An ancient working breed native to Portugal, the Portuguese Water Dog has provided assistance to the native fishermen for centuries. During the first half of the 20th Century technological advances nearly drove the Portuguese Water Dog to extinction; however, since that point the breed has gradually been growing in popularity, especially in the United States. Although initially a working breed, the role of the Portuguese Water Dog has mainly shifted to that of a treasured companion dog. Bo, the pet of President Obama’s family, is a Portuguese Water Dog. This breed is also known as the Cao de Agua, the Cao de Agua Porugues, and the Portie.
A very ancient breed, the Portuguese Water Dog has definitely existed for many centuries, and is quite possibly thousands of years old. The first written record of the breed dates from 1297, when a monk described how a fisherman was saved by a dog with, “A coat of rough, black hair, cut to the first rib and with a tuft on the tip of his tail.” At the time of its creation, virtually no records were kept of dog breeding, or anything else for that matter. Additionally, the Portuguese Water Dog has traditionally been the companion of working fishermen, so records of it would be even less likely to have been kept. As a result, virtually nothing is known for sure of the ancestry of this breed, and most of the current theories are little more than pure speculation.
The area which comprises modern day Portugal has had a long and turbulent history; it along with the rest of the Iberian Peninsula has been invaded and settled by many different peoples throughout the centuries. Some of the most prominent invaders included the Celtiberians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Goths, and the Moors. It has been suggested that any of these people may have brought the ancestors of the Portuguese Water Dog to Portugal, although there is no real evidence to say for sure which. The three theories that have the most merit are that the Portuguese Water Dog is descended from Celtiberian dogs, Gothic dogs, and Moorish dogs.
The Celtiberians were either a Celtic people or closely related to the Celts. The primary inhabitants of the Pre-Roman Iberian peninsula (the Roman Hispania - modern Andorra, Portugal and Spain) in the final centuries BC; it has been posited that the Celtiberians developed the Portuguese Water Dog thousands of years ago. This theory is based primarily on the similarities between the Portuguese Water Dog and dogs bred by more recent Celtic peoples, especially the Irish Water Spaniel. However, these could be the result of dogs being bred for the same purpose and not actual ancestry. In fact, the Portuguese Water Dog is much more similar to other breeds than the water spaniels. Considering the age of the Portuguese Water Dog, it is much more likely that this breed went into the development of the Irish Water Spaniel, as well as several French Water Spaniels than the other way around.
The Goths were an East Germanic tribe originally native to Sweden; most of which were forced to settle in Central Europe after having been defeated and driven from their lands by a tribal confederation known as the Huns in the 4th century. Those that didn’t flee were subdued and forced to join the ranks of the Huns, and those that fled, did so across the Danube. Where on the orders of their chieftain Fritigern, they revolted against the Roman Empire, winning a decisive victory at the Battle of Adrianople. This would be the first step in a series of skirmishes between the Goths and the Romans; eventually leading to the Goths conquering most of the Iberian Peninsula by 475. It has been speculated that the Goths possessed a curly-coated water dog which they brought with them on their travels, although exactly which one cannot possibly be known. There are, however, several similar very old breeds of curly coated dogs like the Barbet, the Poodle, and the Portuguese Water Dog; all of which are native to countries that had a substantial Gothic presence (Germany, France, and Portugal). This theory is the most likely of all possible origins for the Portuguese Water Dog, as the breed is in fact most similar to the Poodle and especially the Barbet.
The Moors, originally native to Northern Africa converted to Islam under the influence of Arab conquerors. In 711 A.D., they would begin a campaign that would result in their eventual conquest, occupation and rule of the majority of the Iberian Peninsula for the next 800 years. Some claim that the Moors brought Asiatic sheepherding dogs with them, and that these dogs were the ancestors of the Portuguese Water Dog. There are many problems with this theory, beginning with the fact that there are no records of any Asian or Middle Eastern sheepherding breeds which resembled the Portuguese Water Dog. Perhaps more importantly, this theory fails to take into account the similarity between the Portuguese Water Dog and other European breeds.
