The Cao de Castro Laboreiro is a breed of property and livestock guarding dog native to the village of Castro Laboreiro, located in the mountainous region of northern Portugal. This breed has very mysterious origins, although it is considered to be one of the oldest livestock guarding breeds from the Iberian Peninsula. The Cao de Castro Laboreiro is famous for its protective nature and fearlessness. The Cao de Castro Laboreiro is among the world’s rarest dog breeds, with a total worldwide population of only 200-500 purebred animals. The Cao de Castro Laboreiro is also known as the Dog of Castro Laboreiro, the Portuguese Watchdog, the Portuguese Guard Dog, Portuguese Cattle Dog, and Castro Laboreiro Livestock Guarding Dog.
The history of the Cao de Castro Laboreiro is a great mystery. Even the Portuguese Kennel Club states that anything written about the breed’s origins is pure conjecture and specialization. This breed was developed long before written records were kept of dog breeding, and was kept almost exclusively by farmers in remote areas. This means that the breed did not enter the historical record until the early 1800’s. All of the early mentions of the breed state that it was native to the region around Castro Laboreiro and that it was known for its guarding ability. One of the most famous early mentions of the breed comes from the novella A Brasileiro de Prazins written in 1882 by Camilo Castelo Branco. Branco writes, “The dogs of Castro Laboreiro, very fierce…” Camilo Castelo Branco was among the most prolific and famous of all Portuguese writers, and his mention of the breed would imply that it was well-known at that time.
Although the Cao de Castro Laboreiro first appears in the written historical record during the 1800’s, most believe that the breed is much, much older, possibly dating back thousands of years. Currently, there is a substantial amount of debate as to how to properly classify the Cao de Castro Laboreiro. Almost all sources claim that it is a Mastiff-type dog, albeit the least exaggerated and most atypical member of the entire family. Those who make this claim believe that the breed is most closely related to the much better known Rafeiro Alentejo and the Cao da Serra da Estrela. If this is the case, the breed is almost certainly descended from dogs brought to Portugal during Roman Times. There is no debate among canine historians as fierce and varied as the origins of Mastiff-type dogs, and there are literally dozens of theories. If the Cao de Castro Laboreiro is a true Mastiff, it is probably among the most ancient of all such dogs, likely developed centuries or millennia before the more exaggerated modern breeds. This brings to light an interesting possibility. Many claim that the Mastiffs are descended from the Molossus, the famous war-dog of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. However, descriptions of the Molossus often indicate that it was a fleet-footed herding and hunting dog in addition to being a fierce attack and guardian dog. As the Cao de Castro Laboreiro very closely matches this description, it is possible that this breed is a direct descendant of the Molossus, perhaps even its closest. However, there are many reasons to doubt a Mastiff ancestry for the Cao de Castro Laboreiro. One is the breed’s great dissimilarity to most Mastiff-type dogs, even those from neighboring regions of Portugal. Another is recent genetic tests conducted in Portugal which seem to indicate that this breed is not closely related to other Portuguese guarding breeds, almost all of which are Mastiffs.
It is also very commonly suggested that the Cao de Castro Laboreiro is descended from the very earliest livestock guardian breeds, and that it was first brought to Portugal with the regions first farmers. Although there is immense dispute, most researchers now believe that the dog was the first domesticated species, and that the process was largely complete around 30,000 years ago. It was not until around 14,000 years ago that other species were domesticated in the Middle East including sheep and goats. These early Middle Eastern farmers quickly realized that the hunting behaviors of the wolf could be transformed in the dog into livestock herding and protection behaviors. Agriculture proved so successful that these early Middle Eastern farmers migrated across Europe, bringing their livestock and livestock guarding dogs with them. In recent years, a number of European and Middle Eastern livestock guarding breeds that were traditionally considered Mastiffs have been reclassified in a new group, the Lupomolossoids. The Lupomolossoids are thought to be the direct descendants of these first livestock guardians. Almost all of the Lupomolossoids are massive in size and possess long, primarily white hair. The Great Pyrenees, Maremma Sheepdog, Kuvasz, Tatra Mountain Sheepdog, and Akbash Dog are the most commonly named Lupomolossoids, although other breeds such as the Komondor and various breeds of Owtcharka are often as well. In the opinion of this author, the Cao de Castro Laboreiro is almost certainly a Lupomolossoid. Although the coat is drastically different from other members of the family, this could easily be explained by crosses to other dogs throughout the centuries and an adaptation to the warm climate of Portugal. In all other aspects, the breed almost perfectly matches the description of a Lupomolossoid, and in general this dog is much more similar to Lupomolossoids than it is to Mastiffs. If the Cao de Castro Laboreiro is in fact a Lupomolossoid, it is one of the oldest European breeds and was probably first introduced to Portugal with the introduction of agriculture, 5,000 to 7,000 years before the birth of Christ.
