The cords. It’s what everyone notices first when they look at a Puli—and not all of them will take the time to look past them. But subscribe to this judge-a-dog-by-its-coat mentality and you risk missing out on one of the funniest dogs in the show ring.
Sure, they’re a serious herding breed with a history that may date back to A.D. 900 and a much-vaunted place in the hearts of Hungarians to this day. But the Puli is also, quite simply, a clown.
Puli Club of America president Barbe Pessina recalls once being in the ring with a Puli who wasn’t paying attention. She rummaged in her pocket and found a rat toy she used with her Norwich Terriers. It would have to do. Pessina pulled out the toy, which she describes as “this shocking blue fuzzy thing.” The Puli snatched it.
“I couldn’t get it away from him,” she says. “He was walking through the group ring going squeak, squeak, squeak. Everyone was cracking up—me, too!—and he knew it. And the more we laughed, the more he wouldn’t give it up. They really do love to be funny.”
Of course, the Puli also has another occupation, the one they were bred to do. (Just like the best human comedians, most Pulik have a more serious side. But more on that in a minute.)
Most books on the breed trace the Puli to ancient communities in India, western China, and Tibet. The Cuman people were said to have brought the dogs—whose corded coat developed to protect them from both bitter frost and summer heat—to Hungary in the mid-13th century. Though, records show Pulis worked the plains of Puszta as early as the 9th century and some believe the Puli worked as a sheepdog as early as 4500 B.C.
In Hungary, the Puli endured the tumult of Turkish invasion and Austrian occupation. Shepherds in Hungary valued Pulik so much, that they would pay a year’s salary for the special herding dogs.
“They were ruthless in maintaining working qualities and would eliminate any dogs that didn’t show these qualities immediately,” says the Puli Club of America. “To survive, the Puli had to be physically sound and mentally capable, agile and willing to work.”
But in the 1800s, a calmer period for the breed and their people, the Puli we know today began to emerge. This oft-quoted phrase was found in a book from 1924: “The Puli used around sheep is always lower than the highest point of the shepherd’s boots.”
Shepherds prized their Pulik for their “quick intelligence, speed, and turn-on-a-dime agility,” writes Susi Szeremy in her history of the breed distributed by the PCA at judge’s education seminars. This admiration lives on in Hungary today, where citizens still proudly claim, “It’s not a dog, it’s a Puli!”
Pulik in America
That pride finally made its way Stateside in 1935, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture imported four purebred Pulik to help them with a conundrum: herding dogs who sometimes killed the animals they were meant to be guarding. During the experiment, the Puli scored incredibly well compared to other dogs, and was said to have been crossed with other breeds including the GSD and the Chow Chow.
Results were never published, however, and when World War II broke out, the Pulik were sold to professional breeders. Those four dogs are thought to be the beginnings of the American Puli population today.
“As with many Hungarian breeds, World War II was not good to the Puli. Many of them were killed by bombs and bullets, devastating many lines. It took years to bring them back,” says Anna Quiqley, past president of the Puli Club of America.
A new life in the U.S. did not mean all was perfect for the O Puli yet, however.
“Back in the ’70s, they were very different temperament-wise than they are today,” says Pessina, who first spied a corded Puli at Westminster early in that decade. She shared a Hungarian background with the breed, and was smitten. Even if they still had what she calls a “working temperament.”
Sylvia Owens was the woman that pioneered the Puli breed in America and her dog was the first of the breed to take Best in Show.
The Corded Coat
While there is nothing in the standard about how a Puli may or may not be groomed, Pessina says: “If you want to compete at the group level, you need that corded coat to the ground.” Adds Anspach, “When you show in conformation, you pretty much pray over each cord.”
The U.S. is one of the only countries to allow Pulik to be shown in a brushed (non-corded coat). Early Pulik in the country, arriving in the 1930s, didn’t have the best coats for cording, which is why many Pulik in older photos are brushed out and not corded. However, a corded coat will always give a Puli the most protection and allows them to best do the job they were bred to do.
People are fascinated by the cords. Here are the answers to the breed’s FAQs:
- The Puli is not born corded.
- The undercoat starts to come in at around 9–10 months. Pessina calls it the “lumpy mattress” stage.
- Shedding and tangles form the cords. * It can take five years to grow a full corded coat.
- Most pet owners clip the cords and keep their dogs in a puppy cut—or with cords that are just a few inches in length.
- The texture of the cords “is like a mop,” says Pessina. “If they get wet, they absorb the water. If you don’t dry them, they mildew. If they mildew, they rot—and they don’t smell good!”
- In Hungary, many Puli owners would shear their working dogs so they had cords only on their rear end.
- Bath time is a production: “It takes me about an hour and a half to go through the coat and separate the cords,” says Pessina. “Then about an hour in the tub—to bathe them, rinse them out, condition them. Then, most of mine are under two dryers for 10 to 12 hours for the rest of the day.” The upside? There is little grooming between shows.
A Funny and a Serious Side
Smart. Crafty. A thinking dog. You hear these words often when you talk Pulik. But Pessina was up for the challenge.
“My first Puli was this little five-pound puppy who came into my house and was more protective than my 90-pound German Shepherd Dog,” she says. “She saw her reflection in a mirror and would stand there and bark at it. But, you know, our standard does say, ‘sensibly suspicious of strangers’! ”
Even though Pessina says the Puli is now much more social, the intelligence, protectiveness, and occasional aloofness remains. At a judge’s ed seminar, Pessina tells the audience that this is not a dog who likes baby talk on the table. “They’re fine if you just approach and pet them, but if you talk to them in a goo-goo voice they might tense up and look at you as if you had three heads.” (A slide at the seminar reads: “Pulik have a sense of humor. They like jokes. But only if they tell them.”)
Patty Anspach, a longtime Puli breeder, former professional handler, and owner of the first AKC-titled herding dog in the breed, can attest to the Puli’s serious side. “When I was on the road a lot, my Jack would sleep between me and the door,” she says. “I was never worried. But then, he was always so silly with me, too.They’re so smart and so funny—it’s fascinating.”
“I sometimes think they’re smarter than we are,” Pessina says. “Or perhaps more intuitive.”
Anspach knows from an obedience experience that the Puli brain is not only whip-smart but super-specific.
Don Gold was more interested in agility training with his dog Barney until he met herding judge Nancy Obermark, and she encouraged him to take the herding-instinct test.
Gold was thrilled to learn that Barney didn’t need much training at all once they knew he had the instinct. “Puli handlers, however, need a lot!” he jokes. Gold recalls one herding trial in particular when the judge told him, “That was a beautiful outside flank back!” as he closed the gate. “I thanked her but realized it was all Barney’s decision. When he saw we were in trouble, he acted instinctively and saved me.”
On a trip to Hungary in the ’90s, Pessina rented a car and stopped on the road by a farm when she spotted Pulik lying down in the field. “There were no fences and no humans around,” she recalls. “The minute I got out of my car with my camera, the dogs jumped up and immediately started to move the sheep away from the road. The farmer was obviously having his lunch—he came out with his napkin tucked into his shirt but went back inside when he saw me. But it was so interesting that the dogs immediately saw me as someone who wasn’t meant to be there and went to work to protect the sheep.”
Even back in the States, where their temperaments have evolved to make them better-mannered pets, Pulik haven’t lost that drive to work.