It was an exciting day for the whole family when the First Dog set paws on the White House lawn. Of course, you can’t introduce a Presidential Pooch without a press conference. Let’s hope they keep up with his training. I’d like to see Bo earn his stripes as a Canine Good Citizen.
The first time I saw a Portuguese Water Dog (affectionately known as a “Portie”), I thought it was a Poodle. The coat is similar, and there is an alert intelligence about them both. Fishermen in Portugal began breeding dogs to help them do their work. A dog that could swim out and retrieve something that fell off the boat would be really handy, and if it could dive underwater and get it, that’d be even better! And since no one had invented cell phones yet, getting messages to shore or between ships via dogmail would be extremely useful. They also selectively bred for certain physical traits like webbed toes (a very cool feature for a water-loving dog).
In 1297, the same year Scottish rebel William Wallace defeated the English in a battle at Stirling Bridge (on September 11th)*, these unique canines made it into the history books when a monk filed an accident report. A sailor found himself headed for Davy Jones’ Locker when he was pulled to safety by a wooly black dog with a poofy tail. The rescue dog turned out to be a Cao de Aqua, a local “water dog.”**
The Portie’s fur does not have an undercoat; their fur is wavy or curly, with none of the “fluffiness” you’d see on a Collie or a Husky, for example. That’s why the Obamas were looking at this breed in particular. One of their daughters has allergies, and a dog that does not shed can be much easier to tolerate. Their hair grows constantly, like ours, so they need a haircut occasionally to look their best (and not get waterlogged when they swim).
When industrialization changed the fishing business, the breed nearly died out. Breeding programs in the US and Canada kept the line going with a small population, which has increased as the dog has gained popularity (and now, notoriety). Because the gene pool is quite small, it is extremely important that breeders understand the animal’s genetic predispositions and work toward improvements in health and temperament. Some genetic health concerns for this breed include Progressive Retinal Atrophy (which can lead to blindness), Cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the heart), Addison’s Disease, Hip Dysplasia, and GM-1 Storage Disease (a metabolic disorder fatal to puppies if both parents carry the gene). One unusual (but not health-threatening) genetic problem called Follicular Dysplasia can result in dog pattern-baldness (hair falls out and might not grow back).
If you are looking for a pup, choose a breeder wisely. There are Portie rescue organizations, and the Portuguese Water Dog Club of Canada provides excellent information on the breed, in addition to the following caveat:
The Portuguese Water Dog is not a breed for everyone. The challenge of channeling the stamina, intelligence, and exuberance of this dynamic dog can be frustrating at times but ultimately rewarding. The commitment of your time and effort to training and caring for your Portuguese Water Dog is a responsibility that can not be taken lightly.
Apparently, they also like tomatoes, so Michelle better put a dog-proof fence around the White House Kitchen Garden.
* History Orb: Today in History 1297
** Kathryn Braund and Deyanne Farrell Miller, The Complete Portugese Water Dog. (New York: Howell Book House Inc., 1986) p. 13.