However the Cao de Castro Laboreiro was developed, it became known throughout Portugal for its guarding ability. This dog served remote farmers as a guard dog. The breed’s primary purpose was to defend against predators. The remote mountains of northern Portugal have long remained one of the wildest remaining regions of Europe. Until very recently, the region was one of the last strongholds of Europe’s great predators; the wolf, brown bear, red fox, Iberian lynx, and golden eagle. All of these predators are very eager to find a quick and easy meal from a flock of sheep or herd of cattle or goats, and have the skills and abilities to appear without notice seemingly out of nowhere. The Cao de Castro Laboreiro was bred to detect the presence of such beasts before they were able to attack. The dog first loudly barked to alert its master of their presence and then would attack the beast if it was not deterred. The Cao de Castro Laboreiro was also bred to defend against human assailants. After the Romans were driven from Portugal by the Visigoths, the region experienced over a thousand years of near constant warfare. The first conflicts were between the Aryan Christian German-speaking Visigoths and the Catholic Roman and Celtic-speaking natives. That was followed by centuries of warfare between the Catholics and the Islamic Moors. This warfare made life extremely difficult for the Portuguese farmers, who were often at the mercy of bandits, robbers, and dozens of military factions. After a long day in the fields defending livestock, the Cao de Castro Laboreiro was often brought by the home at night to protect the family.
Although there are no definitive records of this, there is now a growing belief that Portuguese sailors brought the Cao de Castro Laboreiro to Newfoundland. Portuguese sailors and fishermen had been traveling to what is now Newfoundland since at least the 1500’s, and the name Labrador is generally believed to be a mispronunciation of the Portuguese word, “Lavrador,” meaning landholder, although it is also very similar to Laboreiro. It was a common practice for these men to bring dogs along with them for company, protection, and to kill rats. Although the Podengo Portugueso and the Portuguese Water Dogs were the most commonly brought breeds, others were known to travel on sea going voyages as well. The reason that the Cao de Castro Laboreiro is thought to have been brought to Newfoundland is it’s incredibly similarity to the Labrador Retriever. There is perhaps no breed that so closely resembles a Labrador Retriever as the Cao de Castro Laboreiro (were it not for color, the breeds would be essentially indistinguishable). Interestingly, Labrador puppies are still frequently born with brindle coloration, a trait possibly inherited from this breed. Additionally, the St. John’s Water Dog, the breed from which both the Newfoundland and the Labrador Retriever descends, was said to be highly protective and an excellent fighting dog. These traits would certainly describe a Cao de Castro Laboreiro.
Although well-known in Portugal, the Cao de Castro Laboreiro was apparently always limited in terms of where it resided. Until the middle of the 20th Century, the breed was almost exclusively found in a small area around Castro Laboreiro, roughly from the Spanish border to the Braga district. Because of this, the breed’s population was always probably quite small. This population greatly shrunk during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Improved weapons technology and growing populations pushed the region’s predators to the brink of extinction. Improved police forces and political stability meant that human evildoers posed a much reduced risk. Changing farming methods increasingly made the breed obsolete. Many local farmers abandoned their Caos de Castro Laboreiros, leaving them to fend for themselves. These dogs had no choice but to turn to hunting to survive. The breed became infamous as a livestock killer, and when they worked in packs were capable of killing prey as large as cattle and horses.
