The precise history of the Portuguese water dog is unknown. There are claims it came from Central Asia near the Chinese and Russian border, descended from rugged Asian herding dogs brought to Portugal by the Moors in the 8 century. Others claim they came with the Visigoths, who went south to fight Romans and their dogs became known as the Lion Dog. The Visigoths invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 400 A.D. bringing their dogs with them. We do know that throughout the Mediterranean basin, dogs of this type with similar attributes and characteristics to the current Portuguese Water Dogs were used by the fishermen and originated the different breeds of water dogs today.
The earliest written information about the existence of the Water Dog in Portugal dates to 1297. A monk describes the rescue of a fisherman by a water dog. “The dog had long, black fur, which was sheared to the first rib, and had a tuft on the tip of its tail.
For centuries, the water dogs were used as helpers of fishermen along the Portuguese coast. The affection of the fishermen for the animals is evident and it is noteworthy to highlight the importance given to the work of the dog, by the right to a fair share of fish to eat and the fourth part in cash. In his book “The Fishermen”, Raul Brandao, states; “They were crewed by twenty-five men and two dogs, who earned as much as the men. It was a breed of furry animals on board next to the fishermen. He would run the fish out of the line, jump the dog into the sea, and catch fish in the middle of the water, bringing it in his mouth to board.” With the evolution of fishing techniques, the Portuguese Water Dog’s skills were no longer appreciated or necessary. By the start of the 20th century, the fishing industry in Portugal had declined.
In 1934, at the Lisbon International Exposition, two Portuguese Water Dogs were shown. Frederico Pinto Soares, founder of the Canine Section of the Portuguese Club of Hunters (later Portuguese Kennel Club), a native of Sesimbra, had discovered these 2 dogs in a village aboard a boat. After much reluctance, the owners of these animals agreed that they should be presented at the exhibition. And for the first time 2 water dogs were presented in the ring, with the lion cut and inscribed as “barbedos”. The presence of these two animals attracted attention and aroused the interest of Dr. Vasco Bensuade, a wealthy Portuguese shipping magnate and dog fancier, who decided to rescue the breed. The Portuguese Water Dog Club was recognized, as the Clube Portuguese de Caniculture, with his assistance. This began the modern history of the Portuguese Water Dog.
Determined to obtain some of these specimens, Vasco Bensaúde inquired in the Algarve about the existence of these dogs. Dr. Bensaúde was told about “The LION” a companion dog and worker for a fisherman, supposed to be from Albufeira. Dr. Bensaúde, with the intention of seeing and acquiring the dog, traveled to the Algarve, where he encountered an unexpected obstacle: the LION owner would not sell him or exchange him at any price, and declared that he would only sell him on the day of his death. Vasco Bensaúde returned to Lisbon quite disappointed, but certainly did not give up. A few weeks later he received a message from the fisherman’s son; his father had passed, and he could come and get the dog. This dog, LEÃO, was to serve as a model for the breed standard written by veterinarians Drs. Frederico Pinto Soares and Manuel Fernandes Marques, in 1938.
Following Leao, 3 more dogs came from the Algarve, DINA, VENESSA and NERO. On May 1, 1937, the first of the 36 litters of the ALGARBIORUM kennel was born, 8 dogs, sons of LEÃO and DINA.
LEÃO the father of 6 litters and 30 dogs, died during World War II and was buried under a magnolia at Quinta de Benfica. When LEÃO died, Bensaúde wrote: “I do not know if I will ever have a magnificent dog like this, but at least I can say that it was part of my life and my kennel.” Vasco Bensaúde was an experienced breeder and knowledgeable of the breed’s possible origins. He tried to select the unique characteristics that differentiated the breed from other water dogs at the time. He was concerned with the natural abilities of these dogs. His first step was to establish a uniform morphological type. Animals with bad bites, parti-colores (Bensáude preferred solid black) and dogs with ticking were selectively taken out of the breeding program; Although this latter defect was easily removed, they would be genetically perpetuated. All dogs were tested on natural swim tanks in the kennel, but even the least fit were used in the beginning of the selection process. All the dogs he did not think were good enough to breed but had good work skills were put on board his ships. By 1960, the results of his selective breeding were evident. All the dogs produced had exactly the same type, solid colors, with few white marks, and excellent working dogs, constantly put to the test.
