By | Posted: Wed May 22 00:00:00 PDT 2002

By September B. Morn

Sheep graze on the remote Hungarian plain, unaware of the lean-bellied wolf surveying them. Driven by hunger and seeing no shepherd, the predator springs into the flock. Suddenly one of the "sheep" attacks in a whirling fury of teeth. A Komondor! The wolf flees for its life.

One of the oldest breeds in Europe, Komondors (KOM-on-dors; the official plural, Komondorok, is anglicized by most fanciers in the United States) were bred for centuries in Hungary to guard herds of sheep. Their ancestors probably were the dogs of 10th century Asian Magyars. Bred to drive away predators, not hunt them, the powerful Komondor will try to kill any animal that foolishly chooses to fight back.

The Komondor can stay alone with the flock and operate independently. It is a herd guardian, not a herding dog. "It only moves the flock when it wants them in a place it can watch them better or to go get a stray," said Joy Levy of Princeton, N.J., secretary of the Middle Atlantic States Komondor Club.

Guard In Sheep's Clothing
Komondors are large and muscular with a strong protective instinct. They are built to guard and still play that role in Hungary, though many dogs in the United States are strictly family companions. The large, broad head has strong jaws and teeth that meet in a scissors bite. The drop ear is an elongated triangle, close to the cheek. The distinctive thick coat repels harsh weather and protects from injury by predators, and its woolly texture mimics the sheep Komondors guard.

"They disappear into the flock," said Levy, a Komondor breeder for 30 years. "They live with the herd and practically think they are that type of animal. They're responsible, in charge. They may countermand orders if they think they know better."

The breed must be well-socialized and taught rules, said John Landis of Hellertown, Pa., an obedience judge and Komondor breeder. "And those rules must be absolute and 100 percent consistent. These dogs look for a master and, if they don't find one, will act on their own."

Komondor pups are friendly and outgoing, but their fiercely protective nature emerges with adulthood. Bred to guard territory without special training, the dogs decide independently when to attack. This breed should never be used or trained for personal protection, because its independence and suspicious nature make wrongful attacks likely and difficult or impossible to call off.

Because of that suspicious nature, the dogs remain affectionate and demonstrative toward their own family but become intensely distrustful of strangers, including unfamiliar children. On their territory, they are unforgiving of intrusion. However, socialized Komondors away from home can accept handling and make friends with strangers when introduced.

These dogs do not tolerate teasing or rough play. They may bite to stop an innocent game of "bogeyman" or "ticklebug" if they misinterpret it as an assault on family.

Lyn Bingham of Issaquah. Wash., vice president of the Komondor Club of America, has lived with Komondors for 13 years. She trains hers in obedience and tracking but does not compete. "They're highly intelligent but hard to train for competitive obedience," she said. "They get it quick, but they dislike repetition."

Tracking ability comes naturally to Komondors. Bingham's dogs pick up the scent of her husband's mountain bike route hours later. Bingham believes in Komondor brain power: "They can spell! If you say 'R-I-D-E in the C-A-R,' they know what you're talking about."

Komondors' high intelligence and independence, combined with their territoriality, can cause problems for owners. For example, one Komondor didn't like the family's babysitter and became so upset it had to be closed into a separate room. The sitter mistakenly opened that door, and the dog confronted her. It stared hard, in a way the babysitter interpreted as "Go downstai rs, sit on the couch and don't move." Three hours later, the parents returned to find the sitter obediently sitting, the Komondor still staring the order "Don't move."

This is a hardy breed and, although hip dysplasia does occur, Komondors are not prone to many inherited problems plaguing more popular breeds. In 2000, the American Kennel Club registered 89 dogs, making the breed 135th in popularity among 148 breeds.

Despite their rarity, Komondors have done well in the show ring. Nine have won Best in Show in all-breed competition; two have logged seven BIS wins each. Five Komondors have received the advanced obedience Utility Dog title, and one earned its Tracking title.

Landis, president of the Komondor Club of America, started his first Komondor female in obedience training because of a fence war between her and the neighbor's German Shepherd Dog. "They will not take aggression from another dog," he said. "That's what guard dogs do if you don't keep their natural aggression in check."

Landis persisted, and the dog learned to ignore other dogs on command and went on to earn her Utility Dog degree and became the first Komondor to win High in Trial, a rarely attained obedience title, at an all-breed event.

Courageous, protective and independent, the Komondor requires owners willing to train and socialize it properly and to care for its special coat. To live with a Komondor, they must be alert to activity that might lead to unwarranted aggression through the dog's misinterpretation of the situation. But given a job to do, proper training and the right environment, the dog is among the world's most devoted companions and protectors.

September B. Morn, the award-winning author of "Dogs Love To Please ...We Teach Them How" and the "Proper Puppy Guides," is an obedience trainer and dog psychologist based in Washington state.


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