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The Komondor is known for its distinctive white coat, which falls in heavy cords that casual observers often compare to a mop. But under this Hungarian livestock dog’s tassel-like masses is a dog whose story spans the vastness of European history, Their story traces all the way back to the Eurasian steppes that connect those two continents.

This ancient ancestry is encoded in the breed’s very name. Komondor – or quman-dur – literally means “dog of the Cumans,” a name recorded in writing as early as the mid-1500s.

Dog of the Cumans

If you’ve never heard of the Cumans, you’re of course forgiven. These wide-ranging pagans were absorbed into Hungarian culture centuries ago. The last native Cuman speaker died in the late 1700s. But reverberations of their culture remain in an ancestral sheepdog that has been kept remarkably undiluted across multiple centuries and thousands of miles.

The Cumans were believed to have originated far from Hungary, in an area of China east of the Yellow River. Despite their Asian origins, they were said to have blond hair and blue eyes. They also spoke an early Turkic language.

Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

Being nomadic pastoralists whose animal herds provided most of their sustenance, the Cumans didn’t farm. Instead, they lived in tents and consumed mostly meat, cheese, and milk. Even in early medieval times, they were noted as expert livestock breeders. Cream-colored Cuman horses were particularly prized, a valuable commodity that could be traded. So renowned was their culture’s expertise in all aspects of livestock that some groups would capture Cumans in order to train horses or manage flocks.

Given their highly mobile lifestyle and the importance of keeping their animals safe, the Cumans had an obvious need for a sturdy, loyal, and fearless livestock guardian like the Komondor. Plus, they had the breeding skills to develop such a dog. One whose impressively corded coat repelled the elements and blended seamlessly into the bleating herds, keeping them calm while retaining the element of surprise with marauding wolves and bears.

Sacred & Spiritual Dogs

Like other formidable breeds that evolved among nomadic peoples in the spare, forbidding swaths of Asia that the Cumans once called home, from Tibetan Mastiffs to Central Asian Shepherd Dogs, the Komondor had the physical and mental qualities necessary for survival on the harsh steppes. Among these qualities are strong bone to stand up against fearsome predators and an equally uncompromising temperament.

In addition to the Komondor’s key role in protecting Cuman livestock – or perhaps because of it – the Cumans considered the dogs to be sacred. Evidence of dog sacrifices has been found at Cuman burial sites. Cumans would also often swear important oaths over a dog that they cut in two with a sword.

While the end result for the dogs in both cases was less than optimal, their use in such contexts attests to their spiritual status, along with that of their wild brother and traditional adversary, the wolf. One Cuman chieftain was said to have howled along with wolves the evening before a battle to determine if his army would prevail.

Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

A Change in Customs

Starting in the late 10th century, the conquering Mongols began to push the Cumans westward toward Europe. They arrived at the Hungarian border a couple of centuries later.

They were met with a mixed reception. In 1239, the Cumans were granted asylum in Hungary. The Hungarian king hoped that their arrow-shooting horsemen could help repel the invading Mongols. But only a handful of years later, the Cuman royal family was massacred because of the court’s mistaken assumption that they were Mongolian spies. Most of the remaining Cumans departed soon after. In 1245, after the Mongol armies swept through, they rolled out the welcome mat again. And this time the Cumans stayed.


The Cumans were highly regarded for their military skills honed over centuries of raiding. Plus, their detailed metal face masks, right down to the hand-hammered mustaches and eyebrows, must have struck fear in the heart of any foe. For a time after their arrival in Hungary, they served as mercenaries in the king’s army. They had notable skill as mounted archers, and fought for him as far afield as Austria and Moravia, now the Czech Republic.

The once-nomadic Cumans settled on the Great Hungarian Plain, a bustling agricultural region. At first, they retained some of their pagan customs, consuming horse flesh and living in yurts or “felted houses,” as one contemporary account described them – a neat parallel to the coats of their Komondor dogs.

Known for its distinctive white, corded coat, the Komondor has a history that goes back to 1500s Hungary. Learn more about this breed's creation.

The Lasting Komondor

As they settled into their new Hungarian homeland, the Cumans began to assimilate. They converted to Christianity and abandoned their Eastern-style caftans, conical hats, and telltale hairstyle that comprised a shaved head above several braids that fell onto the men’s backs.

But even as Cuman culture dissolved into the very different Hungarian society around it, their dogs remained unchanged. So much so that, redundantly, Hungary has two white-coated livestock guardian breeds that have survived side by side for centuries. And, somewhat remarkably, they rarely intermingled. One is the more traditionally coated Kuvacz, associated with the Magyar clans that arrived in the region much earlier from the Ural Mountains of Russia. And the other is, of course, the Komondor.

Even today, with an ever-growing array of purebreds being recognized by the American Kennel Club, the Komondor stops the uninitiated in their tracks with its strikingly flocked coat, which can take more than two days to dry after a bath. There is indeed a muscular, dignified dog under that armor of matted locks – along with something a bit less tangible.

As their ancestors did before them, the Cumins left stone statues, called balbals, to mark burial grounds and crossroads along large swaths of the Eurasian plain. Excavated by archeologists, these anthropomorphic sentinels now reside in museums around the world. And in Hungary’s beloved Komondor, we have their canine corollary – a living, breathing whisper of a fierce people transplanted to Europe from Asia’s wind-whipped steppes.

Related article: Dandie Dinmont Terrier History: Behind the Breed
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