Posts Tagged ‘water dogs’

(Source for photo)

This dog is a Portuguese water dog.



It’s a Portuguese water dog.

But I thought they had poodle-type coats.

Well, some do. This one is an “improperly coated” Portuguese water dog.

What’s improper about them?

Portuguese water dogs have two correct coats. One is wavy, and one is curled (like a poodle). Both are constantly growing coats, just as you’d find on poodles and other water dogs.

This particular dog has a coat that is more like a flat-coated retriever– more like a “normal” long-haired dog.

I know this particular query got people guessing in all different direction. Most people thought it was some kind of gun dog, but Christopher and Sam eventually figured it out.

The famous person who owns one is President Obama. However, his dog is of a “proper” coat, but Bo is the same color as this dog.


A dog with an improper coat cannot be shown. However, the correct coat appears to be in some way dominant to the improper coat, which means that correctly-coated Portuguese water dogs can occasionally produce puppies with these faulty pelts.

Where this coat comes from is open to conjecture. Portuguese water dogs almost went extinct. They were revived through outcrossing with the Spanish water dog (which is actually a herding breed that moonlights as a water dog). It is likely that other breeds were mixed in– some of which may have been long-haired dogs.

However, it is possible that dogs of the typical long-haired type always existed in the Iberian water dog population. I will get to some reasons for why this might be possible later on.

For years Portuguese water dog breeders have been trying to breed away from this coat. Now, no one breeds the improperly coated dogs. That is a given.  But this coat remains persistent in the Portuguese water dog gene pool.

A few months ago I was alerted to the discovery of the genes that determine what kind of coat a dog has. It turns out that it is just variation on three genes that determines the coat type.

Once that was figured out, it wasn’t long before a test was developed to determine whether a Portuguese water dog with a normal coat is carrying the genes for an improper coat. In fact, the test is based upon the same research that found the genes responsible from the coat type. (I have not looked it closely, but it seems to me that they are using an SNP chip.)

What is this going to mean for Portuguese water dogs?

Well, it means that the breeders have a tool  that will allow them to cull away from this faulty coat.

The problem is Portuguese water dogs have genetic diversity issues.

In the 1980’s, it was listed as the rarest breed on earth. They had to be saved, as I wrote earlier, through outcrossing with Spanish water dogs. The dogs do have some real issues with genetic diversity and genetic disorders. The breed club, to its credit, has a very nicely funded and pro-active health foundation to really understand these disorders.

The problem is that now that the breeders can cull dogs carrying this coat, it means that the genetic diversity of this breed is probably going to get even more truncated. Potentially, it would could eliminate the improper coat in just a few generations.

But because they have eliminated carriers of that coat from the gene pool,  they will have lost a part of the gene pool. It means fewer unrelated dogs from which a breeder can choose to outcross. It means a greater chance in bad recessive genes coming together.

Of course, it doesn’t have to happen this way. It is possible that some breeders will tolerated the odd improper coat in their lines just to hold onto some good genes. My guess is that this is very likely. The club is very clear on keeping carriers in breeding programs.

After all, white boxers are a byproduct of breeding for the much sought-after flashy markings for the show wrong. Predominantly white boxers are often pilloried in Boxer circles, but if they would stop breeding for flashy markings, they would eliminate the white coloration entirely.

My other hunch is that Portuguese water dog fanciers tend to be better informed about genetic issues. Maybe the breeders will tolerate the occasional appearance of a retrieverish Portuguese water dog in their litters just to hold onto some genetic diversity.


We’ll have to wait and see. It’s up to the Portuguese water dog fancy right now.

Right now the club is very clear in telling its members not to cut out carriers of improper coat from the breeding programs, but I wonder if people will listen. Just knowing that you have the ability to produce this coat is a powerful piece of information. I don’t know if people are going to be thinking of the big picture enough to not cull carriers. I’d like to think they are, but my own niggling suspicions are that the breeders will cull carriers.

Maybe President Obama needs to weigh in on this issue (LOL).


Now, as I noted earlier, there is a possibility that the long-haired genes were always in the Iberian water dogs.

My evidence comes from a somewhat unusual inference.

The Portuguese water dog is probably an ancestor of the St. John’s water dog. Canadian author and St. John’s water dog lover Farley Mowat believed he had traced the origins of his beloved Albert to the dogs of Iberia.

If you look at these last two St. John’s water dogs, you can see some similarities with the improperly-coated Portuguese water dog in the photo at the top of this post:

The dogs are both black and white, and historically, the St. John’s breed came in liver, as do some Portuguese water dogs.

