Learning about the Portuguese water dog

They have webbed feet, can dive and love to swim. No, we don’t mean ducks. This month, Enjoy the Algarve learns more about fishermen’s best furry friend: the cão de água. 

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine May 2017


I always thought Gustave the Dog was pretty energetic. That was, until I met Sal, a three years old Portuguese water dog, (called cão de água in Portuguese) with black curly hair. Jumping up and down like a kangaroo, completely focussed on the bag in which his toys are kept, he’s hyperactive to the max. Getting him to sit still and pose for a picture turned out to be a bit of a challenge… “At home in Olhão, I have eight dogs, but you’d never notice as they sleep all day,” reveals his owner Carla Peralta (43) of the Associação do Cão de Água Português (ACAP), the Portuguese water dog association. “When I take them out, however, it’s a completely different story and they have this kind of energy.”

Bouncing around in the Salinas do Grelha, just west of Olhão, Sal is in his element. Not only because his name (which indeed translates as ‘salt’) fits perfect to the salt pans, also because there’s lots of water around. And that’s what the Portuguese water dog loves most of all. It’s thought that these dogs go all the way back to Roman times. Certain is that the breed has been used for more than 500 years by fishermen, who named them ‘water dogs’ because of their excellent diving and swimming abilities. The dogs would join the fishermen in the boat and if something, or even someone, fell overboard, they’d jump out, dive in and retrieve. Back in Portugal’s naval Age of Discovery, the ships always had a Portuguese water dog aboard, who would pass on messages between boats. They were also used in tuna fishing. No, the dogs didn’t catch the fish (come on: how on earth would a 30kg dog grab a 300kg tuna?). Instead, they’d help by dragging the ropes of the nets between two fishing boats.

However, in the 1700s the fishing rules slowly started to change and nowadays, because of European hygiene regulations, it’s forbidden to have a dog on board of a fishing boat. This caused the fishermen, who in the past fiercely guarded the breed, not allowing the dogs to fall into the hands of non-fishers, to become more relaxed. These days, Portuguese water dogs are mainly kept as pets and sometimes presented in agility and beauty competitions. Carla occasionally gets dog owners from as far as Germany coming to the Algarve especially to let her trim the hair of their Portuguese water dog in the traditional lion’s cut. This means muzzle, middle and rear are shaved short and the rest of the hair is kept long. It makes them look a bit like a poodle, but is done to allow for easy swimming and diving, while the vital organs are kept warm. Generally, cães de água are happy, lively and very social; they love children, get along fine with other dogs, and don’t bark a lot. Don’t leave them alone for too long though. Carla, who’s had Portuguese water dogs for 14 years, advises a maximum solitary time for three hours. Longer and they get either sad or bored.

“Owners have to keep the original purpose of the breed in mind,” Carla says. “They are working dogs and thus should be kept busy.” Sal, who’s already been into the water several times, looking for stuff to retrieve, now paces backwards and forwards, his eyes fixed on Carla, the toys and the salt pans. Eventually, Carla throws a wooden yellow toy that floats on the water. Immediately, Sal jumps in and swims towards it, using all four legs, assisted by his webbed feet and his tail, which works as a rudder. He brings the object back, shakes the water out of his fur, sits and waits eagerly for his next task. I urge Gustave, who loves chasing things but isn’t very good in bringing them back in one piece, to pay close attention. Maybe I can turn my Portuguese street dog into a Portuguese water dog with a bit of training; how cool would it be to have it deliver cold drinks when you’re lying on an inflatable mattress in the sea?!

After some more throwing and fetching, I join Sal in the water. I’m hesitant at first; swimming with Gustave always leaves me covered in scratches. Luckily, with Sal, there’s none of that. He’s completely focused on the ball Carla throws in the pond and as he swims past on his way back, I can lift along by gently holding onto his shoulders. I feel a bit bad for the poor doggie, but Sal doesn’t seem to mind me hanging from his back and just soldiers on, happy to be busy. It might have to do with the high salt content of the water providing extra buoyancy, but still, I’m quite impressed this dog can drag along a human that weighs over twice as much, seemingly without any effort. Once again, I encourage Gustave to observe closely, but he’s deliberately looking the other way, annoyed that I’m playing with another dog.

Apart from extremely good swimmers, these dogs are also famous for their diving capacities (see the video in the original article). Some Portuguese water dogs can dive up to 1.5 metres. It turns out Sal isn’t one of them. When Carla throws in a wooden block with a weight on it so it sinks below the surface, even though we cheer him on, Sal blatantly refuses to get into the water, showing his temperament. “He probably hasn’t paid attention to where it landed and now, being a typical male, he gives up,” jokes Carla. “Sometimes people tell me their Portuguese water dogs don’t want to swim,” she reveals. “It happens; each dog has its own likes and dislikes. Mostly though, it’s because the owners don’t swim themselves.”

As we all wait for the water dog that’s still standing on dry land, eventually Gustave decides to come to the rescue and jumps in. Since he’s never learned to dive, he just circles around, confused as to why the toy that was clearly thrown in the water has now disappeared out of sight. We fish it out and try again. This time, Sal shows us how it’s done. “When I take more than one dog, the older ones let the younger ones do all the diving and fetching work. Then once they’re almost back to shore, they take over the toy,” explains Carla.

She continues: “What I love most about these dogs is that they’re true companions. I take them everywhere, to the sea, but also to the countryside where they can be used to herd sheep; they’re happy anywhere as long as they’re with their owner. Also, I just love their temperament; it’s what makes them special.” Portuguese water dogs are great indeed, but ask any dog owner for their favourite furry animal, and they’ll all say it’s their own pet. Then again, the swimming, diving and especially the fetching abilities of the cão de água are pretty desirable. So back home again, I feed Gustave pieces of tuna to introduce him to the delicacies of the sea. After a fortune worth of fish, we’ve made a deal: in the future he’ll try to retrieve in one piece instead of catch & destroy whereas I won’t give him a silly haircut that makes him look like a poodle.


When to go?

There aren’t any fixed times or dates, so best is to contact Carla Peralta via phone (00351-960240768) or email (acap.geral@gmail.com) a couple of days in advance to make an appointment.

Although the water in the Salinas do Grelha is warmer than the Atlantic Ocean, this activity is best done in summer time. It might also be possible in other seasons, but not if it’s too cold and/or windy for the dogs (think: December & January).


For whom?

This is for everyone who wants to learn more about the Portuguese Water Dog. There’s only one condition: must love dogs.

Don’t bring your nicest and newest clothes; the dogs will be running around free and might choose to shake off after a swim right next to where you’re standing. Do take your swimsuit if you want to get into the water with the dogs.

This activity is also suitable for families and children, as long as they aren’t afraid of dogs of course.


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine May 2017

Posted in This month we try.