Portuguese Water Dog Breed Characteristics and Historical Facts

Portuguese Water Dog History

As readily apparent from its name, the Portuguese Water Dog hails from Portugal. For centuries before it was finally superseded by technology, it remained the Portuguese fisherman’s consummate all-purpose fishing tool.

The exact ancestral origins of the Portuguese Water Dog remain unknown. Still, it is quite closely related to other European water dog breeds, save because they generally specialised in waterfowl retrieval, whereas the Portuguese Water Dog’s specialities lay elsewhere. Unsubstantiated evidence suggests that the breed’s ancestral heritage originated somewhere in central Asia around 700 B.C. and that the Portuguese water dog was taken to Portugal by the Visigoths circa the fifth century.

Some of the many functions ascribed to the Portuguese Water Dog in earlier times included:

  • Herding fish into nets
  • Message courier
  • Functioning as a lookout
  • Translocating and retrieving nets; as well as
  • Rescuing capsized fishermen

The Middle Ages

From the Middle ages, the Portuguese Water Dog performed as the ultimate fisherman’s in-water assistant making the lives of the Algarve’s fishermen on Portugal’s southern coast that much easier. Anytime a small fleet of fishing boats would set out, the Portuguese Water Dog would be in the thick of the action. It would convey messages from boat to boat, alerting the fishermen by barking whenever it spotted a shoal of fish. The dog with its unique “rising-and-falling” bark would act as a canine foghorn during foggy conditions.

The first documented evidence of the Portuguese Water Dog was in 1297 from a monk’s account where he narrates how he was saved from drowning in the sea by a dog with a “black coat, the hair long and rough, cut to the first rib and with a tail tuft.” Known as Cao de Agua in Portugal, which translates as “dog of water,” the Portuguese Water Dog is sometimes referred to as the Portuguese Fishing Dog, the Diving Dog, or the Sea Dog.

Early 20th Century

By the early 20th century, as traditional fishing methods became obsolete due to advances in technology, the Portuguese Water Dog numbers dwindled to the brink of extinction. As fate would have it, though, the Portuguese Water Dog breed was introduced to one Vasco Bensuade, a wealthy Portuguese shipping magnate who had a fondness for dogs. Vasco Bensuade loved the breed and acquired a dog, which he named Leao (lion).

Through Vasco Bensuade’s efforts, the Portuguese Water Dog’s future was consolidated, a breed standard was written, and the dogs after that soon began appearing in dog shows. Bensaude’s dog Leao became the founding sire of the kennel he set up to develop and sustain the Portuguese Water Dog breed at Algarbiorum. Leao also became the standard upon which the Portuguese Water Dog breed was eventually based on.

From the 1960s onwards


However, despite Vasco Bensuade’s valiant efforts to revive the Portuguese Water Dog, by the 1960s, the breed was once again teetering on the brink of extinction, with only about 50 dogs in existence worldwide. Once again, destiny’s warm hand reached out to intervene, this time in the form of two Americans. Deyanne and Herbert Miller, Jr. (The Millers) acquired a Portuguese Water Dog from the very same Algarbiorum Kennel that Vasco Bensuade had established in the 1930s (and which was later received after his death by a former lady bullfighter, Conchita Branco).

The Millers named the dog that they acquired Renascenca (renaissance) do Al Gharb with high hopes of saving the breed with former founding sire Leao’s descendant. The Millers were successful in their endeavours forming in 1972, along with fourteen other breeders established, the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America, Inc. (PWDCA).

Today, over 5000 Portuguese Waterdogs exist, and the breed was admitted to the American Kennel Club in June of 1981 under the miscellaneous category.

The crowning achievement of the Portuguese Water Dog breed’s fight for survival is that in 2009 it was short-listed as a very strong contender to become part of the First Family in the White House as the First Canine. For lovers of this breed, such news is a mixed bag. Although the resultant popularity will increase breed awareness, it will also lead to a surge of backyard breeders, puppy mills pushing the breed, and fly-by-night dog owners inspired by the sudden publicity and popularity of acquiring a Portuguese. Water Dog only to abandon it sooner than later!

Portuguese Water Dog Temperament

The Portuguese Waterdog breed is a gregarious, fun-loving pet that boasts an excellent and balanced disposition. The dog gets along very well with other pets, including dogs, and does extremely well with children. This breed has a high affectionate and playfulness level that is more than sufficient to delight and endears any child, making it an ideal family pet.

Portuguese Water Dog Upkeep

In keeping with its ancestral and genetic pedigree, this active dog breed needs plenty of physical and mental stimulation daily if it is not to become a nuisance. Ideally, the physical activity should be in the form of a daily swim to sate the dog’s love of water but failing that, then a long brisk walk or daily jog should suffice.

The Portuguese Water Dog does best when closely integrated and involved with its human family. The coat of this dog breed should be combed every other day to prevent matting and clumping, and it should also be clipped every month.

Portuguese Water Dog Characteristics


Major Health Issues: PRA

Minor Health Issues: GM1 storage disease; Distichiasis; Addison’s; CHD; Juvenile Cardiomyopathy; Follicular dysplasia (hair loss); Irritable bowel syndrome (rare); Seizures (rare)

Lifespan: 10 – 14 years

Portuguese Water Dog Form & Function


The Portuguese Water Dog is a well-proportioned canine that is slightly longer than it is tall. The breed is of medium build with good musculature and has excellent stamina to work on or out of the water for long durations. This breed exists in two coat variations:

  • The long-haired variant is also known as the Cao de Agua de Pelo Ondulado in Portugal; and
  • The curly-coated variant is known as the Cao de Agua de Pelo Encaradolado.

The Portuguese Water Dog is also a good dog breed for allergy sufferers because it is hypo to non-allergenic (especially the curly-coated variant).

Like the better-known Labrador Retriever that also loves swimming, the Portuguese Water Dog’s feet have webbed toes to assist movement while in the water.

The coat of this breed is generally trimmed in two variations:

  • Lion Trim: Here, the rear-end of the dog’s body is closely cropped, giving the impression of a male lion with a mane, hence the name. This type of trim’s historical value was that by trimming the dog’s coat on the rear half of its body, drag was reduced when the dog was swimming. The close trim extends to the tail’s tip, which is left untouched as a bushy tuft.
  • Retriever Trim: Here, the Portuguese Water Dog’s coat is clipped consistently across its entire length to approximately 1 inch in length.

Coat Color: 

Acceptable coat colors of this breed include: black, brown, white, or any combination of black and white or brown and white.