The Portuguese fishing fleet was among the first to fish the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Indeed, the name for Labrador (the place) actually comes from a Portuguese explorer named João Fernandes.  The Portuguese king gave him the title of “Lavrador” over the lands he discovered, which included Newfoundland and that place that became known as Labrador.

Portuguese water dogs were used to retrieve nets and lines from the sea, exactly as the St. John’s breed did. Indeed, the Potuguese water dogs were used as far north as Iceland, which means that they were very good cold water dogs.

Some of these dogs likely were left behind in Newfoundland, where they lost their poodle-type coats. Perhaps this happened due to cross-breeding. Perhaps it was due to natural selection.

But we do know that St. John’s water dogs that were being used on Newfoundland were mostly smooth-haired dogs– something like modern Labradors.

However, it is also likely that there were long-haired dogs of this type. I have a depiction of one:

This dog is listed in a mid-nineteenth century text as a “St. John’s Labrador.” It is long-haired.  I don’t think  it is a setter cross. The same text depicts as setter-retriever cross that has far less shaggy hair than this dogs does.

It seems to me that the “St. John’s Labrador” is the long-haired variant of the St.John’s water dog.  The long-haired dogs probably were more likely to be sold to English fishermen and traders. Short-haired animals were much more preferred in hunting game and working on fishing boats. They were more streamlined in the water, and they didn’t get bogged down with ice and frost when working in frigid conditions.

As someone who knows what happens to golden retrievers in the snow, I can say that this is not an idle concern. These dogs collect snowballs.

Take a look at the “St. John’s Labrador.”

Doesn’t it look a lot like the improperly-coated Portuguese water dog?

Perhaps these improperly-coated dogs were always part of the Portuguese water dog gene pool.

Perhaps they are the link between the St. John’s water dogs and the retrievers and the Iberian water dogs?

Portuguese fishermen may not have liked these dogs with improper coats, so they left them at Newfoundland or traded them to fishermen from other nations. And is from these dogs that the mostly smooth-haired St. John’s breed developed.


See Earlier Posts and Links:


I am intrigued that Mowat has an unpublished manuscript about these water dogs and his beloved Albert. I wish he would publish it, but I don’t think it is very likely.


Hat tip to Pai for alerting me to the test for improper coat. The historical part of this post has been in me for a while, but I have had a hard time finding good photos of Portuguese water dogs with improper coat.

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It all started with a dog that looked very much like this Barbet.

It all started with a dog that looked very much like this Barbet.

I know I have written about this at length in other posts, but I think I need to condense this history. I’m getting lots of comments from the historically challenged lately, so I think we need to put some of this in perspective.

The oldest water dog breeds are those of the poodle-type. The earliest depiction of this type of dog is on a Roman coin that dates to 112-111 BCE. Now, this dog is not hunting from the water, but it clearly looks like the proto-poodle-type, which most likely evolved as a herding breed in Central Asia. The puli and its relatives in Hungary are very good examples of this type. (Although we believe the word poodle comes from the Low Saxon word “pudeln,” which means “to splash,” I find it rather interesting that puli is not that different from the word poodle.)

Why these dogs became the first water dog is a good question. Their coats are very inefficient in the water, and almost all of them were clipped in some fashion to make them stream-lined in the water. In 1621,  Gervaise Markham wrote a treatise on shooting birds called Hunger’s Prevention, which included a description on how to clip water dogs to make them faster in the water and yet still maintain their insulating properties of their coats. (I don’t call the breed that Markham wrote about a poodle. I call it the English rough water dog or water-rug, which is referenced in Macbeth.)

Now, the reason why the heavily coated herding dogs became used as retrievers is really quite simple.These dogs were smart. As this type became established in Europe, they soon became used for all sorts of different things besides herding.

The earliest way of hunting ducks involved using a dog as a decoy that enticed the ducks into cages. The herding dogs would have been a good choice as an early decoy breed, because they were playful. And playful dogs attract ducks. The dogs may have originally been chosen because they helped herd geese that had molted into pens. They were also used in falconry, where the dogs flushed birds into the talons of the falcons or hawks.  They also were used to sniff out truffles and lost arrows.

It was just a very short leap from doing that work to helping fishermen with their nets and lines, and then helping hunters retrieve shot game from both the land and the water.

Now, these dogs existed in virtually every European country. Some of them evolved into the poodle, the Lagotta Romagnolo, the Barbet, and the Portuguese and Spanish water dogs, all of which look very similar to the original dogs. Others became bantamized and helped found the bichon breeds. Others most likely retained some of their herding ancestry and founded lots of different shaggy herding dogs from the Bearded collie to the Polish lowland sheepdog. One of the German herding dog landrace-types is a dog called a sheep-poodle, which is of this type.

