Portuguese fishermen began sailing the high seas during the Middle Ages. From fishing villages scattered up and down the Atlantic coast, their ships set sail for faraway ports throughout Britain, Europe, Asia, Africa and even the New World.

For centuries, wherever these fishermen went, they were accompanied by the hardworking ancestors of today’s Portuguese Water Dog.

The Cao de Agua, as the breed is known in its native Portugal, became an indispensible partner to the fisherman, owing to its instinctive desire to retrieve from the water. Fish that escaped from nets were immediately herded and returned thanks to the dogs’ natural inclinations.

Just how the Portuguese Water Dog arrived on the Iberian Peninsula in the extreme southwest of Europe is not known. Several theories purport the breed’s development from herding dogs with origins in the central Asian steppes. These may have arrived by way of the Visigoths as they battled the Romans, or later, by invading Moors from North Africa in the 8th century.

Historical evidence also suggests an infusion of dogs from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, brought back to Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries by returning fishermen.

The Portuguese Water Dog’s extraordinary capabilities were documented by Portugal’s University of Coimbra in a list compiled in 1712.

Like any shipmate, the breed was expected to perform a variety of duties apart from fishing. It was expected to haul in the nets, gather up the fish, deliver messages between boats, watch over people as well as property, and be ready to have a little fun when the work was done.

Unfortunately, by the turn of the 20th century, modern fishing methods and advanced communications technologies all but eliminated the water dog’s job. The breed was in danger of dying out and survived only in limited numbers in Portugal’s southern province of Algarve.

A small number of Portuguese Water Dogs in this area still worked on boats during this time. Two men from the town of Sesimbra, Renato Pinto Soares and Dr. Manuel Fernandes Marques, knew of these dogs and introduced a fine example of the breed to a wealthy shipping magnate and dog fancier, Vasco Bensuade.

When the dog, named Leao, was introduced to Bensuade, the Portuguese Water Dog was in all likelihood saved from extinction.

Bensuade championed the breed and, upon his death in 1967, the Portuguese Water Dog remained in the care of several determined Portuguese dog enthusiasts including Conchita Branco, Dr. Antonio Cabral and Carla Molinari.

The breed arrived in America in 1960 when a pair was shipped from England as part of a rare breed exchange (a pair of Affenpinschers was sent to Great Britain.) The gray dog and black bitch produced a litter of two puppies for the Harringtons of Rensselaer, N.Y. A father-daughter breeding produced seven pups that were advertised in the local paper.

One visitor who came to see the litter was Deyenne Miller of New Canaan, Conn. She did not go home with a puppy, but went to Portugal instead. In 1968, she purchased a bitch puppy, named Renascenca, that was shipped to the U.S. by Branco. A year later, a male named Anzol was imported and, in 1971, the first litter of Farmion Portuguese Water Dogs was born.

In 1972, the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America was formed at the home of Deyenne Miller. Although only 12 dogs were known to exist in the U.S. at the time, the Portie, as fanciers here refer to the breed, was in capable hands. In little more than 10 years, careful breeding and placements expanded the breed’s base of supporters throughout much of the country.

The breed was admitted to the AKC’s Miscellaneous class in 1983 and became eligible to compete in the Working Group the following year.

At the AKC Centennial Show held in Philadelphia in November of that year, the breed’s first AKC champion, Charlie de Alvalade, handled by Bill Trainor, received a Group Fourth placement under Mrs. Augustus Riggs IV.

The Portuguese Water Dog joined the list of presidential pets when, in 2009, a dog named Bo joined President Obama and his family at the White House.

In 2011, the Portuguese Water Dog ranked 56th in terms of registrations out of 173 AKC-recognized breeds.

The Portuguese Water Dog was developed for life on the water. Photo © Manon Ringuette/Dreamstime.

A Profuse Coat
The Portuguese Water Dog’s robust build allows the breed to work tirelessly on land and at sea. In the water, it is a superior swimmer and diver, aided by a profuse coat.