Luckily for the breed, a number of dedicated fanciers continued to breed them. Although the breed no longer had use as a livestock guardian, it was quickly discovered that the Cao de Castro Laboreiro made a very devoted companion animal and a completely dedicated personal and property guardian. More and more of these dogs were kept as pets and guard dogs, until the breed was kept for essentially no other purposes. In 1914, the breed made its first appearance at a Portuguese dog show. Shortly thereafter, the first written standard was written by a local veterinarian named Manuel Marques. In 1935, the Cao de Castro Laboreiro was granted full recognition with the Portuguese Kennel Club, and subsequently by the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) as well. Until very recently, the breed was completely unknown outside of its homeland, but in recent years a very small number have been exported to the United States and Germany.
The Cao de Castro Laboreiro remains a very rare breed. Population estimates range from 200 to 500 purebred animals alive in the entire world, of which almost all live in Portugal. There are currently around 6 breeders in Portugal, an additional 2 in Germany, and 1 known breeder in the United States, the Sunhearth Trails Kennel. Despite the breed’s very small American population, the United Kennel Club (UKC) became the first major English-language kennel club to grant full recognition to the Cao de Castro Laboreiro in 2006 as a member of the Guardian Dog Group. Currently breeders around the world are working together to increase the breed’s population and popularity. There is growing demand for this breed on the rare pet trade market, and also with those wishing to experiment with new property and livestock protection breeds.
The Cao de Castro Laboreiro is incredibly similar in appearance to the Labrador Retriever, except that it is usually differently colored and less standardized. Although often classified as a Mastiff, this breed possesses the least exaggerated features of any member of that family. The Cao de Castro Laboreiro is a large breed, although usually not a massive one. The average male stands between 21½ and 23½ inches tall at the shoulder, and the average female stands between 20½ and 22½ inches. Although weight is influenced by gender, height, and build, most breed members in good condition weigh between 45 and 80 pounds. This is a powerfully built and sturdy breed, but it is significantly less bulky than other Mastiff-type dogs, being built more like a Labrador Retriever or a German Shepherd. This breed is a working dog and should always appear to be in a fit and healthy condition. The tail of the Cao de Castro Laboreiro is long, has a saber-like curve, and is carried high but never over the back.
The head and face of the Cao de Castro Laboreiro are very average for a dog, meaning that they possess no exaggerated features. The head itself is somewhat long, rather broad, rectangular in shape, and free of wrinkles. The muzzle itself is quite long, but not quite as long as the skull, usually appearing in a ratio of 6:5. The muzzle noticeably tapers towards the end, but never appears pointed or snipey. The lips of this breed are tight-fitting and never pendulous. The nose of the Cao de Castro Laboreiro is large and always black in color. The ears of the Cao de Castro Laboreiro are medium-in-size and triangular-in-shape. The ears usually fold down close to the head and move forwards when the dog is at attention, although some breed members have partially erect or rose ears. The eyes of the Cao de Castro Laboreiro are medium-in-size, almondAmong experts, the use of Almonds, or Almond derived products in pet food appears to have been met with mixed reviews. While some feel that there is no issue and that the ....-in-shape, and range in shade from light brown to nearly black. The breed is famous for its serious and intimidating expression, and most individuals appear severe and very hard.
The coat of the Cao de Castro Laboreiro is short, thick, coarse, and weather-resistant. The coat is shortest and smoothest on the head, ears, and fronts of the legs and longest and thickest on the thighs and the underside of the tail where it forms a brush. This breed does not possess an undercoat. The Cao de Castro Laboreiro is found in a number of acceptable colors. The best description comes from the breed’s official FCI standard. “The most common is the wolf colour and the most preferred colour is the ‘mountain colour’, so called by the locals and considered as an ethnic trait by the breeders in Castro Laboreiro. It is a brindle coat with a base colour of different shades of grey overlaid with lighter and darker shades of black brindling. It is typical with hair of three different colours; ranging from pine-nut to reddish and mahogany. The brindling can be of lighter and darker shades on different parts of the body; darker on head, back and shoulders; medium dark on body, croup and thighs and lighter on belly and lower parts of the limbs. A small white spot is permitted on the chest.”
