Lifespan: 10-14 years
Temperament: Affectionate, Humorous, Intelligent, Independent, Friendly, Loyal
The ancient origin of the Portuguese Water Dog is uncertain, but it is thought that it might have originally been used in Asia as a herding dog. Since it has many similarities to the Poodle, it may share the Poodle’s ancestry which was bred in Germany as a water retriever. During the 1930s, a wealthy Portuguese shipping line owner decided to breed them using fishermen’s dogs. Two vets helped him in his work, and then others propagated the breed in the US.
As fishermen’s dogs, they were used to retrieve lost nets, to herd fish into nets, and to carry messengers between ships, and from a ship to shore. They rescued people from drowning, and even today are still used for water rescue. More recently they have achieved some fame through being the breed that President Barack Obama and his wife chose for two of their dogs.
The Portuguese Water Dog loves fun, has a great sense of humor, and will often play the clown. Some can be quite stubborn and independent, whereas others will be more relaxed and eager to please. They are smart, and known for being hardworking. Affectionate and friendly, they make great family dogs, and are good with children. They like to stand up on two feet and ‘counter-surf’ to find food in the kitchen.
This breed is sturdy and muscular, with webbed feet that make it good at swimming. They have a thick and curly coat, that is usually black, white, brown, or a mix of brown with white, or black with white. They have heart shaped ears that hang down, and a broad head. Because of the lack of an undercoat, the Portuguese Water Dog sheds very minimally, which makes him a good choice for people with allergies. Their hair will keep on growing unless it is trimmed.
Portuguese Water Dogs need quite a bit of exercise, so they should not be kept in an apartment or tied up outside. They can live outdoors if the climate is not too hot or cold, but prefer to be with their families. They generally do well in both cold and hot weather, so are very adaptable. If they don’t get enough mental stimulation or physical activity, they may become destructive. They may also develop separation anxiety if left by themselves for too long. They aren’t typically a good choice for a first time dog owner, since they can be very energetic and destructive if not trained well.
These dogs are good around children, and tend to be playful and affectionate with them. However they can be quite lively, which may scare small children until they get used to them. They usually get on well with other dogs and cats, but as with all dogs, socialization is important to help them become balanced and well-rounded. Jumping up is common when a visitor approaches, but they are usually friendly toward strangers.
With thick curly hair that grows indefinitely, problems can occur if their hair is not trimmed. It can become matted, irritating the skin, and hair around the eyes can stop them from seeing properly. It is usually best to trim them every two months, and brush their hair every other day. Two different kinds of cuts are common. The ‘lion cut’ is where the muzzle, hindquarters and base of the tail are shaved, while the remainder is left at a full length. The fishermen of Portugal used this cut to protect the vital organs of their dogs, while also lessening the shock of the cold water that they jumped into. The back of the body was shaved to help them swim easily.
The ‘retriever’ cut, on the other hand, involves trimming the hair to a length of 1 inch, all over. This is a more modern style, which breeders used to improve the looks of their dogs. Some owners cut the hair even shorter in summer to keep their dogs cool.
The Portuguese Water Dog may sometimes be stubborn and challenging to train. Usually, however, they are quick to learn and respond well. They love affection and attention, so positive reinforcement with rewards and praise should get results. You may want to train them not to jump up on people, which is a tendency of this breed. They also have a strong retrieval drive, which may make them chew things. When a visitor approaches, they usually warn their families by barking. They can be trained to be a dog for someone that is hard of hearing – they can bark loudly when a telephone rings and then alert their owner.
Originally used for fishing dogs, this breed does not laze around – so needs a good amount of exercise. They are especially suited to owners that live near the ocean or have a swimming pool, as they love being in the water. They will also happily accompany you on a jog, hike or bike ride, and enjoy being outdoors. Mental stimulation is also important, so agility competitions are good for them to have an outlet for their energy and intelligence. A long daily walk and play session should also be adequate.
The diet you feed your Portuguese Water Dog may influence his health later on, so it’s important to find a high quality food. Their food should be spread out between two meals to help avoid bloat (Gastric Dilatation Volvulus) which is potentially fatal. Look at the ingredients to make sure that a real meat is listed as the source of protein, rather than a by-product or meal. You can also prepare their food at home, but do make sure that they are having all the nutrition they need if you do this. You may want to supplement with vitamins and minerals.
Puppies should be started off on four meals a day when you first bring them home from the breeder. You can then gradually cut it down to three meals a day, and later to two meals by the time they are adults. Some breeders recommend leaving food out all the time to avoid Hypoglycemia.
Some breeders recommend feeding your Portuguese Water Dog a grain free diet, because wheat, corn and oats can cause problems. Fish is a good source of protein, since many of these dogs were fed fish back in the days when they belonged to fishermen. Avoid chemical preservatives, as these can cause stomach sensitivities and food allergies.
Recommended daily feeding amount: 2.5 to 3.5 cups of high quality food every day, divided into two meals.
Portuguese Water Dogs have the potential to eat a lot of food with the amount of energy they can burn, but it does depend on their activity levels. If they are outside swimming and running with you then they will need more than if they just have a long walk. As they grow older they will usually consume less food.
Hip Dysplasia is a common problem with this breed, as with many others. This is where the hip joint doesn’t fit snugly with the thigh bone, which can cause lameness. Breeders should screen the parents for this condition before breeding. Eye problems can also occur – namely Cataracts, and Progressive Retinal Atrophy. PRA comes from a recessive gene, so with appropriate breeding measures, the risk can be reduced. In a dog with this issue though, it can lead to blindness eventually.
Portuguese Water Dogs are also vulnerable to getting a couple of genetic diseases called GM1 Storage Disease and GM1 gangliosidoses. These are nerve conditions that are eventually fatal. However with good breeding they have been almost entirely eliminated, but the National Breed Club recommend testing for the GM-1 DNA.
Juvenile Dilated Cardiomyopathy can also affect this breed. It causes sudden death before the puppy is seven months old, and there is no cure for it. However there is a DNA test which will determine if the dog is a carrier of the gene, and since it is a recessive gene, so long as both parents don’t carry it, the puppy shouldn’t inherit the condition.
Rescue Groups: Mayflower Portuguese Water Dog Club
Portuguese Water Dogs are often purchased without any clear understanding of what goes into owning one. There are many Portuguese Water Dogs in need of adoption and or fostering. There are a number of rescues that we have not listed. If you don't see a rescue listed for your area, contact the national breed club or a local breed club and they can point you toward a Portuguese Water Dog rescue.
Breed Organizations: Portuguese Water Dog Club of America
Above are breed clubs, organizations, and associations where you can find additional information about Portuguese Water Dogs.
Stock Photos from cynoclub & Eve Photography / Shutterstock
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