By Joy C. Levy
Reprinted from POPULAR DOGS February and March 1975
In this column and next month’s I want to offer you a description of Komondor temperament as we have come to know it. I first wrote on this topic before we went to Hungary. Now we have made our pilgrimage, and we have discussed the Komondor with breeders there whose experience is vast. Though we have modified our ideas somewhat in the light of their dogs and their opinions, and their wonderful tales, we basically see the breed as we did before: primarily as a formidable guard and a loyal companion.
First let me try to call up for you a picture of the grown Hungarian Komondor:
A large white animal stands alone on a rise of ground he has selected carefully because it commands a view of all possible points of entry for intruders. A rough thick coat of felty tassels hangs to the ground, and above the large mass of his body his head is carried proud and erect, with ears pitched to hear the slightest strange sound. Though heavy hair covers the eyes, no one can mistake the watchful, listening attitude of the dog. Lonely, majestic and silent, he watches over his flock.
Behind great iron gates, several large Komondors lie in the shade of a tree. The male is a lion surrounded by his pride. Young puppies play as older bitches watch over them. It is a peaceful, happy family, but as if signaled by an unseen hand, the grown dogs are at the gate barking to announce the approach of a stranger.
On a farm a large ragged dog is tied to a tree. He lies in the dust made by his pacing a circle at the end of his rope. The tree has been chosen so that no one can reach the front door without crossing that dusty circle. No lock is needed on that door. The dog barks, bares his teeth and snarls as strangers approach; the owner warns you that you cannot touch him, even though you are not afraid.
I am not Hungarian. I was not brought up with a Komondor who loved me when I was a child. I am always interested to see that a Hungarian who has owned a Komondor will come and look at our dogs from a distance. They do not touch them or make a move toward them. They expect them to be unfriendly. They wait until the dog goes up to them and extends a paw, which our dogs usually do when approached in this manner. “They expect a Komondor to be unfriendly. ” This is the key. To an American a Komondor looks like a huge children’s toy. Often an American will say that he cannot believe that anything that looks as “sweet” as that can actually be a guard dog. Even some owners (usually novices with young dogs) announce cheerfully that their dog “loves everyone”, They are often sure their handling, their loving the dog has made this the case. I guess I should not have been surprised to be told in Budapest that the man on the street (or at the dog show) there can make the same estimate that Americans can. The Komondor is also rare in Hungary, and no longer better understood by the layman there now than he is abroad.
The American standard says that the dog “is wary of strangers.” It describes an excellent houseguard: earnest, courageous and faithful. “It is devoted to its master and will defend him from attack by any stranger.” The Hungarian standard in official English translation says the Komondor’s exterior and behavior rouses respect, astonishment and fear. It calls the dog “mistrustful” and describes a powerful animal who watches and guards his own area and herd and attacks boldly without a cry. Does this sound terrible to an American? It shouldn’t, if you consider what this working dog’s job was supposed to be. He is a guard dog, and a dog used to guard and herd the large semi-wild sheep of the Hungarian plain. He was bred to protect flock, family and property against predators and thieves.
What constitutes good temperament in a Komondor? Obviously he must be courageous and aggressive in the sense that he has no fear. There must he no suggestion of shyness about the dog. This does not mean that he should he vicious; a Komondor is surprisingly alert and inquisitive for a large working dog. He lies in a characteristic guarding position with feet tucked firmly under him so that he can spring instantly into effective action. He seems never to sleep. He goes up readily to all strange things, confronting them boldly but attacking only when he feels that his property or his people are in some way threatened. He makes his decision as to what constitutes a threat independently and then acts with confidence and authority. In short, he is an independent thinker among dogs, a splendid companion to have with your flock on the Hungarian plain.
I cannot speak of good temperament without getting immediately into situations where Komondor behavior borders on the unacceptable. Obviously things can and do go wrong. I would like to discuss some of these things because our breed is existing in modern American society at the moment, and the dog’s formerly “forbidding” exterior seems now to appeal to many people who are not familiar with the dog’s character. I would like to tell 3 stories about Komondors — I quote them as they were related by proud owners:
Duna is a neighborhood hero. He roused us at 4 a.m. with insistent barking and though reprimanded refused to quiet down until he led my husband to the fence, just in time to see flames burst from the top of a building across the way. As a result we turned in an alarm which saved the field house from total destruction. It was a cold foggy night, and only Duna’s sensitive nose and responsible behavior as an intelligent working dog resulted in such prompt control of a serious fire.”