The Cao de Castro Laboreiro has been bred for centuries and perhaps millennia as a livestock and property guardian and has the temperament one would expect of such a breed. This dog is known to form very close attachments to its family, to whom it is intensely devoted. This breed has a tendency to become a one person dog when raised by a single individual, but will form equally close attachments to all members of a family. When raised alongside children, most breed members will be very gentle and affectionate with them. Breed members that have not been properly socialized with children may be defensive and suspicious of them. This dog tends to be quite dominant and challenging, and does not make a good choice for an inexperienced dog owner.
This breed is known for being extremely suspicious towards strangers. Even the best socialized breed members will probably greet new people with aggressive posturing and barking. This breed was bred to give loud and repeated warnings to deter intruders, so most breed members are not actually aggressive. However, a lack of training and socialization can lead to aggression issues. The Cao de Castro Laboreiro is extremely alert, highly territorial, and very protective. This breed makes a peerless watchdog whose loud displays will deter all but the most determined intruders. There are few breeds of dogs anywhere in the world that make as excellent of a guard dog as a Cao de Castro Laboreiro. This breed will challenge any non-family member that enters a property, except possibly those that it knows extremely well. It is the strong preference of this breed to bark, growl, and posture to deter threats (and this breed can be extremely intimidating), but it will resort to violence if necessary. This breed also makes a peerless personal protection animal that will defend its family regardless of the odds against it, sacrificing its life without question.
Like many dogs with strong guarding instincts, the Cao de Castro Laboreiro can develop issues with other animals. When properly trained and socialized, this breed can learn to live with dogs, and often forms close bonds with those it has known its entire life. Some individuals, especially males, may develop dog aggression issues to the extent that they do best in single dog homes. This breed has a very strong urge to drive away other animals, and many will attack and potential kill creatures such as cats. The Cao de Castro Laboreiro does make an excellent guardian for large livestock, but it must be raised with them from a young age.
The Cao de Castro Laboreiro is an intelligent breed, but these dogs pose very significant training challenges. This is a breed that greatly prefers to do its own thing rather than follow someone else’s orders. Many of these animals are very stubborn, and some seem openly defiant. This breed also tends to be extremely dominant, and will regularly challenge its owner’s authority. If the owner does not maintain a constant position of dominance, this dog will come to think that it is the leader and probably not obey any commands. This does not mean that it is impossible to train a Cao de Castro Laboreiro, but it does mean that the breed requires extra time and effort to train. Most owners claim that their dogs will only obey them, and that if anyone else attempts to command the dog it will either completely ignore them or respond with threats.
This dog was bred to wander the fields and mountains of its homeland for hours, following the sheep wherever they grazed. As one should expect of such a breed, the Cao de Castro Laboreiro has very high exercise requirements. This breed should receive at least an hour of vigorous physical activity every day, although it would preferably receive more. Although this breed greatly enjoys a long walk, what it really craves is the opportunity to run off leash in a safely enclosed area. This breed would greatly prefer to spend every day wandering freely. The Cao de Castro Laboreiro adapts very poorly to apartment life, and truly requires a sizable yard, preferably one with acreage. This breed is a determined wanderer and unless securely confined will almost certainly travel great distances.
The Cao de Castro Laboreiro has minimal grooming requirements. This breed should never require professional grooming, only a very occasional brushing. Other than that, only those routine maintenance procedures which all breeds require, such as nail clipping and ear cleaning, are necessary. The Cao de Castro Laboreiro is almost exclusively kept as an outdoor dog, so there do not appear to be any reports on the breed’s shedding. However, it is reasonable to assume that this breed does shed, and probably heavily.
It does not appear that any health studies have been conducted on the Cao de Castro Laboreiro, which makes it impossible to make any definitive statements on the breed’s health. There are no available life expectancy estimates available for this breed, but based on similar breeds it is probably between 10 and 14 years. There are no documented health concerns for this breed, but the Cao de Castro Laboreiro has such a small gene pool that it is likely to be at risk for a number of them.
Although skeletal and visual problems are not thought to occur at high rates in this breed it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
Even though health studies have not been conducted on the Cao de Castro Laboreiro, they have been for similar and closely related breeds. Among the problems of greatest concern that have been discovered include: