The Portuguese Water Dog

The Portuguese Water Dog
Presidential pooch elect


Move over, Miss Beazley, and pack your bags, Barney. With a new US president in Washington, the Bush Scotties have stepped down from their post as First Dogs and a different bark is now echoing through the White House. Speculation about the arrival date, name, and breed of the promised pup has been intense, with several blogs devoted solely to this topic and lobbyists campaigning vigorously for their chosen breeds, from Labradoodle to Obamutt, but, as pundits predicted following hints from Michelle Obama, the president has now established diplomatic ties with a representative from Portugal: the Cao de Agua, as it is called in its native land, aka the Portuguese Water Dog (PWD).

In an interview this spring, Ms. Obama waxed enthusiastic about the PWD’s moderate size of 17 to 23 inches as well as its spirited temperament, and was quoted as saying “The folks that we know who own them have raved about them.” Of course, when you’re the First Family, “the folks that you know” include Senator Ted Kennedy, whose canine running mates are PWDs Sunny and Splash, and who gave the Obamas the new puppy, Bo.

If the new presidential pooch rates his own Secret Service man for protective purposes, it would only be in keeping with the breed’s historic status as a highly valued companion. The Portuguese Water Dog Club of America website states: “the ‘water dog’ was held to be nearly sacred” and “severe penalties” were meted out to those who killed one. Used as working dogs from ancient times by fisherman along the coast of Portugal, PWDs spent their days in and around the water, retrieving gear dropped into the sea, hauling nets, carrying items between ship and shore, and even herding fish into nets. Being such excellent swimmers and divers, the dogs were also quite capable of water rescues; one of the earliest written descriptions of the breed, dating from 1297, is a monk’s account of a sailor pulled from the sea by a PWD.

As fishing modernized in the early twentieth century, the water dogs became less of a necessity and their numbers declined dramatically to the point that only a handful remained. Fortunately, through the efforts of a few dedicated fanciers, the breed survived and is no longer considered a rare breed in North America.

Breed enthusiasts, however, are rightly concerned that a PWD in the First Family may create a frenzy for these dogs, encouraging uncontrolled breeding to supply a demand for high-priced celebrity pups. Such “overproduction” of any breed can only exacerbate existing genetic health problems, which, in the Portie can include hip dysplasia and progressive retinal atrophy. New owners who simply must have the dog du jour may also find the breed’s high energy level, daily grooming needs, and nimble brain more of a challenge than they can handle. Nonetheless, presidential preference for the PWD will almost certainly see a significant jump in the breed’s popularity ranking, currently 62nd in American Kennel Club registration standings.

One major factor in the Obamas’ choice of pet was daughter Malia’s allergy; like many other families living with allergies, the Obamas are hoping they have found a dog that won’t trigger sniffles. While it is true that the PWD doesn’t have an undercoat, which is often the source of problems, and doesn’t shed as much as some breeds, many people are still allergic to PWDs and an allergy sufferer should spend some time with adult Porties to determine his or her particular sensitivity before getting one.

The water dog’s coat comes in two textures, wavy and curly, and may be black or brown, with or without white markings. Solid white and parti-coloured dogs—white with black or brown markings—are also acceptable. On pets and working dogs, the coat is usually clipped short, while show dogs display longer coats in one of two specific styles: the lion clip or the retriever clip.

The breed’s high intelligence and people-oriented personality are big pluses for owners who can spend significant amounts of time with their dogs, but can make a PWD a handful if he is left alone or unworked too long. The authors of The Complete Portuguese Water Dog (Howell; 1986) write: “He comes often to his humans for their love because he wants to be near them. He needs to be noticed. He’s a very demanding and affectionate dog. You simply can’t put him in a corner and not expect him to protest. He will.” The same authors, however, also praise the PWD’s adapability, which could be a valuable trait in a First Dog. Now that the Obamas have their new pup, it is certain that he will live the life of a star, with the immaculately groomed South Lawn to squat on and paparazzi documenting every puppy puddle. With his oceanic origins, Bo will surely make excellent use of the White House’s private swimming pool, and go down in the annals of presidential pets as the “Washington Water Dog.”

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