Portuguese Water Dogs (PWD) once existed all along Portugal's coast, where they were taught to herd fish into fishermen's nets, to retrieve lost tackle or broken nets, and to act as couriers from ship to ship, or ship to shore. Portuguese Water Dogs rode in bobbing fishing trawlers as they worked their way from the warm Atlantic waters of Portugal to the frigid fishing waters off the coast of Iceland where the fleets caught saltwater codfish to bring home.
In Portugal, the breed is called Cão d'Água (pronounced "Kown-d'Ahgwa"). Cão means dog, de Água means of water. In its native land, the dog is also known as the Portuguese Fishing Dog (Cão Pescador Português). Cão de Água de Pelo Ondulado is the name given the wavy-haired variety, and Cão de Água de Pelo Encaracolado is the name for the curly-coated variety.
The Portuguese Water Dog is a fairly rare breed; only 15 entrants for Portuguese Water Dogs were made to England's Crufts competition in 2002, although their personality and non-shedding qualities have made them more popular in recent years.
The closest relative of the PWD is widely thought to be the Standard Poodle. Like Poodles and several other water dog breeds, PWDs are highly intelligent, have curly coats, and do not shed. However, unlike Poodles, Portuguese Water Dogs are robustly built, with stout legs, and their tails are left naturally long and undocked. They have webbed toes, for swimming, which one can notice by trying to pass one's finger between the dog's toes. Their eyes are brown, and their coats can be black, reddish brown, white, or black and white.
Male Portuguese Water Dogs usually grow to be about 20 to 23 inches (51 cm to 58 cm) tall, and weigh between 40 to 60 pounds (18 kg to 27 kg), while the females usually grow to be about 17 to 21 inches (43 cm to 53 cm) tall and weigh between 35 to 50 pounds.
PWDs have a single-layered coat that does not shed (see Moult), and therefore their presence is tolerated extremely well among many people who suffer from dog allergies. Some call PWDs hypoallergenic dogs, but any person with dog allergies who seeks a dog with these qualities should actually spend time with the animals before purchasing, to test whether the dog is actually non-allergenic to them.
Most PWDs, especially those shown in conformation shows, are entirely black, black and white, brown, or silver-tipped; it is common to see white chest spots and white paws or legs on black or brown coated dogs. "Parti" or "Irish-marked" coats, with irregular white and black spots, are rare but visually striking. "Parti" dogs are becoming more common in the United States. However, in Portugal the breed standard does not allow more than 30% white markings. Overall, white is the least common Portuguese Water Dog color, while black with white markings on the chin ("milk chin") and chest is the most common color combination.
The black portions of Portuguese Water Dogs have a bluish tinge to their skin that may be hard to notice underneath their black hair. Predominantly white areas have pink skin underneath and are more sensitive to exposure to the sun than black or brown areas. White hair is finer than black.
Depending on their genetic heritage, many brown PWDS, as well as a few lineages of black ones, gradually turn gray over their entire bodies as they age, with the possible exception of their ears and paws. Once begun, this color change, which is sometimes called "blueing", continues throughout the dog's life; it is caused by the growth of white hairs among the colored ones, much like the greying of a human being's head or beard hair.
This breed does not shed its hair. The hair is either wavy or curly in texture. Many dogs have mixed pattern hair; curly all over the body but wavy on the tail and ears.
From the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America Revised Standard for the Portuguese Water Dog come these descriptions of the two coat types:
If left untended, the hair on a PWD will keep growing indefinitely. Problems associated with this include the hair around the eyes growing so long as to impede vision, and matting of the body hair, which can cause skin irritations. For these reasons, PWDs must be trimmed about every two months. Although it is possible to groom them at home, many owners find it easier to pay a professional groomer, and, in order to avoid matting, they brush out the coat regularly between groomings.
Occasionally, a dog may have what is termed an "improper" coat. This genetic condition causes the dog to have an undercoat. Because improperly coated PWDs do not adhere to the breed standard, they may not be shown in competition, but otherwise they are completely healthy and have all the excellent traits of the breed. They should not be used in breeding programs, because improper coat is a heritable condition.
The hair of PWDs grows continually and requires regular brushing and cutting or clipping. The coat is usually worn in a "retriever cut" or a "lion cut".
Sometimes owners will clip the hair of their dogs very short, especially in the summer months, in modified retriever cut.
