Portuguese Water Dog

PetMD Editorial
By PetMD Editorial
Published: January 20, 2009

The Portuguese Water Dog is a well-mannered, adventurous dog breed that is widely accepted as an excellent family companion. Although its ancestry is thought to have begun along the steppes of Central Asia around 700 B.C., its popularity was established in Portugal, where it is referred to as Cao de Agua -- Cao meaning dog, and de Agua meaning water.

Physical Characteristics

The Portuguese Water Dog is a strong, muscular breed with a medium build, allowing it to work on land and in water for long periods of time. The dog is slightly longer than it is tall, with an abundant single coat that can either be wavy or curly. The coat is generally cut in a lion clip (clipped from mid section to the tail, and on the muzzle, with the upper body remaining full) or a retriever clip (clipped completely from the tail to its head to about one inch in length).

The standard Portuguese Water Dog coat can be in black, white, various tones of brown, or a combination of all three colors. Its expression, meanwhile, is attentive, penetrating, and steady.

Personality and Temperament

The gregarious, fun-loving Portuguese Water Dog enjoys being around water and its human companions. It behaves well with other dogs, pets and children, and is very responsive to direction, making it a perfect companion for active, adventure-seeking people.


The Portuguese Water Dog is at its best when allowed to live as part of a human "pack." To prevent the dog from becoming bored and frustrated, provide it with daily mental and physical exercise, such as a jog, quick swim, long walk, vigorous romp, or playful game.

The Portuguese Water Dog, like the Poodle, does not shed its coat. Therefore, coat care is a necessity for the breed, with combing on alternate days and clipping at least once a month.


The Portuguese Water Dog, which has an average lifespan of 10 to 14 years, is prone to minor health problems such as GM1 storage disease, canine hip dysplasia (CHD), distichiasis, Addison's disease, alopecia, juvenile cardiomyopathy, and major health issues like progressive retinal atrophy. It also occasionally suffers from irritable bowel syndrome and seizures. To identify some of these issues, a veterinarian may run hip, DNA, and GM1 tests on this breed of dog.

History and Background

The ancestors of the Portuguese Water Dog are thought to trace back to herding dogs that worked the steppes, or plains, of central Asia, near the Chinese-Russian border around 700 B.C. Experts believe that these herding dogs were introduced to Portugal by the Visigoths in the 5th century; although, there is another theory that its ancestors came to Portugal by way of the Berbers and Moors in the 8th century. The Water Dog's lineage may also be linked with the lineage with the Poodle. Both have traditionally been used as fishing companions, and share several physical similarities.

Once found all along the coast of Portugal, the Portuguese Water Dog was used mainly to herd fish into nets, retrieve lost fishing equipment, and act as a boat-to-boat or boat-to-shore courier. The breed became so well known, in fact, it was often used as a member of the trawler crews, fishing in waters as far north as Iceland.

However, as the 19th century drew to a close, conventional fishing methods were quickly becoming modernized. Soon, Portuguese fishermen were trading in their Water Dogs for more advanced fishing equipment, and the breed began disappearing all along the coast.

Dr. Vasco Bensuade, an influential shipping businessman, was instrumental in saving the Portuguese Water Dog, and through promotion and organization, the breed became a mainstay in dog shows.

The Portuguese Water Dog was briefly introduced in England in the 1950s, but popularity quickly waned, as did its numbers there. Fortunately, some U.S. citizens, including Mr. and Mrs. Harrington of New York, and Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Miller of Connecticut, were able to acquire some of the earliest imports of the breed into the United States (in particular, a female puppy was purchased from Senhora Branco, a former lady bullfighter who had inherited Dr. Bensuade's kennels in Portugal).

Along with 16 other people, the Millers were able to found the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America on August 13, 1972. At the time, only 12 Portuguese Water Dogs were known to have existed in the U.S., but with dedication and work, the number of dogs in America had grown to over 650 by 1982.

In 1984, the American Kennel Club officially recognized the breed as a member of the Working Group. Today, it is sought after because of many wonderful characteristics, including its calm demeanor and love of the outdoors.

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