The First International Congress of the Portuguese Water Dog

The First International Congress of the Portuguese Water Dog convened at Tavira, Portugal, from September 26-30, 2013, with the theme of "One Breed — One Dog."

The First International Congress of the Portuguese Water Dog convened at Tavira, Portugal, from September 26-30, 2013, with the theme of “One Breed — One Dog.” Inspired and organized by international all-breed judge and Clube Portugues de Canicultura (CPC) President Carla Molinari, organized by the Associacho para a Proteccao do Cao de Aqua Portugues and sponsored by the CPC, the Congress represented the first international meeting of PWD breeders, exhibitors, owners, handlers and judges in the breed’s history.

More than 200 participants from 16 countries and four continents attended the conclave, including the national clubs of Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and the United States. The event opened in Tavira with two days of water trial demonstrations on the beach adjoining the host resort at Pedras D’El Rei. The water trials showed a contrast to the typical American water trials that are normally conducted on lakes in relatively calm waters. At Tavira, handlers and dogs worked in heavy surf and rolling waves much as the original working dogs would have experienced. Handlers did not wear life vests, and dogs worked without a harness. A demonstration of dogs rescuing swimmers included dogs towing two men at once to shore in the pounding surf; not unusual for Newfoundlands, but quite a feat for the much smaller PWD.



The Congress was organized into a dozen formal presentations — an ambitious agenda — on Friday and Saturday. They included histories of the breed in Portugal, the United States and other nations. Other presentations included grooming, coat color, breed standards and multiple health, breeding and genetic issues.

The theme of the Congress, “One Breed — One Dog,” focused on examining differences and similarities between the three major breed standards: the American Kennel Club, FCI and the United Kingdom. PWDs are one of the oldest recognized breeds in Europe, with references to “water dogs” going back to as early as 1570. In the southern region of Portugal, called the “Algarve,” where Tavira is situated, water dogs were mentioned even earlier in 1297 as fishing and rescue dogs.


Early History

Carla Molinari of Portugal gave a talk about the history of the PWD in Portugal. Most of the original PWDs were found in the Algarve in the 1930s and brought to Lisbon, the capital, for breeding by Vasco Bensaude, a wealthy shipping magnate, who started the Algarbiorum foundation line in 1938. The other major foundation line was Alvalade started by Dr. Antonio Cabral, a veterinarian. Their breeding lines became the genesis of today’s PWDs throughout the world. The first breed standard was written in 1938.

In 1975, during the Portuguese revolution, tragedy struck the breed. Vasco Bensaude died and entrusted the remaining 18 Algarbiorum PWDs to a well-known breeder and exhibitor in Portugal. For reasons still unclear today, this breeder euthanized all of the remaining dogs from this line, and the Algarbiorum line effectively disappeared in Portugal. The line returned to Portugal in 2013.


Americans to the Rescue

Occupied for more than 2,000 years by native tribes, Phoenicians, Romans, Celts, Moors and the Spanish, Portugal today displays a fantastic diversity of cultures, food, arts, science and architecture. North African Muslims ruled the nation for 700 years, and their influence adds to the lure for visitors. Magnificent tile work with blue and white backgrounds is found throughout the country, particularly in the south where the Moors were more dominant. Many of the participants of the Congress took the opportunity to tour this beautiful country, which is only about the size of Indiana.

While a small country, Portugal is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the south, creating a maritime influence far beyond the geographic size of the nation. Portugal ruled over vast colonies in Africa and Brazil for centuries. Portugal gained its independence from Spain in 1640 and has endured multiple governments and revolutions, including the bloodless “Carnation Revolution” of 1974 that brought democracy to the country and proved critical to the history of PWDs.

Maryanne Murray discussed the history of PWDs in the US. By the 1970s the number of PWDs in the world had dwindled, and the breed faced extinction. In 1971, there were only 15 pups in the US. A group of enthusiasts and breeders in the northeast, led by Deyanne Miller in Connecticut, imported PWDs into the US. The first litter born in America came in 1972, and by 1980 there were 432 PWDs in the country, and the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America had been formed in 1972. In 1970, breedings in Portugal revived the Alvalade foundation line with early breeders such as Carla Molinari. By 1982, American breeders were exporting PWDs back to Portugal.

Today, PWDs have become well-established in the US with 15,796 dogs in 2012, including 310 litters and 1,466 puppies. In late 2012, a historic breeding took place in California that returned the lost foundation line back to Europe. Keel Tonel ROM (1977-1985), was the top-producing PWD in history, with more than 2,776 down-line champions as of 2013, owned by Brinmar Kennel in Pennsylvania. MBIS, MSBIS, GCh. Aviator’s Luck Be A Lady ‘Ladybug’ is the top-winning PWD bitch in history, bred by Aviator Kennel in California. Using the last remaining batch of 39-year old semen from Keel Tonel, Ladybug produced a litter of eight healthy puppies, reviving the lost Algarbiorum bloodline. Three of these puppies were placed in Portugal, Germany and England, returning the foundation line back to Europe after 38 years. All three young dogs participated in the Congress at Tavira.