However it is that the Portuguese Water Dog was initially developed, it is certainly many centuries old and has been assisting fishermen along the coast of Portugal since time immemorial. Portugal has a very long coastline, and Portuguese sailors have been known as some of Europe’s finest for many centuries. Seafood has always been a very important part of the Portuguese diet, and throughout history the nation has fielded large fishing fleets. Until very recently, most Portuguese fishermen worked on comparatively small ships with small crews. The Portuguese Water Dog became a very important to these fishermen and was often considered a full member of the crew. Used for numerous tasks, the breed is a skilled swimmer and diver and would commonly find employment retrieving broken nets or anything that had been dropped into the water. This not only saved the fishermen work; it also spared them the need to risk their lives in cold water and strong currents. Trained to herd fish into nets and to chase them back in if they escaped, this breed also helped to increase the size of catches; occasionally they would even catch the fish themselves. In an era before cell phones or radios, Portuguese Water Dogs were also used to carry written messages from one ship to another or from ship to shore. Although this breed was likely never a guard dog, they were valued watchdogs who would alert the crew if someone was attempting to break onto the ship. Found in essentially every port along the coast of Portugal, the Portuguese Water Dog became known as the Cao de Agua, or Water Dog.
Portuguese fishermen bred characteristics into the Portuguese Water Dog that would help it perform its tasks. The breed needed to be friendly enough to accept the presence of changing crews, but alert enough to serve as a watchdog. Portuguese Water Dogs need to be large enough to perform their tasks, but also small enough so that they would fit easily on ships and inexpensive to feed. This breed obviously needed to be muscular, a very strong swimmer and a diver with a coat capable of keeping the dog warm in the cold Atlantic. The breed also needed to be highly intelligent, trainable, and to have a strong retrieving instinct. The coats of the Portuguese water dog which are primarily black, or black with white markings, suggests a close relationship with Poodles and Barbets. However, working ability was far more important than appearance and Portuguese Water Dogs come in several different colors and patterns. The tail of this breed is both long and strong, and acts as a rudder while the dog is swimming. For at least 800 years, fishermen have been cutting the breed’s coat into a unique lion cut. The hair on the back legs was cut to make it easier for the breed to swim while the hair on the front portion of the body was left long to provide extra warmth for the dog’s vital organs and face. The hair on the tail was cut up until the end where a tuft was left. This portion of the cut was probably made to make the breed appear like a lion, which has long been a symbol of strength and might in Portugal.
The Portuguese Water Dog was a treasured and important member of fishing crews throughout Portugal for many centuries. Breed members likely sailed all over the world, accompanying Portuguese as the explored the world. However, the breed never became established elsewhere, probably because these dogs were so valued that ship’s crews did not want to leave them behind. The breed was so useful that several companies would rent them to casual fishermen for a day or sometimes longer. However, by the end of the 1800’s, technology was beginning to make the Portuguese Water Dog obsolete. With each new fishing invention and innovation, the Portuguese Water Dog became less and less necessary. The breed continued to be used by those who could not afford to (or were too stubborn to) apply these new methods on their fishing boats. Some fishermen also probably continued to keep them simply because they loved the breed. However, as technology became cheaper and new generations of fishermen were born, the breeds numbers would steadily decline and by the 1930’s the Portuguese Water Dog was in serious danger of eventual extinction.
