Portuguese Water Dog

The engaging tale of the Portuguese Water Dog

Loyal, intelligent, versatile and an exceptional swimmer. A vital assistant for fishermen in their job and at one point on the verge of extinction. 

In 1297, a manuscript written by a Portuguese monk described it as “lion dog” due to the typical clipping style resulting in the mane around the head, still practiced today.

Its colour can be black, brown or white, while its coat is wavy or curly. Medium in size, robust and muscular, this dog can weigh between 19 and 22 kilograms. This “fisher-dog” of humble background has earned the status of national star and is still viewed with respect and admiration by fishermen in the Algarve’s harbours.

Carla Molinari and Silvino Macau, from the Portuguese Water Dog Protection Association (APCAP), explain that they are “fascinating animals for their look, temperament and loyalty”.

Founded 30 years ago by Molinari and João Lisboa, APCAP aims to “develop and promote the breed, organise practical events for working in the sea and to hold breed shows”.

They both recognise that the “region of the Algarve is historic for this breed”. “The Portuguese Water Dog was introduced to the country through the Algarve and for many years it predominated in the south, in harbour areas and fishing ports, due to its uses for fishermen,” they explain. Later on “some fishing boats from other areas, such as Sesimbra and Lisbon - working seasons in the Algarve - started buying some dogs, arousing an interest in breeders in Lisbon. They developed the breed and introduced it to the world of dog breeding”.

Molinari was one of the first breeders and driving forces behind the Portuguese Water Dog. Between 1963 and 2003 she began a reproduction programme to enable the preservation and conservation of the breed. In 1993, she made the pioneering move of launching the book The Portuguese Water Dog, a reference piece throughout the world.


Historical references to Portuguese fisher-dogs

One of the first texts dedicated to the Portuguese Water Dog was written by Manuel Marques and was published in the Revista Medicina Veterinária, in 1938. The dog is considered “part of the boat’s equipment” and like any fellow crew member “had the right to a share of the fish” plus a “quarter” of the cash received from the haul.

“Watching a fisher-dog at work as, without hesitation, it swims down to the depths in search of an object thrown from the land or from a boat; to see it dive down and reappear at the surface of the water to catch its breath after some time below, before diving back down again and then bobbing back up with the object in its mouth, is one of the most interesting spectacles worthy of witnessing on the coast’s beaches,” he wrote at the time.

Writer and journalist Raul Brandão speaks of the same dog in 1932, in his book Os Pescadores [The Fishermen], regarding work aboard the caique boats and trawlers of Olhão: “the crew had 25 men and two dogs, the latter earning as much as the men. They were a hairy breed of animal, one at each side of the boat, watching attentively beside the fishermen. If a fish came loose when hauling in the line, the dog would jump into the sea and grab it in the water, bringing it back to the boat in its mouth”.

The attitude of the men of the sea towards these animals reflected their worth: the dogs were never sold but always offered as a gift.


A fascinating breed

Rodrigo Pinto, 54, originally from Lisbon, moved to Lagos 23 years ago. In 1995, he bought his first Portuguese Water Dog. He decided to dedicate himself to breeding the dog and now has 12. You can often find him training his dogs in the Cais da Solaria, in Lagos, next to Praia da Batata beach. “For six years now it has been the only place in the country to have an area authorised by the Portuguese government for the practice of training these dogs,” he points out.

As a breeder, he believes that it is vital that the natural skills of the breed for work do not get forgotten. To this end, he takes part in sea events in the national championship organised by the Portuguese Kennel Club (CPC), specifically developed for this breed. “They are exercises reproducing parts of the work these dogs used to do. Like diving, retrieving objects that have fallen into the water and bringing them back to the boat, or retrieving nets. Innate skills genetically passed on from generation to generation,” Rodrigo explains.

In the last three years the CPC has registered 36 breeders in Portugal. Pinto is just one of the five-or-so breeders in the Algarve. He is amazed by the story behind the breed. “They came to the south of Portugal hundreds of years ago and were only used by poor people. They were born, lived and died in the fishermen’s houses - working on the boats as adults and retiring once they were too old to continue, living out their twilight years on dry land. This is the only dog in the world that was paid for doing its job,” he reveals. “They’re also great guard dogs, although they’re not aggressive. Another of their jobs was to guard the boat on land when not fishing,” Rodrigo adds.

The breeder considers that, “they are very good at interpreting the sea. When they enter the water they study the wave and are very tough and good at swimming, which enables them to tow a boat towards the land or dive down to a depth of two or three metres.” It is also vital the dogs’ health is tested, to ensure healthy and balanced offspring. 

Portugal is currently experiencing renewed interest in the breed. According to APCAP, “breeding in our country is as good as anywhere in the rest of the world, as we have excellent breeders, who are keen to ensure the Portuguese Water Dog remains in the finest condition, monitoring any signs of illness and thus keeping the standards very high.”


The world’s most famous Water Dogs

The Portuguese dog breed was thrust into the limelight when it became part of the US presidential family. President Barack Obama had promised to his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, on election night in November 2008, that they would have a dog when they got to Washington. This was how Bo, now seven years old, came to join the Obama family in April 2009. The dog was a gift from the late Senator Edward Kennedy, a key ally of the 2008 presidential campaign. Later, in August 2013, the family welcomed Sunny, to keep Bo company.

The breed is known in the USA for not causing allergies and for having a docile personality, and so it’s no surprise that they were chosen as the family pets to live in the White House. The canine duo appears at many official events, such as visits to children’s hospitals or for welcoming guests to the White House. While Sunny is entirely black, Bo has various white patches.


Upcoming events with the Portuguese Water Dog

Many events are planned for 2016. The second Water Dog Meeting is going to be held in various parts of the country: September 10, in Zambujeira do Mar; September 11 and 12, at Meia Praia and Cais da Solaria, in Lagos; September 16, on the Alentejo coast (to be confirmed); September 17, in Boca do Rio in Vila do Bispo; and on September 18, on Martinhal beach, in Sagres. The specialist show for the breed is being held of September 17, in Vila do Bispo. In Lagos, you can also enjoy, September 13-16, several activities to do with the breed, such as tactical exercises and dog sports activities, assistance dogs, water rescue, obedience and agility, among others.


Text: Sara Alves
Photos: Francisco Oliveira