Now, as time progressed, these dogs were outcrossed with other types. By the seventeenth century, new types of water dog were developing. In the Dutch province of Friesland, where the Frisian people live, their local water dog was crossed with the local spaniel-type dog and some other local dogs (perhaps of the spitz type). This resulted in a dog we now call the Wetterhoun, which literally means “water dog” in Frisian.

The poodle-type water dog coat is dominant, but it is easily lost when bred to other strains. It is actually quite easy to breed away from, and this would be the case with other derivatives of these water dogs.

During the same time period in Britain and Ireland, crossing these dogs with spaniels and proto-setters was actually quite common. It was thought to be a good way of introducing very strong bird dog tendencies into the water dog type. This resulted in dogs called water spaniels. These dogs tended to replace the old English rough water dog type by the eighteenth century, although George Stubbs painted two portraits of two water spaniels that really were more of the old water dog type. (One here, and the other here).

The Portuguese and Basques from Spain also likely brought their poodle-type  to Newfoundland. It is from these dogs that foundation of the dogs called the Newfoundland and FCI Landseer breeds and the St. John’s water dog were founded.

None of these dogs is of the poodle-type. Indeed, the Newfoundland and Landseer are mastiffs.

But nonetheless, they derive from these poodle-type ancestors.

After England claimed Newfoundland, it became obvious that the fishermen had a new sort of dogs on their hands.  In the book Hunting Dogs of America, a writer Jeff Griffen describes this new canine:

In time…the St. John’s Newfoundland [arose], a … water dog about the size of a Pointer with a heavy, oily coat that shed water like a greased balloon …. a most practical dog. During the fall and spring when great masses of migrating ducks and geese clogged the island, he worked tirelessly with gunners as a retriever. By and large, though, he was a fisherman’s dog, working around the nets, on the boats, recovering anything that fell overboard, fetching a cod that slid back into the water as the fish were being transferred to the pier, swimming from ship to shore with a hawser line. In those days a ship dog was a handy asset, not only for companionship but for practical use. From 1750 on, these Newfoundlands from St. John’s rode the ships to England and the Continent. They were a captain’s pride and joy, friend of the crew and general handyman.”

Of course, this dog is the St. John’s water dog. When he says that dog had a heavy coat, that does not necessarily mean that it had the coat of a poodle. I think it more likely had the coat very similar to this dog, which is listed as a “St. John’s Labrador” (a synonym for the St. John’s water dog).

st. john's water dog with long-hair

I should note here that Griffen gets the dates wrong in the text, for the Portuguese and Basques were in Newfoundland before the English claimed it.

I also should note that even today Portuguese water dogs will have puppies that have coats very similar to the dog above. It is a recessive trait that pops up every once in a while. In addition to this, it is likely that other Portuguese breeds may have had a role in creating a water dog without the traditional poodle coat in Newfoundland. It is often suggested that the Cao de Castro Laboreiro had some role in its development, and because this breed is a really hardy, multipurpose farm dog from the north of Portugual, it would make sense that some of them were among the early Portuguese settlements. It is believed that the brindle that once existed in early retriever dogs came from this breed. (This color still exists in Labradors and Chesapeakes.)

Other suggestions are that the wolves of Newfoundland and possibly spitz-type dogs and Native American dogs played a role in their development.  The wolves of Newfoundland were known to be quite docile and approachable. I disagree with the suggestion that sometimes appears that these wolves were domestic dogs, simply because the Beotuck, the only native people living on Newfoundland at the time of settlement, kept no dogs. These were simply curious wolves that had never experienced persecution by people, and they could have exchanged genes with the imported dogs from Europe.

There is also another possibility. In Labrador, there was a dog of the North American hauling spitz race, which we now call the Labrador husky (It’s not mixture of the Labrador and Siberian husky). It could have been an ancestor of the St. John’s water dog.

The smaller dog was the older of the two, but the addition of some sort of mastiff-type dogs from England and maybe some cart-hauling dogs of the heavy poodle and hauling mastiff-type from the Low Countries and France helped create the larger dog that became the ancestor of the Newfoundland dog and the FCI Landseer.

It is also possible that the very cold winters in Newfoundland also selected against the poodle-type coat. When a poodle gets wet, it is very likely to hold some of the water in its coat. In very cold conditions such an animal is likely to get its coat iced over, and it will lose its protective qualities. Maybe some of these dogs froze to death, and natural selection chose the shorter coat.