“I was running, slipped and fell. As people approached to help me, writhing in pain on the grass, Oh-M braced himself, guarding me against at least a dozen would-be helpers. A word from me, in an unkind tone, no doubt, brought him to me. With a short wag, he approached me as if to see if I was really in a condition to make important decisions. Another word brought a nose poke in the ear: Well, you’re acting a little weird, but I guess you’re still lucid,’ and the people were allowed to pick me up and take me to the hospital.”
(Translated from the Hungarian) “He (Diosgyori Herceg Kajla) was the most excellent protector of house and person. Some years ago a robber with a weapon attacked me in our big house that stands alone. The neighbors lived far away . . . I was alone in the house. It was 10 p.m. The dog, in a special danger-signaling voice, started to bark . . . He was shaking in every joint with rage . . . I tried to calm him, but he did not listen to me but jumped over the fence and caught a man — the man fired a shot but missed me. The dog rushed at him, pushed him to the ground and placed his mouth on his throat. In this position he held the robber from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. until the police came from Budapest . . .The police then captured the robber, whom the dog did not wish to release in any way . . . “
The first dog is mine. The second is Mount Everest Bitang who lived in Brooklyn with owner Saul Danoff. The third is an Hungarian dog who belonged to Mrs. William Evers. He sired many litters and his name appears in many of our pedigrees. I think that his spirit lives on, too.
Wonderful stories — wonderful dogs. No trace of shyness here, nor of viciousness. I gather that even Herceg Kajla did not seriously harm the burglar with the weapon, and Oh-M allowed strangers to intervene when he realized it would help his master. But in all three cases the dog’s first instinct was to make the decisions; all refused to meekly let the master make the choices. Duna knew that the fire was wrong and disobeyed commands. Oh-M first kept strangers away until he was sure their intentions were honorable. Kajla knew that the man was an enemy and didn’t want to release him to strangers. These dogs have an active, positive approach in their thinking that goes along with a big physical dog.
(continued from February issue) Last month I described Komondor temperament as alert and watchful, and I said that the dog was an independent thinker, a decision-making, responsibility-taking guard. What is this beast like in the U.S. where he tends no sheep and cannot find a wolf? How does the Komondor behave, and how is his behavior received?
He is born just as alert and watchful as his Hungarian counterpart. He attaches himself with the same loyalty and devotion to his family and property. He needs human companionship and an orderly routine. A puppy is immediately devoted and accepts routine housetraining with incredible ease. In his own surroundings he is playful, humorous, and above all full of love. A Komondor wants to be with his master, not only in the same house, but in the same room and preferably by his side, where he will even by choice lean on his master. He prefers to eat in the kitchen, and he likes for you to be with him when he eats. If any member of the family is away, the dog is restless and wants to lie by the door awaiting the return of the stray; he wants all of his family home where he can watch them. This means that he is a poor kennel dog. From kennel surroundings he will transfer with difficulty, especially if he is not very young. He needs to be handled a great deal by many people if he is later to be in contact with many people. And he needs a family to attach himself to. By six months a Komondor can he loyal and devoted to the point where you begin to worry about him. Every member of the household is included in his devotion, the children, the cleaning woman, any regular visitors, the other animals, including dogs, cats, birds, anything. Even a young dog has a terrific sense of property, and an older one is almost pathological on the subject. If there is a fence, the fence is the boundary. If no fence exists, the property is tracked, an imaginary fence is erected and guarded. If there is a fence, the guarding is a noisy affair; no strange vehicle or living thing can approach day or night without the Komondor announcing it with loud barking. As the dog matures, usual traffic is ignored; but a truck at night on a street where trucks usually come only by day, a strange bicycle that is not ordinarily in the neighborhood, a dog that is not a habitual passer by; if any of these come, the alarm is sounded. Your house is truly safe from tigers! So is the family car, and it is not to be assaulted by a gas station attendant with a weapon (a gas hose or a windshield rag). Almost every Komondor-owner has rips in his upholstery and deep scratches on the inside of his car windows to prove this — not to mention the inevitable set of nose prints on the glass.