It was around this time that Venco Bensuade, a wealthy Portuguese shipping magnate and dog fancier, was informed by some friends that a few working Portuguese Water Dogs still existed. He began to search for the few surviving animals, and founded his own breeding kennel, Algarbiorum Kennels. Algarbiorum’s first litter was born in 1937. Throughout his breeding efforts, Bensuade relied heavily on the help of the veterinarians Dr. Francisco Pinto Soares and Dr. Manuel Fernandes Marquez. Venco’s favorite stud dog was Leao, a male who lived from 1931 till 1942. Leao was considered to be the epitome of the Portuguese Water Dog type and was the model used in the creation of the first Portuguese Water Dog standard. Leao sired so many puppies that roughly half of all modern Portuguese Water Dogs can trace their lineage back to him. Venco Bensuade was not only successful in breeding his own dogs, but also in inspiring other Portuguese breeders to save this treasured native breed. In order to continue his kennel, Bensuade gave his remaining 17 dogs and his breeding records to Conchita Cintron de Castelo Branco, perhaps the most famous female bull-fighter of all time and a renowned breeder of Portuguese Pointers. Conchita Cintron de Castelo Branco founded the Al Gharb kennel. Of the Portuguese breeders to follow in Bensuade’s footsteps, the most renowned was Dr. Antonio Cabral. Cabral founded the Avalade Kennels in the early 1950’s and produced many champion Portuguese Water Dogs. Many Portuguese Water Dogs have a triangular patch or differently colored or textured hair a few inches from the base of the tail. This is called, “The Mark of Cabral,” in Cabral’s honor.
Deyanne and Herbert Miller are credited with establishing the Portuguese Water Dog in the United States. They imported their first puppy into the United States on September 1st 1968. Named Renascenca do Al Gharb, the female was affectionately called Chenze. Chenze was the foundation for the Farmion Kennels and lived to the ripe old age of 15. The Millers continued to import Portuguese Water Dogs, and greatly favored those from Cabral and Conchita lines. The Millers introduced several friends to the breed and met with 14 other fanciers in New Canaan Connecticut in 1972. They founded what became the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America (PWDCA). One of the most famous early breeders of Portuguese Water Dogs in America was the actor Raymond Burr. The PWDCA worked to popularize the breed in America, but also to breed responsibly. In 1981, the Portuguese Water Dog was admitted to the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Miscellaneous Class. Within three months, a Portuguese Water Dog had become and AKC obedience champion. In 1983, the Portuguese Water Dog was granted full recognition by the AKC as a member of the Working Group. At the time of AKC registration, 182 Portuguese Water Dogs were registered. In 1984, a brown curly-coated Portuguese Water Dog named Charlie de Alvalade became the first conformation champion. Better known as Charlie Brown, this dog had been imported from Portugal by the Millers. In 1987, the United Kennel Club (UKC) granted full recognition to the Portuguese Water Dog as a member of the Gun Dog Group.
The Portuguese Water Dog has continued to grow in popularity in the United States. More and more fanciers are attracted by the dog’s medium-size, intelligent and trainable nature, and supposedly hypoallergenic coat. By 1990, there were 601 registrations, and there were 919 by 1995. The breed continued to rise in popularity for the rest of the 1990’s and into the 2000’s. By 2010, the PWDCA had over 1000 members. Although it is impossible to get exact statistics, Kary Braund, author of The New Portuguese Water Dog has estimated that there are approximately 50,000 breed members in North America. Some of the most famous fanciers included members of the Kennedy family. In 2009, President Barack Obama and his family were given a six-month old Portuguese Water Dog puppy from Senator Kennedy. Bo had previously been a member of a different family, but it didn’t work out. The Obama’s selected the breed because of its supposedly hypoallergenic nature. The PWDCA was afraid that the breed would see a sudden spike in popularity experienced by breeds such as the Jack Russell Terrier and the Dalmation, and that irresponsible commercial breeders would attempt to make a profit at the cost of producing inferior dogs. The Portuguese Water Dog has seen a significant spike in popularity, although it has been less than what was initially anticipated. Some of the spike is probably due to the breed’s continuous growth.
The Portuguese Water Dog was bred almost exclusively as a working animal up until the 1930’s and likely retains a substantial amount of working ability. In fact, a few breed members are still employed by Portuguese fishermen. The breed has competed very successfully at obedience and agility trials and other canine events. However, in recent years, the Portuguese Water Dog has become almost exclusively a companion animal and show dog, which is where its future probably lies. The Portuguese Water Dog continues to grow in popularity. In 2010, the breed ranked 55th out of 167 total breeds in terms of AKC registrations, after ranking 80th just a decade earlier. The PWDCA hopes that the quality of the breed can be maintained as it becomes more popular.
