog. Better protection – and a more unusual jacket – would be hard to imagine.

“The cords are wooly, varying in shape and thickness, either flat or round, depending on the texture of the coat and the balance of undercoat to outer coat.” As noted in the illustrated guide, Pulik are not born with cords. “As a puppy loses its puppy coat, the soft hairs become entangled with the sturdy guard hairs, forming mats which at about 10 months of age begin to separate into cords. At maturity, it is the shedding undercoat which tangles with the long guard hairs to form cords.”

Cording of the coat is a “process,” and its presentation in the show ring is best left to the experts. Climate and condition are said to impact the amount of coat, and the hair may grow to a considerable length with the cords reaching floor length.

Pulik may be a variety of solid colors, including rusty black, black, all shades of gray and white. The standard allows for a white spot on the chest “of not more than 2 inches.” Both the black and the gray dogs may present “an intermixture of some gray, black or white hairs,” provided the solid color appearance is maintained. Gray Pulik are born dark and lighten with maturity. White Pulik are born white, although a “minimal mixture of yellow or cream-colored” hair may be present without detracting from the solid white appearance. The fully pigmented skin has a bluish or gray cast whatever the coat color.

The Puli may also be shown with the coat brushed out, as noted by the illustrated guide. “There should be no preference for either narrow or wide cords, nor for the brushed versus corded coat, as long as the necessary double coat is evident.”

Acrobatic and Animated
“The Puli is typically a lively, acrobatic dog; light, quick, agile and able to change directions instantly,” according to the standard’s section on gait. This versatile working breed performs its intended role as herder through its agility. As noted in the illustrated guide, “The Puli’s agility allows it to run, jump and change direction instantly, even in mid-air.”

In a 1998 AKC Gazette breed column titled, “Is the Puli Short-Stepping or Far-Reaching?” guest columnist Leslie J. Benis attempts to correct some misconceptions about Puli movement. In his examination, he acknowledges that misunderstandings can arise when the original terminology of a standard becomes antiquated. “For this reason, an old text can be misunderstood.”

Benis indicates that a properly built Puli is capable of traveling at a variety of gaits. “A Puli almost never walks when performing its ancient duty of herding. It trots at a moderate pace, using medium strides… But more often, it will travel in a suspended or flying trot, with longer strides. And it gallops when it has to go after runaway sheep.”

The breed standard describes the Puli’s distinctive “collected, or contained” gait as “quick-stepping and animated.” This distinctive movement is essential to the style of herding performed by the breed. “Agility, combined with soundness of mind and body, is of prime importance for the proper fulfillment of this centuries-old task.”

With its distinctive movement, striking coat and square construction, the Puli of today is still able to carry out the strenuous work of herding flocks on the plains of Hungary, even if its main role is as a pet that’s “more than just a dog.”