As with any water dog, the quantity and texture of the breed’s coat is vitally important.

“A profuse, thickly planted coat of strong, healthy hair, covering the whole body evenly…” is how the AKC breed standard describes the coat. It is thinner in the groin area and where the forearm meets the brisket, and there is no mane or ruff.

The Portuguese Water Dog is a single-coated breed with no undercoat.

Two coat types are recognized in the U.S.: curly, known as Cão de Água de Pêlo Encaracolado in Portuguese; and wavy, or Cão de Água de Pêlo Ondulado. Both grow to a good length and shed water easily.

The wavy coat is soft, “falling gently in waves,” with a glossy shine and longer ear fringes. The curly coat type consists of “compact cylindrical curls” without luster, with a somewhat wavy ear coat permissible. In the U.S., no preference is given to coat type, and neither is preferred in the conformation show ring.

Regular maintenance is required to keep either coat type in good form. Only two trims are acceptable in the breed: the Lion clip and the Working Retriever clip.

According to the breed standard, the Lion clip requires the long hair to be clipped to the skin over “the middle part and hindquarters, as well as the muzzle.” Some leeway exists for determining exactly where the “middle part” is, but a good reference point is the last rib, although some fanciers choose the mid-section of the body proper.

The coat of the tail is also clipped short, except for the last three inches where the natural length is kept.

In the Working Retriever clip, “the entire coat is scissored or clipped to follow the outline of the dog, leaving a short blanket of coat no longer than one inch in length.” The appearance should be natural, as directed by the standard, with a smooth, unbroken line. As with the Lion clip, the hair at the end of the tail is left at full length.

The Portuguese Water Dog’s coat may be black, white or various shades of brown. Although frowned upon by Portuguese fishermen who knew the breed well, parti-colored coats of white with either black or brown are not uncommon and are acceptable today.

According to the standard, “the skin is decidedly bluish” under black, white or black and white coats. “A white coat does not imply albinism provided the nose, mouth and eyelids are black.”

An Exceptional Head
The head of the Portuguese Water Dog is an essential breed characteristic. It is “distinctively large, well-proportioned and with exceptional breadth of skull.”

Unlike similar breeds such as the Poodle or Irish Water Spaniel, the Portie is bred for utility as opposed to a specialty. As a working water dog, the breed’s head is a dependable tool, capable of pulling nets, retrieving tackle, herding fish, and carrying messages between boats.

Its wide skull, with a rise over the occiput, creates an impression of strength that is in balance with the rest of the dog. The stop is well-defined, with a depression running down the muzzle toward a wide nose. Strong jaws, with teeth meeting in a scissor or level bite, and thick lips without flews, allow the breed to perform its many tasks, in and out of the water, throughout the day.

Heads that are small in overall size, narrow in topskull, snipey in muzzle or otherwise unimpressive are major faults in the breed, as are over- and undershot bites.

A Tufted Tail
“The tail is of great help when swimming and diving,” according to the breed standard. Thick at the base and tapering toward the tip, the tail acts as a rudder, providing stability and balance while swimming, and aiding equilibrium when diving.

Set on slightly below the line of the back, the tail is never docked. It is held in a ring when the dog is alert, although it should not reach forward of the loin. The tail should never be tightly curled.

When relaxed, the tail hangs straight down or is held straight out behind. Extremely low set tails or tails carried low are uncharacteristic of the breed.

The tuft of hair that is left on the tip of the tail may act as a marker to locate the dog as it dives into the sea.

The spirited and robust Portuguese Water Dog is a living legacy to the fishermen who depended on the breed for their livelihood. From the Algarve coastline to ports of call throughout the world, the two shared a hazardous life, finding reward in each day’s catch and in their companionship.

“The Complete Portuguese Water Dog” by Kathryn Braund and Deyanne Farrell Miller was a source for the historical information in this article.