The Portuguese Water Dog is quite unique in appearance, especially when in the traditional lion cut. However, many Americans mistake the breed for the much more well-known Poodle. The Portuguese Water Dog is a truly medium-sized breed. Males typically stand between 20 and 23 inches at the shoulders and weigh between 42 and 60 pounds. The smaller females stand between 17 and 21 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 35 and 50 pounds. The Portuguese Water Dog is a well-proportioned breed, although it is slightly longer than it is tall. The breed’s hair makes it appear thicker than it is, but this is a somewhat thick and stocky breed. Definitely a working dog, Portuguese Water Dogs are strong and muscular. The tail of this breed is quite long and is commonly held upright in a ring shape when not swimming.
Most of the Portuguese Water Dog’s facial features are obscured by the breed’s coat. Underneath that hair is a rounded head which is slightly longer than the relatively short muzzle. The muzzle itself is narrower at the tip than the base and ends in a nose that is brown on brown coated dogs and black on all others. This breed does not have excessive lips; rather they fit snugly around the dog’s mouth. The eyes of this dog are medium-sized and set far apart. Depending on the color of the dog they may either be brown or black. This breed has medium-length, heart-shaped ears. These ears hang close to the head although there is some space between head and ear on the back part of the ear.
There are two distinct coat-varieties of Portuguese Water Dog, but both are equally acceptable in the show ring and may be interbred. Both varieties are single-coated and do not have a mane or rough. Wavy-coated dogs have long, wavy fur, which is roughly equal in length over the entire body. This hair should be somewhat loose and have a sheen. The fur on the ears is noticeably longer than the ears themselves. This coat variety tends to look more lion-like. Curly-coated dogs have fur which forms fairly tight curls. The curls are thickly planted and do not possess the sheen of the wavy-coated variety. The hair of this variety should be equally long and curly over the entire body, except for the ears which have slightly wavy hair. This variety tends to look more Poodle-like.
There are two traditional cuts for this breed, both of which are equally acceptable in the show ring. The lion cut is the historic Portuguese cut. The hair over most of the body is allowed to grow to full length or with only minimal trimming. The hair on the hind legs and surrounding neighboring parts of the chest, sides, and back are cut very short. Similarly, the hair on the tail up until the part closest to the end is cut very short. The hair on the very end of the tail is kept at full length, forming a distinctive bob. The retriever cut is more popular for pet dogs as it is somewhat lower maintenance. Portuguese Water Dogs with a retriever cut have their hair cut short all over the body, closely following the outline of the dog. The hair should be equally long over the entire body except for the end of the tail which is left to grow to full length. Portuguese Water Dogs come in five accepted coat colors: solid black, solid white, solid brown, black and white, and brown and white. This breed may come in many shades of brown. In America, solid black and black and white dogs are considerably more common than other coat colors.
The Portuguese Water Dog has a temperament which is somewhere in between that of a companion breed and a typical working dog. This is because the breed needed to be able to do many tasks, but also to work with frequently changing fishing crews. Portuguese Water Dogs are known for being extremely loyal and devoted with their families. This is a breed that tends to form extraordinarily close bonds. Most Portuguese Water Dogs would never willingly be out of sight of those that they are closest to. This can cause problems as Portuguese Water Dogs are known to suffer from severe separation anxiety and it is definitely not advisable to leave them alone for long periods on a regular basis. Despite this devotion, Portuguese Water Dogs are somewhat independent in the sense that they want to be in the same room as their owners, but not necessarily on top of them. This breed will definitely cuddle on the couch, but will not regularly be “underfoot.” Portuguese Water Dogs will form close bonds with everyone in a household who lets them, and also make quick friends. However, most breed members will form an especially close bond with one person to whom they are incredibly devoted.