Breed Standards

A goal of the Congress was to try to harmonize and bring consistency to the different breed standards. In several hours of discussions and presentations, it became obvious that there was much more agreement between standards than any real conflicts. Outside of the US, for example, the lion clip is the only approved haircut, derived from the original functional clip for working PWDs that worked in the ocean with fishermen. When the breed was first introduced in the US in the 1970s, Deyanne Miller and the fledgling PWD national club decided to also introduce the “retriever” clip to help market the breed to an American audience.

One of the highlights of the presentations, resulting in a standing ovation, was the “Technical Breed Study of the Standards — Type and Morphology” by Rui Oliveira of Portugal. Oliveira is an international all-breed judge, exhibitor and chair of the Portuguese Kennel Club’s Technical Committee. His exhaustive and definitive study explained the differences in breed standards so well that many of the so-called variations became a non-issue in the discussions that followed.

Wording in the standards for proportion, hips and elbows, and size differentiation differed primarily in semantics and interpretation rather than any identifiable conflict. It was noted that “balance” for the breed is much more important than small versus large dogs. Because of better nutrition, training and environment, the breed is growing slightly larger, presenting a potential challenge for breeders and the fancy.

PWDs were originally described as “brawlers by nature” in the original standards, reflecting the tough existence of a working PWD on a small fishing boat in the roiling Atlantic. Over time, this description was removed from the standards, and today’s PWDs are considered to be moderate in temperament and easy to live with, yet spirited and self-willed.


The real issues: Color and Health

Over the decades, while PWDs have primarily been black in color with a little white, standards have allowed black, white, brown and combinations with white. Historically, the Alvalade line produced PWDs that were 86 percent black and 14 percent brown with a few other combinations. The Algarbiorum line produced 57 percent black, 22 percent brown and the rest a variety of combinations.

Presentations from Portuguese geneticists described the existence of lighter-colored PWDs, and concluded that actual pure-white PWDs are extremely rare and are actually cream or yellow-colored. Actual white is the absence of color and pigment. The real issue is not color but health problems created by attempts to breed and produce a “white” PWD from dogs that are actually extreme piebalds.

As one of the American breeders, who has also been a Dalmatian breeder, pointed out, it is the piebald gene that produces not only a white color but genetic deafness in dogs. The gene has also been associated with other health problems, such as Puppy Eye Syndrome, all from the lack of melanin (pigment) from the piebald gene.

Several presentations from national PWD clubs showed that health testing in Europe is not as highly emphasized as it is in the US. For example, out of nearly 1,200 dogs bred in Portugal recently, only 48 were fully health-tested. In his presentation, Chuck Teasley, President of the PWD Club of America, pointed out that comprehensive health testing and the National Health Registry are still critical points of emphasis for American breeding programs. Partially because of this emphasis on health, the American pool of nearly 16,000 dogs offers expanded opportunities for breeders to avoid using lines with historical health issues. In much of Europe and Australia, there are fewer than 10 active breeders in each country.


Show Day

On the final day of the Congress, the Portuguese Water Dog Club hosted a match show and the annual “Monografica,” their national specialty. Dogs were entered from throughout Europe, judged by Carla Molinari and another international all-breed judge, Luis Cantalan. For American participants, the competition highlighted the relative informality and casualness of European shows as compared to the more rigid format in the US. For example, while photos with the judge for winning dogs is the sacrosanct territory of the show photographer in the US, anyone was allowed to enter the ring and take their own photos at this show. Grooming was less of a focus, as well, with few examples of the stylized “show groom” seen in the American ring. At the same time, the judges were very thorough and hands-on in their examination of the dogs.

The First International Congress of the PWD was a huge success by any standard. As a breed, PWDs have advanced significantly in the last decade. Almost extinct 40 years ago, they have become a breed to be reckoned with in major competitions. Today, PWDs regularly win Best in Shows, place in Groups and perform at a high level in everything from agility to water trials to therapy work. The variety of tasks that the breed can perform is reflected in the diversity of owners who love and work with this breed.

The Congress, thanks primarily to the vision of Carla Molinari, demonstrates the potential of the breed throughout the world and particularly in the United States. Any breed that is a great family dog, extremely intelligent, moderate in size and temperament and eager to please its owners above all should have a great future. PWDs embody all of these traits, and the success of the Congress bodes well for the future of this breed.


From the November 2013 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the November 2013 digital back issue with the DIR app or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine (print and digital versions).

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