Over the years, many of the dogs produced that deviated from the standard or were not to be used in the breeding program, were offered to friends, mostly foreigners living in Portugal and others outside the country. Dogs of white, cream, gray, or small stature, with little structure were not used. They were however used by others (to whom he offered them) and some began what might be called a secondary lineage of the Algarbiorium Kennel. Many of this secondary type went out of the country with their owners, sold or offered to others. This is the case of the female named FARRUSCA (daughter of Azinhal Algarbiorum and Dala Algarbiorum), gray in color. Bensaúde offered this bitch to a close friend in Belgium, Pierre Teisseire.
Because the high Coefficient of inbreeding in the Algarbiorum kennel due to inbreeding the dogs were getting very small, with less vigor and according to Fausto Santos, the kennel manager, they needed to introduce new blood. In 1963, he found in Algueirão, a large male with a curly hair. He asked permission of the dog owner to use it as a breeder and the first litter was born that same year, composed of four black females, ENGA, LISTEN, SWORD and ESPIA. The mother was SALEMA Algarbiorum and the father, the new male registered under the name of TABU.
In 1954, Dr. António Cabral, veterinarian of the Lisbon City Council, and later president of the Portuguese Caniculum Club became involved with Portuguese Water Dogs. He did not like the heavy type of the dogs on the part of Bensaude, so he left for the Algarve in search of water dogs. He found a male of a lighter frame than Bensaude’s dogs, but of an excellent type. This male was Silves, and again, a problem came when he tried to buy the dog from the fisherman, who refused to sell or give his dog away. Cabral however was able to offer something in exchange for the dog and with Silves, came the origin of the Alvalade’s dogs. Dr. Cabral crossed Silves with a bitch named Galé (Silves x Algarbiorum Farrusca). These 2 dogs were the founders of the Alvalade line. The first litter in was born in 1958, by a male, LAGOS DE ALVALADE, son of SILVES and GALÈ. Dr. António Cabral registered 17 litters, a total of 76 dogs through 1979.
Vasco Bensaúde dogs were registered in the name of his son Filipe and presented in exhibitions, mainly by Mr. Fausto. Bensáude died in August of 1967, and the family contacted Conchita Citron, per Bensáude’s request, who took the 14 dogs from the Algarbiorum kennel to Quinta do Índio, along with the Bensaúde files, written in detail and with very important information about each specimen. Conchita registered her new kennel under the name AL-GHARB and began to breed and introduce water dogs at exhibitions. She felt that Vasco Bensáude’s efforts in selecting the breed deserved to be recognized and considering Portugal a poor country and its people lacking the resources to keep such wonderful dogs, refused to sell to the national market, only some being offered to people of wealth and never females. Because she was very well connected abroad, Conchita began an advertising campaign with wealthy Americans. But few females escaped her control. Most of the dogs were sold to wealthy foreigners willing to pay good price for them. The first litter of water dogs born in the United States in 1971 where out of AL-Gharb Renaissance a bitch (purchased in 1968) and Al-Gharb’s Hook (purchased in 1970).
In 1974, the Portuguese Revolution took place in which an army rebellion overthrew the fascist dictatorship. Many people from the higher social tiers had to leave the country and abandon their properties which were then occupied by the workers. This was the case of Quinta do Índio, Conchita’s kennels with 32 water dogs living there. Many of the dogs were either released or fled. By the end of the summer of 74, D. Francisco de Castelo Branco managed to get to the property, with 15 dogs still remaining, most seriously ill and with skin problems. He took them to the Municipal Kennel of Lisbon for slaughter, and according to Nurse Fernandes, some could have been saved, having refused to slaughter 3 of these dogs. D. Francisco Castelo Branco took these 3 dogs back and no one heard of them again. Conchita had fled the country with her family for Mexico but took no dogs with her. After almost 40 years of selective breeding, started by Vasco Bensaúde, it abruptly ended that day, with a few dogs remaining outside Portugal.