Feathering appears to have existed mostly in the big Newfoundland, but feathering was not considered an asset among those who used their dogs for waterfowling. William Epps Cormack, who was the first person of European descent to visit the interior of Newfoundland in 1822, wrote about the dogs used for hunting ducks and ptarmigan:

“The dogs are admirably trained as retrievers in fowling, and are otherwise useful…..The smooth or short haired dog is preferred because in frosty weather the long haired kind become encumbered with ice on coming out of the water.”

So it is likely that the long-haired dogs were often sold to British merchants at this time. This might explain why the wavy-coated retriever was so common, and the short- haired dogs that became the Labrador retriever were virtually unheard of.  The short-haired dogs were also held very closely by the Earls of Malmesbury and the Dukes of Buccleuch.

The big hauling dogs were also probably easier for Europeans and Americans to procure, and once they became popular at the end of the eighteenth century. The big dogs were in demand. Dog dealers began to hawk them. They bred them with English mastiffs to make them bigger.  Virtually every up and coming family had them, and such a fad continued well into the nineteenth century.

The bulk of these dogs were black and white, which are called Landseers today. Sir Edwin Landseer painted many painting of this type of dog, which fell out of favor in later decades. In the FCI countries, this dog is recognized as a separate breed from the Newfoundland, which includes only the solid colored dogs in the FCI countries. It has a lighter build and far less feathering– in keeping with the original dogs.

Now, as both the Newfoundland-type dog and the St. John’s water dog were appearing in Britain, a new type of dog was evolving. The shotgun had made the sport of shooting rather popular, and British landowners were anxious to have a new kind of dog. One that could pick up wounded game birds and rabbits.

Originally, they used setters and spaniels that could retrieve to do the work. Water spaniels were always useful, of course, and collies often also were used. But when these dogs from Newfoundland appeared, they began to use them. The St. John’s water dog is the one most often credited with helping found the modern dogs we call retrievers. Indeed, it probably deserves that reputation.

However, the big Newfoundlands were also used as retrievers.  The most enigmatic dog of this type was Zelstone, who may have been Newfoundland or St. John’s water dog but was registered as a wavy or flat-coated retriever. He is also one  a very important sire in both golden and flat-coated retrievers and probably an important sire for Labradors through his role in developing the flat-coat.

Just as the water spaniels supplanted the English rough water dogs, the retrievers supplanted the water spaniels in Britain and Ireland. Indeed, today only one breed of water spaniel from that part of the world still exists– the Irish water spaniel. This breed is itself rather unusual with its topknot and rat-like tail. It represents the Southern Irish water spaniel that was common around the River Shannon in the eighteenth century. Its roots may go farther back than that, although it is hard to tell whether sources are talking about that breed, another variety of water spaniel, or the English rough water dog. Even more strangely, only one strain of the Southern Irish water spaniel still exists. This strain is the McCarthy strain, which was founded by Justin McCarthy in the 1830’s.

Irish water spaniel

Irish water spaniel

Now, all of these water dogs are related. They have an interwoven history, the nature of which is so complex that one must understand the history of all of these dogs in order to figure out the real history of one particular breed. That’s one of the things I’ve discovered since I started writing about these dogs last summer.

Not only did the St. John’s water dog found the retrievers, but it also founded a breed of water dog or water spaniel that played a role in developing the Labrador and the golden retriever– the Tweed water spaniel or Tweed water dog. This breed of water spaniel was said to look just like yellow or tawny curly-coated retriever with less curl to its coat. That appearance is exactly what you’d expect from a dog that was a mixture of native water spaniel and imported St. John’s water dog, as Richard Lawrence said they were in 1816 in the Complete Farrier and British Sportsman. Although Lawrence says that these dogs were part Newfoundland, their short hair and retrieverish appearance suggests that they were part St. John’s water dog.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Newfoundland lost its status as the fad family dog. It nearly disappeared into obscurity. It now exists in a very exaggerated form. It almost went extinct during World War II, simply because it was too hard to feed and care for. It has since returned to more sustainable numbers, but it is unlikely to be as popular as it was in the nineteenth century.

The retrievers began to standardize as actual breeds, with the curly-coated retriever becoming the  first one to really dominate as a show dog and the wavy or flat-coated retriever became the first to really dominate the trial circuit.  The former had a lot of water spaniel in its background, and it had some history as a poachers’ retriever, which resulted in a dog that could be a bit protective and little less friendly with people and other dogs during trials. However, its bizarre appearance guaranteed that it would make a nice show dog. As a result, it nearly disappeared as a working dog. The wavy-coated breed dominated the early trials. This dog would eventually evolve into the golden and flat-coated retrievers, and it would play a role in developing the Chessie, the Labrador, the Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling retriever, and the Murray River curly-coated retriever, which doesn’t yet exist in this hemisphere.

After World War I, the flat-coat fell from favor as a working dog and was replaced by its newly founded cousin, the standardized Labrador retriever. The Labrador would soon dominate trials and tests and become the most popular dog in the world. Its ancestry was with the last of the St. John’s water dogs, which became obsolete in Newfoundland with the development of better fishing gear and the passage of the Sheep Protection Act, which levied a high tax against dogs not used in sheep production. The last remaining dogs were exported to Britain over a period from the 1880’s to the 1940’s. The Earls of Malmesbury made a deal with the Dukes of Buccleuch to help save the strain and make the breed better suited for gun dog work. The move paid off, because currently, the Labrador retriever, the breed that they helped found, is really the top water dog right now.

In fact, it’s the top dog right now.

It is quite strange that this lineage that began with shaggy poodle-type dogs has finally ended up with a dog that has smooth hair like an otter’s. It requires almost no grooming, and yet its coat provides enough protection against cold water. And it’s got its  ancient water dog ancestor’s very high trainability and playful, docile disposition.

I have a lot of information on the history of all breeds of water dog. It would simply take too long. The Poodle History Project is a great place to start. It is truly a remarkable site and boon for anyone interested in the history of these dogs.

I’ll just leave you with some final words. Dog history, like all histories, must be based upon evidence. Lore and legend are totally poisonous to our understanding of dogs, and in trying to understand where certain breeds come from, we  are often confronted with the absurd, the stupid, and the romantically gullible. We need to look carefully at the evidence we have before we start making fantastic claims.

We should also understand that no breed exists within a vacuum, and if two breeds look similar and have a similar function, there is probably a good reason for it. Indeed, as is the case with these water dog breeds, if they have a similar function, there is probably a good chance that they are related. And sometimes we have to look at the historical function without our rose-colored and often breedist glasses.

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The St. John's water dog in this photo looks an awful lot like a Labrador/collie-type cross. Any dogs that look like St. John's water dogs are Labrador crosses or Labs that are throwbacks to that breed.

The St. John's water dog in this photo looks an awful lot like a Labrador/collie-type cross. Any dogs that look like St. John's water dogs are Labrador crosses or Labs that are throwbacks to that breed.

Now, I haven’t received any comments or messages yet from people claiming to have a St. John’s water dog, but before I do, I’ll just say it again. The St. John’s water dog died out in the 1980’s. The last two dogs were found. They were both dogs, and they were both ancient. When they died, the strain was no more.

Now, does that mean we won’t see Labs with St. John’s water dog features? Of course not, and that is precisely the problem. Within the Labrador, the blood of this breed runs strongest. The Lab is the last retriever breed to receive an infusion of this native Newfoundland blood. St. John’s water dogs were imported as late as the 1940’s to add genetic diversity to the Buccleuch strain, which is the strain from whence the Labrador retriever came.

Now, some Labrador crosses really do look like the old breed:

Labrador cross

And it’s not just Labrador crosses that could be mistaken for the St. John’s water dog.  Because the genes this breed also run strongly in the other retriever breeds, it is possible to get mixed breeds from other retrievers that bear a strong resemblance to the St. John’s water dog.

I know these dogs exist because I had one. Remember my “golden boxer”?

golden boxer standing

I also need to mention that it is pretty clear that the original imports of the St. John’s water dog to Britain often included long-haired dogs. That’s because the  long-haired dogs were deemed too cumbersome in the water. Ice tended to form in their feathering, and the dogs just couldn’t swim that fast. However, they were often good retrievers and quite biddable, so they were exported to Britain, where they played a role in developing the wavy-coated landrace and the curly-coats. The short-haired dogs were too important to the fishermen of Newfoundland.

I have found two specimens of the St. John’s water dog that had long hair.

One of them is this dog, listed as a”St. John’s Labrador”:

st. john's water dog with long-hair

Another is t “Zelstone,” who appears in the extended pedigree of the golden retriever and was an important sire in the old wavy-coated breed. That means he’s an ancestor of the golden retriever and many flat-coat. He is said to be a “Labrador,” a “half-bred Newfoundland,” a “Newfoundland,” and a “wavy-coated retriever.” His original owners were known to import dogs from Newfoundland, so it is very possible that he was derived from the St. John’s water dog or was partially of that breeding.



Now, all of these dogs look like modern dogs. The modern dogs are almost invariably crosses with the descendants of the St. John’s water dog or throwbacks to that old strain.

The St. John’s water dog as it once existed is gone forever. Within the bloodlines of the retrievers and the modern Newfoundland, the blood still flows. Those breeds are our only connection to that extinct breed.

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