How do you live with a Komondor? If you have or contemplate getting one, the first thing to realize is that this beast, especially the male, is a lot of dog to handle, for at least two reasons. First, it is a big, powerful dog. Second, it has been bred successfully to be a decision-making animal. The Komondor decides who is the enemy and protects his possessions from danger in whatever way he sees fit. Any year-old male must be obedience trained (I do not mean that a C.D. is required — I mean the dog must be taught to heel, sit, lie down, stay and come on command), if is to be managed by more than one person. We even find with obedience training, we cannot let our dog run without a leash unless we are in a really isolated area, or one person devotes his full attention to controlling the dog. If he is running free, he can be restrained from investigating something only if you see it before he does and call him before he gets the jump on you. If he sights the enemy first, forget it unless you can outrun him. Duna happens to really like people. His “attacks” are almost always on animals. It is not by chance that he likes people. Again, like many guard dogs, a Komondor usually likes only people he knows. If you want to keep a Komondor friendly, you must he sure he “knows” a lot of people. Most adults are not tolerated lightly. On the other hand, individual dogs vary as to how physical their “warning” is. One dog protecting his child’s wagon from my child warned my child by pulling him away with teeth that tore a shirt and bruised flesh. Dogs that are displeased often bare their teeth and approach with open mouth in a way that causes teeth to touch and bruise rather than bite. Occasionally dogs that are pleased do this also. One circumstance almost sure to lead to trouble is a Komondor with his food threatened. And unfortunately he can be guarding a bone or a rawhide toy which a Komondor inevitably treats as food.
This is an alert dog, and it requires an alert master. Bad handling can occur in many situations with well meaning owners, and the dog can then be suspected of having a bad temperament when he in reality does not. I know, because we have made some mistakes ourselves. I do not mean to preach; rather to share some things we have reamed. Bad handling can occur if you expect a gentleman. This is a peasant — he mouths the things he loves as well as the things he hates. One is bruised by teeth and paws, and this cannot be easily avoided. Bad handling can occur if you do not give the dog a suitable job. If you fail to show him his duty, he will inevitably make a job for himself, and you may not like the one he picks. You cannot let a Komondor get by with things you disapprove of — whether it is getting on furniture, barking excessively, jumping on people, etc. A firm hand on a choke collar, and a strong back, are required if you are to live easily with this breed. Bad handling can also occur if you do not listen to the dog or try to see the situation as he sees it. If you have a fence, you must realize that people, even children, climbing over it and running across your yard are truly in danger of being attacked. A fence should bear a warning “Beware of Dog.” If you do not have a fence, realize that skiers on your Vermont property look like trespassers to your Komondor, that men picking up your garbage look like thieves to him, and that any repairmen working on your house look like burglars. A postman extending a package or a policeman extending a toll card towards you looks like a man threatening the master, and a Malamute gazing at him with naked eyes surely looks like a wolf. Protect your Komondor from accidental wrong-doing. He is only a good guard dog if you can interpret his messages.
Is any dog worth this effort? You bet he is. Ask any Komondor owner. Not only are we safe from attack from evil strangers, we trust our dog’s intelligence to keep us safe from fire; he reports the smell of gas, tells us if appliances are not working, wakes us if children are crying and we do not hear them, announces that an outside door has blown open. If any of the other dogs have strayed, it is Duna who waits up for them and announces at least 5 minutes before they arrive at the door that they are coming and need welcoming. But this is only part of the comfort of having a Komondor. We find the companionship of this “King of the Hungarian Sheep Dogs” more interesting than that of a dog with a blander temperament. An obedience trained Komondor represents both a triumph of communication between man and dog, because the Komondor is such an intelligent dog, and something closely related to the taming of the elements or the wooing of a wild animal. A Komondor may want to fight the wolf, but in a real sense he is himself very close to the wolf. We would hate to see this kind of temperament and this unique breed perish from the earth.