When properly socialized, most Portuguese Water Dogs are quite friendly with strangers. This breed was bred to accept new crewmembers without problem and makes friends with few problems. Training is important as this friendly and energetic dog is likely to become an inappropriate greeter, jumping on guests and licking them. Portuguese Water Dogs are very alert and make excellent watchdogs. However, this breed would make a very poor guard dog as they are neither intimidating nor aggressive enough. Most Portuguese Water Dogs are exceptionally friendly with children. This is a breed that loves the attention and playtime that the average child brings. Portuguese Water Dogs are also small enough to where they are unlikely to injure small children accidentally, but large enough so that they are unlikely to be injured by them. However, these dogs do tend to play a little bit rough, and may knock over very young children every once in a while. Additionally, this breed tends to be quite mouthy, although rarely snappy.
The average Portuguese Water Dog is relatively good with other animals. Most breed members do not suffer from major dominance, territorial, or possessiveness issues. Most Portuguese Water Dogs would enjoy sharing their lives with a canine companion. However, this breed doesn’t crave the company of other dogs and most would be fine as a single dog. When socialized, this breed tends to be friendly with strange dogs, although they may play too rough for very small dogs. When it comes to non-canines, Portuguese Water Dogs are fairly average. This breed has an average-to-low prey drive. If a Portuguese Water Dog has been properly trained and socialized, they will likely give cats and other household pets few problems. If a Portuguese Water Dog has not spent time around smaller animals, they will probably chase and potentially attack them.
As one would expect of a dog that was bred to perform numerous complex tasks, Portuguese Water Dogs are highly intelligent and very trainable. Other than complex herding behaviors and some tasks that require great strength or ferocity, Portuguese Water Dogs are likely capable of learning anything that any other dog can. This breed excels in obedience and agility competitions. This breed especially takes to retrieving and to any task involving the water. That being said, this is not the easiest breed to train, especially for inexperienced dog owners. Most Portuguese Water Dogs are very willing to please, but they certainly don’t live to do so. Portuguese Water Dogs certainly will be very obedient, but they will not obey anyone blindly. This dog is more than capable of figuring out exactly what it can and cannot get away with, and will choose to live its life accordingly. Although not known for being an especially dominant breed, Portuguese Water Dogs quickly figure out exactly who is in charge and if no one else is, they will take command of themselves. While not deliberately willful or obstinate, many decide that they would rather do something else than what they are told to do. It is very important that Portuguese Water Dog owners are in full control at all times. Breed members do tend to be somewhat sensitive and definitely respond much better to positive reinforcement and treating. Owners who use the proper techniques and maintain dominance are likely to be rewarded with a fabulously trained dog, albeit one with a slight penchant for mischief. Owners who don’t may have to deal with a few problems, the biggest of which is a dog that doesn’t listen well.
While certainly not a very high energy breed, the Portuguese Water Dog is far from a couch potato. This breed is more than capable of working hard, and needs a substantial amount of exercise to meet their needs. A long daily walk is a must, or possibly even a jog. Like all dogs, Portuguese Water Dogs love to run off-leash in an enclosed area, but they don’t need to like some breeds. The average family will have to make a dedicated commitment to exercising their Portuguese Water Dog, but will not be run ragged doing so. If you are unwilling or unable to provide this breed with what it needs, you should not acquire one since most of their behavioral problems result from boredom; which can lead a dog to become destructive, excessively vocal, and hyper excitable. This breed needs mental stimulation, and likes to experience new things, especially toys. Portuguese Water Dogs were bred as working animals, and love to have a job. Breed members would love to run through an agility course or engage in other canine sports. This breed is a natural retriever and loves to play fetch or similar games; although, as one would expect from the name what they love the most is to play in the water. If you are one that goes skiing, tubing, fishing, or simply to the beach, a Portuguese Water Dog would like nothing more than to come along. Be warned, the long hair of this breed, especially the wavy-coated variety can get pretty wet and dirty. Large enough so that it is rough and ready but small enough that it is easily transportable, many families see the size of the Portuguese Water Dog as ideal.
