A Brief History of the Portuguese Water Dog
Knowing the duties that the dogs were bred for assists us in understanding the breed's robust energy level, intelligence, temperament, sensitivity and attributes as a companion or competitive dog today. In addition, the loss of population of the dogs also helps us understand their unique gene pool issues.
The noble CĆO DE ĮGUA, (Dog of the Water) otherwise known as the Portuguese Water Dog, is an ancient breed, possibly first described in writing in 1297 by a monk that described the dog saving the life of a drowning fisherman. In ancient times, they were considered to be sacred animals and are mentioned in the text of the Zen-Avesta.
The dogs' abilities destined them to become the working companion of the Portuguese fishermen. Valued for their love of the sea, indelible courage, large lung capacity, as well as their aptitude to retrieve, dive and swim, the dogs assisted the fishermen in the 1930's and were even paid for their work.
Riding onboard the boats, focused on the sea, he would alert the crewmen to the presence of fish, and dive into the water to help bring in the catch and retrieve escaping fish. He would warn the crew when sharks were nearby, by hiding in the boat whimpering, refusing to work. Not only was he expected to retrieve, he was also expected to deliver items. Some of his tasks were to help position the nets, swim to shore and return carrying food and drinking water back to the crew, guard the catch and boats as well as delivering messages. He needed the capability to swim large distances in heavy currents and cold ocean waters to complete these tasks. This work could only be performed by a very athletic, intelligent and independent dog, capable of making decisions and performing his work without assistance. The dogs were so valued that they were rarely sold, and the puppies were gifted to those held worthy.
With the arrival of modern fishing techniques, the breed's use, worth and eventually the existence of the dogs was dwindling. The dogs were in danger of extinction. Between the late 1930's and the 1970's a handful of breeders kept the vanishing breed barely in existence in Portugal. One of these breeders obtained a dog that was working on a boat with a fisherman. The dog was not easy to acquire and his name was Lećo. Lećo became the foundation of the modern day breed, and he is the dog that our written breed standard describes.
The dogs were listed as "The Rarest Dog Breed In The World" by the Guinness Book of Records in the 1970's. In 1974 Portugal also met with turmoil and a revolution. Feeding and caring for a dog was a luxury few could afford. The fate of many dogs is heartbreaking. After 1974, very few dogs remained alive in Portugal.
As luck would have it, a Poodle breeder from the United States, Mrs. Deyanne Miller, became enamored with the breed, traveled to Portugal, developed friendships with Portuguese breeders and began her crusade to save the breed from extinction. She successfully imported two PWDs in the late 1960's, and by 1975 eight litters had been born in the United States. In 1972 Mr. and Mrs. Miller, along with several breed enthusiast friends, had another vision, the birth of the national breed club, The Portuguese Water Dog Club Of America (PWDCA). In 1984, Mrs. Miller's passionate work to get the breed recognized by the American Kennel Club also came to fruition, and the breed was finally rewarded with a new status as a recognized breed with full registration privileges. New breeders became interested in this rare breed, and the dogs were on their way to growth in population.
Our dogs today can be traced back to this very small gene pool, and most PWDCA breeders are quite passionate about the continuing protection of the breed, and the ongoing improvement of these amazing, beloved dogs of the water, the Portuguese Water Dog.