Portuguese Water Dog breed: the indefatigable fisherman who was also used as a messenger between ships and as a fog signal

László Enikő

2023. October 3 - Photos: Getty Images Hungary

He carried messages, retrieved fish trying to escape from the nets and returned to the boat any equipment that had fallen into the water. The Portuguese Water Dog has done a unique and difficult job, and even today it does not like to be idle.


The Portuguese Water Dog was once almost extinct, but is now becoming increasingly popular. The Obama family, for example, has chosen such a dog as a great companion for an active family.


The first mention of the modern Portuguese Water Dog comes from a monk writing in 1297, who recorded seeing a dog pulling a pirate out of the sea. It was described as having black, long, coarse fur on the front of its body and a tufted tail.

The breed was primarily bred to help fishermen. His work was quite unique and varied. It brought nets that had fallen into the water back to shore, returned fleeing fish to the nets, delivered messages between boats and sometimes saved lives. And when it was foggy, the sailors would bark at the dogs to indicate where they were so they wouldn’t collide. So it was no coincidence that his work was so varied that it was so widespread along the coast of Portugal.

However, modernisation left the Portuguese Water Dog unemployed and by the 20th century it was threatened with extinction. In the 1930s, a wealthy boatman, Vasco Bensaude, decided to save the breed and started breeding it. He gave his kennel the name Algarbiorum and named his most famous dog Leão.

The Portuguese Water Dog was once so rare that it was entered in the Guinness Book of World Records. Today, the situation has settled down and the American Kennel Club lists it as the 46th most popular dog in the US. To some extent, this is due to the fact that former US President Barack Obama lived with such dogs in the White House.

Breed standard

The Portuguese Water Dog is a medium sized working dog. It is well proportioned and has well developed muscles. His head is well proportioned and strong and broad. The skull is slightly longer than the front of the face when viewed from the side. Muzzle is firm and the eye sockets are prominent. The muzzle is broad and the nostrils wide. The colour of the nose is usually black, in brown individuals it is the same as the colour of the hairs. Lips thick, jaws strong. Eyes of medium size, slightly spaced, rounded and not bulging. Their colour may be black or brown.

The ears are heart-shaped, thin and pinnate above the eye-lines; they are close to the head. The tips of the ears do not extend beyond the pharynx. Neck straight, short and muscular. Chest broad and deep; with long, curved ribs. Muzzle short and firm. Belly of moderate bulk, giving a light impression. Tail well shaped, slightly sloping. Tail thick at the base, gradually thinning to the tip, reaching to the hock. When observed, it bends into a ring.

Shoulders well directed, muscular. Limbs strong, straight. Paws rounded and flat. The fingers are not too curved or too long and have a hairy membrane between them. This helps the dog to swim. The claws are mostly black, but this can vary according to the colour of the dog.

The coat is thick, strong and single-layered, i.e. without undercoat. There are two types of coat: one longer and slightly wavy; the other shorter and curly. The latter forms compact, dull, cylindrical curls. The former is woolly to the touch and shiny. Its colour is black, white or various shades of brown. In black and brown coats, the white colour is adopted on some parts of the body, such as the neck, muzzle, forechest, belly, tip of the tail and the ends of the limbs. The height at the withers is 50-57 cm for males and 43-52 cm for bitches. Their body weight is between 16 and 25 kg. Life expectancy is 12-14 years.


The Portuguese Water Dog is a very smart, intelligent dog, although sometimes prone to stubbornness. It is important to find something to do to keep him occupied, both mentally and physically. As a working dog, he loves to work and please his owner. If he is often bored, he may display destructive behaviour, which is most often manifested in chewing. However, he can also be prone to jumping up and down, so it is best to wean him off this habit as a puppy. Great at dog sports, such as agility, flyball or dog dancing, but he is of course most talented at swimming, so water sports are also worth trying.

As well as being a workaholic, she is a loving and fun-loving pet who loves to cheer her owner up and is guaranteed to bring colour to everyday life. He typically gets on well with other dogs, but as with all dogs, early socialisation is essential. He is friendly with children, but it is important to teach little ones how to handle a dog. It is also used as a therapy dog.

Ideal environment

It is not recommended for outdoor dog only, but it can thrive in a larger home if it gets at least 30 minutes of intensive exercise a day (in addition to multiple walks). His keen mind also needs to be exercised, and once this is in place, he will become a well-balanced and lovable family pet. If he doesn’t have the chance to swim, he will go for walks and runs with his owner. It is suitable for active families, even older ones if they do not lead a sedentary lifestyle. He typically gets on well with other pets, but a gradual and appropriate introduction is important.


The hair of the Portuguese Water Dog is similar to human hair. It never stops growing, so it needs to be groomed frequently and combed thoroughly 2-3 times a week. It is often referred to as a hypoallergenic dog, as it sheds very little (if any) hair. However, it is important to know that there is no such thing as a completely hypoallergenic dog; there is just less chance of someone becoming allergic to it. There are usually two different styles of coat trimming: the simplest is the so-called retriever trim, which means that the hair is trimmed to 2.5 cm all over the dog’s body. The other, more elegant style is the lion cut, where the hair is trimmed short on the back and limbs, similar to the poodle. Claws need to be trimmed occasionally if they become too long. Eyes and ears should always be kept clean.

Common health problems

As it was threatened with extinction in the 20th century, the breed had to be rescued from a narrow population, which also affected its health. Today, however, the situation has improved and breeders are carrying out various genetic tests to ensure that their dogs are healthy. Portuguese Water Dogs can also have Hip Dysplasia, Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, Progressive Retinal Atrophy, Distichiasis (a disease caused by irritating hairs in the eyes) and GM1-Gangliosidosis (a metabolic and lysosomal storage disease).

(Literature: János Szinák – István Veress: A világ kutyái II., David Alderton: Kutyák, Joan Palmer: Advisor’s Guide to Choosing a Small Dog, Dr. Pál Sárkány: International Dog Encyclopaedia)

breeds dog breed dog history medium sized dog Portuguese Water Dog working dog

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