The PWD's biddability, high intelligence, and tendency to vocalize and then seek out its human master when specific alarms occur make it an ideal hearing-ear or deaf-assistance dog. PWDs can be readily trained to bark loudly when a telephone rings, and then to find and alert a hard-of-hearing or deaf master.
Portuguese Water dogs make excellent companions. They are loving, independent, and intelligent and are easily trained in obedience and agility skills. Once introduced, they are generally friendly to strangers, and actively enjoy being petted, which, due to their soft, fluffy coats, is a favour that human beings willingly grant them.
Because they are working dogs, PWDs are generally content in being at their master's side, awaiting directions, and, if they are trained, they are willing and able to follow complex commands. They learn very quickly, seem to enjoy the training process, and have a long memory for the names of objects. They are generally considered too small to be used as service dogs or guide dogs for the blind, but they make unusually good therapy dogs and hearing dogs (assistance dogs for the deaf).
Owners of this breed will attest that their PWD usually stays in close proximity to them both indoors and outdoors. This is typical of the breed. Though very gregarious animals, these dogs will typically bond with one primary or alpha family member. Some speculate that this intense bonding arose in the breed because the dogs were selected to work in close proximity to their masters on small fishing boats, unlike other working dogs such as herding dogs and water dogs that range out to perform tasks. In any case, the modern PWD, whether employed on a boat or kept as a pet or a working therapy dog, loves attention and prefers to be engaged in activity within sight of a human partner. This is not a breed to be left alone for long periods of time, indoors or out.
As water dogs, the PWD's retrieving instinct is strong, which also gives some dogs tugging and chewing tendencies.
A PWD will commonly jump as a greeting. Owners may choose to limit this behavior. Some PWDs may walk, hop, or "dance" on their hind legs when greeting or otherwise enthusiastic. Some PWDs will stand upright at kitchen counters and tables, especially if they smell food above them. This habit is known as "counter surfing" and is characteristic of the breed. Although it can be a nuisance, many PWD owners evidently enjoy seeing their dogs walking, hopping, standing up, or "countering" and do not seriously discourage these activities.
While excellent companions to those who understand their needs, Portuguese Water Dogs are not for everyone. Their intelligence and working drive demand consistent attention in the form of regular vigorous exercise and mental challenges. Gentle and patient, they look (and are) soft, cuddly, and cute -- but they are not to be mistaken for "couch potatoes". When bored, PWDs will become destructive. A PWD can get into the garbage, silently snag food off the kitchen counters when your back is turned, and can even learn to open cabinet doors.
Some belief exists that the breed traces as far back as 700 B.C. to the wild Central-Asian steppes, near the Chinese-Russian border, terrains and waters guaranteed to nourish ruggedness. The early people who lived here raised cattle, sheep, camels, or horses, depending upon where they lived. They also raised dogs to herd them. Isolated from the rest of the world, these dogs developed into a definite type, very much like the heavier long-coated Portuguese Water Dog.
One theory of these long-perished times is that some of the rugged Asian herding dogs were captured by the Berbers, a people who spread slowly across the face of North Africa to Morocco. Their descendants, the Moors, arrived in Portugal in the 8th century, bringing the water dogs with them.
Another theory purports that some of the dogs left the Asian steppes with the Goths, a confederation of German tribes. Some, (the Ostrogoths), went west and their dogs became the German poodle, called in German the poodle-hund or puddle-dog, that is, water-dog. Others, (the Visigoths), went south to fight the Romans, and their dogs became the Lion Dog, groomed in the traditional lion cut. In A.D. 400, the Visigoths invaded Spain and Portugal (then known only as Iberia) and the dogs found their homeland.
A Portuguese Water Dog is first described in 1297 in a monk’s account of a drowning sailor who was pulled from the sea by a dog with a "black coat, the hair long and rough, cut to the first rib and with a tail tuft". The Portuguese Water Dog became known as the "lion dog" due to the appearance of this clip. Some believe that the Portuguese Water Dog made its contribution to history in the 16th century, working on board the ships of the Spanish Armada.
