The most famous dog in America at the moment is probably Bo, the Obama family’s Portuguese Water Dog. He is the first Portuguese Water Dog to hold the First Dog title. The busy guy has his own blog, Beanie Baby, children’s book and campaign merch. Forget being the best known dog in the country–he might also be the best known Portuguese import.
Or so one would think.
The Portuguese Water Dogs’ canine ancestors were actually not Portuguese. Rather, they came from Central Asia, where they’re thought to have developed sometime around 700 B.C. A cross between a curly-haired sheep dog and a North African dog might have created this friendly, non-shedding breed-to-be. Some posit that the PWD was the herding dog of Turkish nomads, originally from the Kirghiz in Russia or that it was Persian, valued so highly that a god, Ahura-Mazda, made it a saint in the seventh century.
Zarathushtra: ‘O Ahura Mazda, most beneficent Spirit, Maker of the material world, thou Holy One! He who smites one of those water-dogs that are born one from a thousand dogs and a thousand she-dogs, so that he gives up the ghost and the soul parts from the body, what is the penalty that he shall pay?’
Ahura Mazda: ’O Zarathushtra! shall kill the dog with the prickly back, with the long and thin muzzle, the dog Vanghapara, which evil-speaking people call the Duzaka, kills his own soul for nine generations, nor shall he find a way over the Chinwad bridge, unless he has, while alive, atoned for his sin.’
There’s little doubt, however, that the breed has long been a water dog – the webbed feet provide that clue. In 1621, the English poet Gervase Markham described a probable PWD ancestor as fierce and good with a “Lyon-like” countenance and a “Brest like the brest of a shippe” and feet like a “water Ducke, for they being his oares to rowe him in the water, having that shape, will carry his body away faster.”
The Moors brought an early antecedent of the PWD to Portugal, where the breed became fishermen dogs. The Spanish Armada ships likely carried them to take messages from ship to ship. When the Armada met defeat at the hands of the English in 1588, the dogs supposedly swam to shore from the sinking ships and mated with Irish dogs, producing the Irish water spaniel and the Kerry Blue Terrier.
As a fisherman’s dog, the PWD was a valuable water worker. He even was able to alert his masters to sharks–if he sensed any were present, he insisted on staying on board the boat. If no sharks, he dived as deep as twelve feet into the water to locate fish, then herded them toward the boat. He also retrieved nets and other equipment that slipped over the side of the boat, carried messages from one boat to another, and saved lives of those who washed overboard. He could leap from the water as high as four feet to get back in the boat. His guard dog instincts, perhaps from the time his ancestors guarded sheep, were also useful in keeping unwanted inspectors and other interlopers from boarding the boat. PWDs were so valuable that a fisherman could rent one for half the catch a man would get.
In the early 1900s there were more than sixteen thousand PWDs in Portugal working on fishing boats that plied the seas from home ports on the Algarve coast as far north as Iceland and Newfoundland. They were called by various names — “Perro de Agua” in Spain and “Cão de Agua” in Portugal.
But the breed began to die out in the early twentieth century as their skills became obsolete in the face of technological revolutions in fishing, like sonar and radar. In the 1930s, Vasco Bensaude, a Portuguese marine architect and shipping magnate, learned of the PWD and its imminent extinction through friends. When he heard of a retired fisherman’s dog named Leão, he tried to buy him, but the fisherman refused to sell the dog until (the story goes) he either died or won of the lottery. Happily, one or the other happened–Bensaude got the dog and from that dog raised champions.
Meanwhile, Conchita Cintron, Goddess of the Bullring, a famous woman bull fighter, retired to raise Portuguese quail dogs at her kennel, Al-Gharb, in Portugal, in the 1950s. In 1968, Bensaude gave his dogs to her. In 1969 her PWDs and Portuguese quail dogs won 70 medals.
PWDs were first imported into England in 1954, and into the U.S. in 1961. In 1964, the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America was formed. By 1965, there were 19 PWDs lived in the United States, and the club had ten members.
In 1968, there were only 20 Portuguese water dogs left in Portugal. In that year, an American breeder, Mrs. Deyanne Miller purchased a female named Renascenca from Conchita Cintron, and brought her back to New Canaan, Connecticut. The following year she bought Renascenca a mate, and in 1971, Renascenca had a litter of seven puppies. While others had owned and raised PWDs before Miller, she was instrumental in making them popular.
By 1980, there were 368 PWDs in the United States. The PWD was granted registry in the AKC in 1983 and began competing in shows the next year.
The Obamas adopted Bo partly because his breed is considered to be hypo-allergenic–they are relatively “non-shedding” (all dogs shed at least some). Breeds that lack an undercoat, like the PWD, shed very little. Therefore the dander and saliva that cause allergies stick to their hair and don’t go bounding off into the air with the shed hair.
In 1992, PWDs were the 82nd most popular dog breed in the USA. Today, they are ranked 56th in the US, right behind Scotties and Airedales.