Spanish Water Dog

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Spanish Water Dog

The Spanish Water Dog, in various forms, has been an ever-present feature on Spanish farms for around a thousand years. It is an all-round working breed, capable of herding livestock, protecting people and property, and retrieving game with equal skill and commitment. The breed is highly intelligent and renowned for its cheerful disposition, which makes it a wonderful pet, the role in which it now most commonly finds itself. Occasionally employed as a guard dog, it can be reserved around strangers, and owners need to work with their pet from a young age to ensure this does not become a problematic trait.

Spanish Water Dogs excel at almost any task they are set, and make a good choice of breed for an owner looking to compete in canine sports. Equally, they are a popular breed in the emergency services, being used for search and rescue, and drug and bomb detection duties. The breed’s distinctive curly coat is an indication of its relation to other water dogs, notably the Irish Water Spaniel and the Portuguese Water Dog, and it requires special care when grooming to retain its waterproof qualities. It is a very energetic and driven breed, and needs a good deal of exercise to stave off boredom. Health problems are relatively common in the breed with the Kennel Club implementing screening programmes for joint and eye diseases for all breeders. Despite these issues, the average life expectancy for the Spanish Water Dog is a respectable 12–14 years.

About & History

Like most long-established breeds, the Spanish Water Dog has a history that is hotly debated among cynologists. It has certainly been in existence in some form for at least a thousand years, though many believe it is more likely to have been around since the time of the Roman Empire. It is colloquially known as the Andalusian Turk in its homeland, and oral history suggests that it was first introduced to Spain by Turkish sheep traders in the Middle Ages, who are known to have used dogs to help handle their sheep around this time. Whatever its origin, it was used for a variety of tasks on Spanish farms in mountainous regions, being primarily a herding dog, though also well capable of protecting sheep from predators and thieves, guarding property, and standing in as a retrieving dog when needed on a hunt.

At some point in its history, it appears to have been instrumental in the development of the Irish Water Spaniel, another breed with an unusual, tightly curled coat. The breed developed along three distinct lines in different regions of Spain, with one eventually being developed as the Cantabrian Water Dog, now a breed in its own right. The other two lines underwent extensive cross-breeding to produce the breed we know today as the Spanish Water Dog. Until relatively recently, it remained confined to farm life, and it was only in the mid-1970s that two enthusiasts, Antonio Garcia Perez and Santiago Montesinos, began to establish a breeding population of dogs for the promotion of the breed in the rest of the world. It was officially recognised by the Federation Cynologique Internationale in 1999 when the current breed standard was finalised.

Appearance

Spanish Water Dog Large Photo

This is a medium-sized breed of well-defined proportions with a back that is slightly longer than the dog is tall, and having a chest that is let down to half the height at the withers. It is rather rectangular in outline, though this may be obscured by another essential trait – its thick, corded coat. It has quite a large skull that is long in proportion to the muzzle and is flat between the ears. Like its body shape, the outline of the head is rectilinear, with the top of the muzzle and skull running in parallel. The large nose must be the same colour as, or darker than, the coat, and the tight lips have prominent labial corners. The medium-sized eyes are hazel or brown in colour, and are set obliquely, while the triangular ears are set at a medium height and lie flat to the side of the skull.

The neck is short and broad, and set well into the shoulders, while the back is similarly broad and strong, with a level topline. The tail was traditionally docked, and although this practice is now thankfully banned, some individuals are born with a naturally shortened tail. Others have a full-length tail of moderate thickness that hangs down to the hocks when relaxed. The chest is deep and very broad, and the abdomen has a slight tuck.

The limbs are unusually upright for such an athletic breed, and are quite heavily muscled. The coat is unusual, being very curly, forming cords when allowed to grow. It is either solid- or bi-coloured in one of the following variations:

  • White
  • Black
  • Chestnut
  • Black and white
  • White and brown

Males stand 44–50 cm (17–20 in) tall at the withers, and weigh 18 to 22 kg (40–48 lb), while females are 40–45 cm (16–18 in) in height, weighing 14 to 18 kg (31–40 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Spanish Water Dog is an exceptionally versatile dog, and despite its origins as a true working breed, it makes a devoted, loyal and cheerful pet. It is highly intelligent, and likes to be included in family activities – if excluded from family life it can become quite shy and even resentful. Spanish Water Dogs live to work, whatever that work might be, and they really come into their own if given a job to do. This need not involve herding a flock of sheep, and they are capable of learning a vast range of chores with minimal instruction. With a little imagination, a Spanish Water Dog owner can find themselves with a bag-carrying companion on trips to the corner shop, someone to locate the elusive television remote, and a willing laundry assistant.

While uncertainty with strangers is to be expected from any dog previously expected to work as a guardian, this trait can usually be overcome with socialisation, and it is important that a Spanish Water Dog is given every opportunity to meet and greet visitors to the home from a very young age. Failure to provide this socialisation can sometimes result in this natural shyness developing into aggression in an adult dog. If raised with children, they are patient and tolerant, but like any dog, they should not be left unattended with the very young.

Trainability

Photo of Spanish Water Dog puppy

Spanish Water Dogs are highly trainable, learning new commands and tricks quickly with minimal instruction. However, like many other intelligent breeds, they have a talent for mischief, and will attempt to rebel against their owner’s authority if they feel it wavering in the slightest. For this reason, they are probably best suited to people with previous experience as dog owners who are able to calmly but firmly reassert themselves when needed. The breed needs and enjoys mental stimulation, which can be provided to some degree through task-driven activities like agility or flyball.

Because of their naturally aloof approach to strangers, socialisation is particularly important, and should begin with puppies at as young an age as possible. Adolescence can be a turbulent time, with many previously calm and well-mannered Spanish Water Dogs becoming skittish and fearful, and at this time it is again very important to provide plenty of positive reinforcement for good behaviour and sociability.

Health

The breed is known to suffer from several reasonably common health problems. To achieve Approved Breeder status, Spanish Water Dog breeders are required to submit their dogs for testing for hip dysplasia, goniodysgenesis, and progressive retinal atrophy, all of which are discussed below. Anyone considering the purchase of a Spanish Water Dog should ensure their puppy has come from one of these approved breeders to minimise the risk of encountering these problems in their own pup.

  • Addison’s Disease – Most commonly seen in young adult females, this condition is also known as hypoadrenocorticism. It arises because of autoimmune damage to the adrenal glands, which produce a range of hormones that are vital to maintaining normal bodily function. Classically, Addisonian dogs do not deal well with stress, either psychological or physiological, and become severely ill after periods of kennelling or during treatment for other, minor illnesses. Though the condition may present as waxing and waning gastrointestinal problems, it can also be a cause of collapse and sudden death. Once identified, it is readily treatable with long-term steroid medications.
  • Congenital Hypothyroidism – Though not especially common, this condition is seen in this breed far more frequently than in others. A lack of an essential enzyme, thyroid peroxidase, results in very low levels of thyroid hormone. As this is a genetic condition, it is present from birth, and affected pups will be noticed to grow more slowly and to reach developmental milestones later than their unaffected siblings. The main difficulty with the syndrome is that it may be overlooked, with such delays in development being attributed to the pup being the “runt of the litter”. In such cases, it can be fatal. However, the combination of slow development with a palpably enlarged thyroid gland is highly suggestive, and if diagnosed early, congenital hypothyroidism responds well to oral thyroid hormone supplementation.
  • Goniodysgenesis – Maintenance of normal pressure within the eye is a complex process, requiring tight regulation of both production and drainage of ocular fluids. In goniodysgenesis, the drainage apparatus located in the eye’s iris fails to develop normally with the result that fluid is produced faster than it can be drained, increasing the intraocular pressure, causing the eye to enlarge and become painful and, eventually, blind. Detecting goniodysgenesis requires specialist equipment, and all Spanish Water Dogs should be examined by a veterinary ophthalmologist in order to identify and manage the disorder with topical medications before it becomes a serious problem.
  • Hip Dysplasia – This is the most common hereditary cause of lameness in many breeds of dog, and is often encountered in the Spanish Water Dog. As the normal development of the hip involves the synchronous growth of numerous growth plates in the bones of the pelvis and femur, it is susceptible to problems. Signs of hindlimb lameness may be first noticed from five months of age, and x-ray examination will usually identify malformation of one or both hip joints even at this young age. Conservative treatment involves rest and anti-inflammatory medications, while severely affected dogs may be candidates for hip replacement surgery when fully grown. The well-established hip scoring scheme that is in place through the Kennel Club and British Veterinary Association aims to remove dogs with very poor hips from the breeding pool, and it is vital that all breeders screen their dogs in this manner rather than perpetuate the inheritance of this disorder.
  • Neuroaxonal Dystrophy – A rare, inherited disorder in which the main communicating branches from the spinal nerves begin to degenerate from around 4–6 months of age. Initial signs include incoordination and weakness. Unfortunately, this condition is progressive and incurable, and most affected dogs are euthanised soon after diagnosis.
  • Otitis Externa – The breed’s hairy ear canals are prone to obstruction with matts or clumps of ear wax, often resulting in ear infections. This is best prevented with a combination of routine ear cleaning and plucking, as if otitis becomes a long-standing problem, it can be difficult to resolve.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy – This remains, unfortunately, a common genetic disorder of the eyes. Normal vision relies on the function of the retina, a thin layer at the back of the eye consisting of irreplaceable nerve cells. Dogs affected with PRA experience death of these cells from around five years of age, with consequent partial or full loss of sight. There is no treatment for this condition, and the best hope of reducing its incidence is to subject all breeding animals to genetic testing in order to identify carriers of the genes responsible.

Exercise and Activity Levels

These are very active dogs that will take as much exercise as is available. Unsurprisingly, most enjoy swimming if given access to water, but this is not considered essential to their wellbeing. As a minimum, owners should be prepared to provide around one hour of walking or free exercise every day, and this pastoral breed will also enjoy regular access to a large garden in which to ramble.

Grooming

The unusual coat requires special care, and should never be brushed or combed, as this can disrupt the structure of the curled hair shafts. Instead, owners must be vigilant to the appearance of knots and tangles, and these should be teased out individually. Regular trimming is advised to help in coat management, and should be done when the hair is at most 12–15 cm in length. Bathing should only be done when necessary so as to avoid stripping the skin and hair of their essential waterproofing oils. The breed is said not to shed, and so may be considered by those looking for a supposedly hypoallergenic pet.

Famous Spanish Water Dogs

Harry, a Spanish Water Dog rescued by a Chinese photographer named Cari in 2010, became an international celebrity while travelling by bicycle across Asia with his owner between 2014 and 2015. While Cari did all the leg work, Harry rode in comfort in a specially constructed carrier on the back of the bike. The pair passed through 23 countries on their epic journey.

Cross-Breeds

As the breed remains relatively scarce, there are no well-established crosses with other breeds at the present time.

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