In Portugal, only the blood of the bitch FARRUSCA (which Bensáude did not want) remained, which had been crossed with the male SILVES, giving birth to the founding bitch of ALVALADE, Galé.
The breed was initially brought to England in 1954. The Kennel Club (England) recognized the breed as a Working Dog, but registrations were few and far between. In 1958, Mr. and Mrs. Harrington of New York received a pair of dogs from England.
Deyanne Miller an American breeder and exhibitor of poodles, since 1950, under the kennel name FARMION became involved in saving the breed. In 1965, her husband, Herbert Miller, read an article in the New York Times about Portuguese Water Dogs and their rarity and history. Deyanne became curious and interested about the breed and began to investigate. Having observed a litter of English breeding in the United States, she found they did not meet the conventional standard for Portugal based on her research. Deyanne traveled to Portugal, looking for these dogs, especially in the Algarve, but found nothing. In 1968, she traveled again to Portugal, knowing of the death of Vasco Bensaúde, she did not visit the family, out of deference but instead visited Conchita Citron. There she saw not only the dogs left by Bensaude, but a litter, of which one of the females, Renaissance, was to be acquired by her for the price of 350 US Dollar. In 1970, she purchased the Al-Gharb Hook for 500 US Dollar, and these two dogs were the sire and dam of the first recorded litter in the United States.
Deyanne was a determined and very well-connected woman, she quickly arranged for people interested in this breed to take dogs. As publicity for the breed, it claimed to be a very old breed, rare, almost extinct, did not lose hair, was medium in size and an excellent companion for children. Good swimmer, retriever, not provoking allergies, with instinct of guard and shepherding.
The breed began to earn enthusiasts and Deyanne realized that she would have to import more dogs. In 1972, she traveled again to Portugal and bought Trovoada de Alvalade. Eventually more dogs went to the United States, to the Miller family or through it. Males XELIM and CHARLIE DE ALVALADE, the bitches ZAGAIA, ZINIA and ZINGARA de ALVALADE.
Deyanne soon realized that in both lines there were problems with hip dysplasia and bad bites. In the Alvalade’s line appeared dogs with short, wiry hair or Improper coats. Later, other health issues began to appear which prompted the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America to invest in Health studies and fund research to protect and help our dogs for future generations. The first health testing that became available exclusively for our breed was GM1 (Gangliosidosis 1). GM1 in Portuguese Water Dogs is an autosomal recessive disorder caused by mutation c.179G>A in the GLB1 gene affecting the beta-galactosidase synthesis. The deficiency of a functional enzyme leads to storage of gangliosides in the central nervous system, peripheral nerves and kidneys. The first clinical signs become apparent from 5-6 months of age. The affected dogs suffer from asymmetric growth and progressive neurological degradation caused by incorrect function of cerebellum. The first symptoms are loss of weight and “wide-based” gait. Subsequently, progressive loss of coordination, muscle tremors and muscle ataxia occur. The eyes of the dog can be also affected, beginning with squinting and ending by complete loss of vision. The progressive worsening of the health condition results in premature death of the dog or euthanasia.
In the 1970’s, the water dog was considered almost extinct, one of the rarest breeds in the world. This drew more attention to the breed from a wide variety of people. For a period, the breed had a great demand in Portugal and new breeders appeared. The dogs were sold at high prices and many requests came from abroad, not just from the United States. Many dogs of good quality as well as inferior quality we exported. The breed in Portugal, reached the peak of its fame in 1995, the number of registrations increased substantially. In 1995, the number of registrations in the LOP reached its maximum value (422), this value coming down abruptly in later years. The number of animals registered in 2001 was 140, 2002, 90 and 2003 of 105. These numbers do not include unrecorded litters.
In 1983 the Portuguese Water Dog was officially recognized as a breed by the American Kennel Club after much hard work by Deyanne Miller and other fanciers who strove to get the recognition needed to help protect the breed for the future.