These theories explain how the Poodle and the Portuguese Water Dog may have developed from the same ancient genetic pool. At one time the Poodle was a longer-coated dog, as is one variety of the Portuguese Water Dog. The possibility also exists that some of the long-coated water dogs grew up with the ancient Iberians. In early times, Celtiberians migrated from lands which now belong to southwestern Germany. Swarming over the Pyrenees, circulating over the whole of western Europe, they established bases in Iberia, as well as in Ireland, Wales, and Brittany. The Irish Water Spaniel and Kerry Blue Terrier are believed by some to be descendants of the Portuguese Water Dog.
Dr. Antonio Cabral was the founder of De Avalade kennels in Portugal. Ch. Charlie de Avalade (Charlie), a brown-coated dog, and C. B. Baluarte De Avalade (Balu) were two of his many famous PWDs. He registered his first PWD in 1954, after Bensaude had pioneered the re-establishment of the breed in Portugal. Cabral worked with Carla Molinari, Deyanne Miller, Sonja Santos and others to establish PWDs in the US. The "Mark of Cabral" is a triangular shape of different color/textured hair, usually a few inches from the base of the tail. You can see it more easily on a fresh lion clip -- it can look like the clipper got too close.
Deyanne Miller is the single person most responsible for the rise of the PWD in America. In 1972, the Millers, along with 14 other people, formed the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America, Inc. (PWDCA). She worked with dogs from both the Cintron and Cabral lineages to establish a stable genetic pool of PWDs in the United States at her Farmion kennels. Another early US breeder of PWDs was the actor Raymond Burr.
As with all purebred dogs, PWDs are vulnerable to certain genetic defects. Due to the limited gene pool for this breed, conscientious breeders carefully study pedigrees and select dogs to minimize the chance of genetic disease and improper coat. Unfortunately, like many breeds, a growing popularity has encouraged breeding by people who are not knowledgeable about the breed. Anyone seeking a puppy should carefully research not only the breed, but also the breeder. It is recommended that you visit the web page for your national breed club, such as the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America, for up to date information on health concerns and health tests which reputable breeders will use before breeding a dog. National clubs often maintain breeder lists with contact information which will ensure that you are speaking with the actual breeder.
Like poodles, PWDs are vulnerable to hip dysplasia. However, the risk of a PWD developing hip dysplasia can be greatly reduced by thoroughly checking the pedigrees and health clearances in both the sire and dam of your dog.
Cataracts and PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy) are two eye diseases found in PWDs. As with hip dysplasia, some lines carry these defects more frequently than others. PRA, which causes "night blindness", may lead to complete blindness. Fortunately this is a simple recessive gene. DNA testing is now available which can identify a dog carrying the gene for PRA. Known as "Optigen Testing" a "normal" or "A" dog does not carry the gene for PRA. A "carrier" or "B" dog carries one copy of the PRA gene and the dog will NOT express the disease but may or may not pass the gene to offspring. An "affected" or "C" dog has two copies of the PRA version of the gene and will probably express the disease as late onset Progressive Retinal Atrophy. A "B" or "C" dog should be bred ONLY to an "A" dog to ensure that any offspring will not express the disease.
Ingrown eyelashes (distichiasis) is not uncommon in PWDs and other curly-coated breeds, due to their curly hair. The condition is minor and can be surgically treated if necessary.
GM1 Storage Disease, one of a family of conditions called GM1 gangliosidoses, is a recessive, genetic disorder that is inevitably fatal. It is caused by a deficiency of beta-galactosidase, with resulting abnormal storage of acidic lipid materials in cells of the central and peripheral nervous systems, but particularly in the nerve cells. Because PWDs are all rather closely related to one another and share a limited gene pool, PWDs who were GM1 Storage Disease carriers were able to be genetically identified, and the condition has now been almost entirely eliminated from the breed.
This is a rare, fatal condition caused by an autosomal recessive gene. It affects young dogs, who succumb to heart failure before reaching adulthood. As a simple recessive gene, it was difficult to identify and was particularly heartbreaking as healthy puppies would suddenly die- often shortly after joining their new families. Fortunately, there is now a genetic linkage test which seems to have a high degree of accuracy. This test became available in 2007 and was welcomed by PWD breeders. Since it is a recessive gene, if at least one parent is rated "normal" (does not carry a copy of the cardio version of the gene), offspring will NOT contract the disease. However, since this is a new test and is a LINKAGE test rather than an actual DNA test, the accuracy of this test for ALL bloodlines in not yet confirmed.