Portuguese Water Dogs were bred to be retrievers, and to do other related tasks such as carrying messages. As a result, this breed is very mouthy. Although not a biter, this breed does tend to use its mouth to play. This behavior should be strongly discouraged from a young age before it becomes a problem. Of greater concern for most owners is how much these dogs like to chew. Perhaps the most common issue that dog trainers experience with this breed is excessive chewing. Portuguese Water Dogs have been known to chew up furniture, shoes, clothing, carpets, and anything else they can get their mouths on. This problem is most significant in puppies, but it often lasts throughout the dog’s life. In some situations, it can be life-threatening as these dogs will chew on something dangerous such as poison. Because this is such a natural instinct for the breed it can be very difficult to eliminate. One of the best means is by prevention. Teaching the dog to chew on appropriate toys and bones and providing enough of them will likely substantially reduce the problem.
Portuguese Water Dogs are known to be a relatively vocal breed. While the breed does not have a reputation for being extremely barky, most breed members tend to bark more than the average dog. This is generally not to the level of becoming a problem. However, unexercised or untrained dogs may develop barking issues.
Portuguese Water Dogs have substantial grooming requirements, and both coat varieties require almost identical care. The hair must be brushed and combed on a near daily basis, a process which will take longer on longer coats. This breed also needs regular trimming, especially to keep in show condition. Although it is possible for owners to do this on their own, the vast majority choose to have their pets professionally groomed. Whether owners choose to keep their dogs in a lion cut or a retriever cut is a matter of personal preference. The lion cut may be slightly more work to maintain but the difference is minimal. The Portuguese Water Dog will need its coat cut several times a year at least, but their fur tends to grow more slowly that similar breeds such as the Poodle and will need fewer visits to the groomer. For this extra coat care, owners will be rewarded with a dog that sheds very, very little. Although all dogs do shed a little bit, Portuguese Water Dogs shed next to no hair. This breed is very popular with allergy sufferers and with those who hate cleaning up dog hair.
Special attention should be paid to this breeds ears. As is the case with all drop-eared breeds, the ears of a Portuguese Water Dog can collect dirt and grime. Unless cleaned regularly, this dirt and grime can cause irritation or even infection. This breed also loves to go swimming and may get water stuck in its ears. Owners must check their dogs’ ears and find a way to dry them to prevent issues from developing.
Portuguese Water Dogs are of average health for a purebred dog. Although a very old breed which was bred primarily as a working dog, they have a somewhat limited gene pool. The average life expectancy for a Portuguese Water Dog is between 10 and 14 years, which is roughly average for a dog of this size. There are four major health concerns for Portuguese Water Dogs; hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy, GM1 storage disease, and juvenile dilated cardiomyopathy. Hip Dysplasia and progressive retinal atrophy are much more common and found in many purebred dogs, but GM1 storage disease and juvenile dilated cardiomyopathy are much more serious and are very rarely found in other breeds. Portuguese Water Dog breeders are working with veterinarians to develop tests for each of these conditions and to gradually eliminate them from breeding lines. The PWDCA is spearheading these efforts, which have been increasingly successful.
GM1 storage disease is a member of a family of closely related conditions known as GM1 gangliosidoses. The condition is genetically inherited; although it is recessive (both parents have to be carriers to have an offspring with the condition). This disease strikes in puppies around six months of age and results in a number of cerebral problems such as seizures and ataxia, as well as eye lesions and temperament changes. There is no treatment for GM1 storage disease and the condition is always fatal. A test has been developed to identify carriers of the disease and breeders have been working with it for several years. As a result, this condition is gradually disappearing from the breed and is now very rare. There is hope that it can one day be completely eliminated.
Juvenile Dilated Cardiomyopathy is a fatal condition which causes cardiac failure in young puppies. Like GM1 storage disease, juvenile dilated cardiomyopathy is recessive. This disease is much rarer in the breed that GM1 storage disease was, however. Veterinarians are in the process of developing tests for this condition, but they are not complete for all lines. This disease remains mysterious and the causes are not completely understood. Breeders and veterinarians are beginning to work with what is currently known and there is hope that this condition can be reduced or eliminated from the breed in much the same way that GM1 storage disease.
A full list of serious health concerns for Portuguese Water Dog owners would have to include: