Portuguese Water Dog

Peter Richards
Peter Richards (BVSc, MRCVS, University of Bristol)
Photo of adult Portuguese Water Dog

The Portuguese Water Dog was the standard working dog aboard Portuguese fishing vessels for centuries. Once modern fishing practices displaced them from their jobs, the breed nearly became extinct. Thanks to the work of a few enthusiasts, they survived into the 21st century where they are valued as family dogs. This switch to a domestic life hasn’t taken away their love of water and a loose Portuguese Water Dog will take advantage of any water around, whether they’re allowed to or not!

Portuguese Water Dogs are known as a friendly and intelligent breed that loves to spend time with their family. They are energetic and require a good amount of daily exercise. This should preferably be as mentally stimulating as possible too since Portuguese Water Dogs can easily become bored. They’re great dogs for those who dislike finding hair everywhere as their coats shed minimally. Although they don’t shed, they still require regular trips to the groomers as their hair never stops growing.

About & History

There is no consensus on how the Portuguese Water Dog arrived in Portugal. One theory suggests that their ancestors accompanied the Visigoths from Eastern Europe into Western Europe. This primitive breed diverged into Poodles, Löwchen and the Portuguese Water Dog. The other theory states that they are descendants of dogs brought over by the Moors during their 8th century conquests. Wherever they came from, we do know that the Portuguese Water Dog was around in 1297. A document written by monks in that year describes how a ship-wrecked sailor was rescued off the Portuguese coast by a dog with a "black coat, the hair long and rough, cut to the first rib and with a tail tuft". This description fits the Portuguese Water Dog to a tee.

Portuguese Water Dogs were a favourite of fishermen. Not only did they guard the homestead on land but they were formidable swimmers. Fishermen from Portugal ranged all over the Atlantic from the Portuguese coast to Iceland and Newfoundland. Invariably, they would be accompanied by Portuguese Water Dogs who fulfilled various roles on the ship. They acted as messengers, swimming from ship to ship or ship to shore. They retrieved lost tackle from the water and, most importantly, drove fish into their masters’ nets.

Luckily, the breed wasn’t just popular among fishermen since modern practices and technology replaced them on many ships. Most modern Portuguese Water Dogs are descended from a breeding program established in the 1930s by Vasco Bensaude, a wealthy shipping heir who decided to save the breed. A few decades later, the breed began to spread abroad, especially to the USA where they are relatively popular.


Portuguese Water Dog Large Photo

The Portuguese Water Dog is a medium to large breed with males achieving an adult height of 50 to 57cm and weighing between 19 and 25kg. Females tend to be slightly smaller with a mature height between 43 and 52cm and weight somewhere around 16 to 22kg.

As you would expect from a dog bred for swimming, Portuguese Water Dogs are an athletic and well-muscled breed with very weather resistant coats. Their heads are distinguished by a central furrow in the forehead, along with a wide muzzle. The nose colour matches the coat colour while the eyes are usually black or dark brown. Their ears are heart-shaped and hang down the side of the head to below eye level. They are broad dogs with a deep chest that runs into the abdomen with a moderate tuck. Portuguese Water Dogs have webbed toes on their round feet. The skin between their toes is covered with fur and extends to the tip, giving their paws an otter-like appearance.

The coat comes in two different types, including wavy or curly. Some dogs have a mixed coat with curly hair on the body and wavy on the ears and tail. The coat can come in three colours, including:

  • Black
  • Brown
  • White

White markings on black or brown dogs are common and usually appear on the chest, chin, legs and feet. “Parti” coats, which feature irregular white markings, are becoming more popular in the USA, however, the Portuguese breed standard excludes individuals with white markings covering more than 30% of the coat.

Character & Temperament

Portuguese Water Dogs are a friendly breed that love to play with their family, however, they have the tendency to be quite stubborn so might not be suitable for inexperienced owners. They have very high energy levels making them perfect for those with an active lifestyle, preferably with access to a suitable water source!

They are a highly social breed that loves to be around people and are even friendly towards strangers. This friendliness makes them popular as therapy dogs who visit hospitals and nursing homes. If they’re left alone for long periods though, they are susceptible to separation anxiety, which may manifest as inappropriate chewing. Like other retrievers, the Portuguese Water Dog is a mouthy breed so will need appropriate chew toys to express this behaviour. Boredom is another reason for inappropriate chewing. Portuguese Water Dogs are an intelligent breed, needing mental stimulation as much as physical exercise.

Portuguese Water Dogs get along well with children but as large, enthusiastic playmates, they can be intimidating to younger children. If socialised properly, they can also get along with cats and other dogs but it may not be wise to keep them unsupervised around smaller animals.


Photo of Portuguese Water Dog puppy

Portuguese Water Dogs are an intelligent breed who take well to training and learn quickly. As with all dogs, socialisation is an important part of any training regime. Exposing puppies to new people, animals and places will ensure that they are equipped to react appropriately to new situations in adulthood.

Portuguese Water Dogs have some behaviours that could be considered undesirable. They often jump up at their owners as a greeting and have a habit of counter-surfing, standing on their hind legs to reach food in the kitchen. Owners should watch out for these behaviours and correct them when required.


Portuguese Water Dogs are a generally healthy breed with a life expectancy of 12-15 years. However, there are some conditions that prospective owners should be aware of:

Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is a condition where the components of the femur and pelvis which form the hip joint don’t fit together as they should. The condition always culminates with the development of arthritis in the joint. The age at which this occurs depends on the degree of dysplasia.

Hip dysplasia is a multi-factorial disease with a hereditary component. Screening programs of breeding dogs are recommended to reduce the likelihood of future generations inheriting the disease.

Juvenile Dilated Cardiomyopathy (JDCM)

JDCM is an inherited condition that causes the heart muscle to weaken and enlarge. Affected individuals show no signs of heart failure until 12 or 24 hours before death. Heart failure tends to manifest as decreased energy levels, loss of appetite, vomiting and difficulty breathing.

Some puppies may show no signs before sudden death between the age of 5 weeks and 7 months. There is no cure, however, a genetic test is available to identify carriers of the disease.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)

PRA is an inherited disease affecting adult dogs. There is no treatment and affected dogs will eventually go blind. A genetic test is available to identify carriers of the gene. Two carriers should not be bred together to avoid any puppies in the litter being affected.

GM-1 Storage Disease

GM-1 Storage Disease is a fatal metabolic disorder, which is genetically transmitted. As with PRA and JDCM, a test is available to identify carriers of the gene to avoid matings between two carriers that could lead to the birth of an affected puppy. Clinical signs manifest at 5 to 6 months old.

GM-1 Storage Disease affects the brain so symptoms can vary depending on which region is most affected. Loss of balance, inability to eat, changes in gait, reduced reflexes and blindness may all be symptoms. The condition progresses and affected dogs are usually euthanised at between 12 and 18 months old.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Portuguese Water Dogs require plenty of exercise. Ideally, they should have an outdoor area to roam around in, but with some dedication, they can adapt to life in an apartment. If you’re not giving your Portuguese Water Dog enough exercise, you’ll soon find out, as your belongings will undoubtedly be chewed up and destroyed! As an intelligent breed, Portuguese Water Dogs are adept at various activities, including agility and obedience trials.


Portuguese Water Dogs have no undercoat so shedding is minimal in this breed. Don’t let this fool you into thinking that they are a low maintenance breed, however. If left alone, the hair will grow indefinitely. This can lead to problems, such as reduced vision, matting and skin conditions. To prevent this, the hair should be trimmed every two months and brushed a few times a week.

When it comes to grooming styles, the most common are:

  • The Lion Cut – The dog is left with a mane of hair by cutting the hindquarters, muzzle and lower two thirds of the tail.
  • The Retriever Cut – The hair is cut to 2.5cm long all over the body.

Famous Portuguese Water Dogs

Although they are no longer found on fishing ships, the Portuguese Water Dog did manage to find its way into the White House. Barack Obama has two Portuguese Water Dogs, Bo and Sunny.


The Portuguese Water Dog doesn’t have any recognised cross-breeds.

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