What to Know About Portuguese Water Dogs

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on April 16, 2022
8 min read

Portuguese water dogs came into the public eye when US Senator Ted Kennedy gifted one to the Obama family while President Barack Obama was in office. While they were originally bred to help fishermen, they are now a family favorite dog due to their easygoing and lovable personalities and their desire to please. 

Other names for this breed include Cão de Água (which means water dog in Portuguese), Algavarian water dog, or Portuguese fishing dog.

Physical characteristics. The Portuguese water dog size varies between males and females. Males weigh between 42 and 60 pounds, and females weigh between 35 and 50 pounds. Male dogs of this breed measure up to 23 inches tall, while females can be up to 21 inches tall.

Portuguese water dogs have either curly or wavy coats. Their coats can be solid black, brown, or white, or black or brown with white patches. They typically have black or dark brown eyes. Their noses are black if the dog is black, and brown if the dog is brown. Unlike some other water-loving dogs, Portuguese water dogs do not have an undercoat.

The Portuguese water dog life expectancy ranges from 11 to 13 years.

Portuguese water dog personality. These dogs are well known for their friendly personalities. They love kids and other dogs and typically enjoy receiving and giving affection. They are very open to change and new environments. As long as they are with their favorite people, they will be very engaged and focused on pleasing their owners no matter the environment.

Portuguese water dog temperament can be a little shy at first, but they will warm up to strangers after a while. They are somewhat vigilant and will likely let you know when someone is approaching your home. 

This breed is exceptionally willing to please, making them easy to train. As a working breed, they also have a lot of energy. They were bred to spend their days swimming and helping fishermen, so they require a lot of exercise. 

Very smart dogs, they also need some mental stimulation. If they get bored, they might get into mischief.

Portuguese water dog coat care. Portuguese water dogs have long and thick coats to help them deal with water conditions. They need to be brushed weekly to avoid tangles. They will also require a bath once in a while to keep them from smelling too bad. 

In terms of other grooming needs, like all dogs, you should trim your dog’s nails regularly to prevent feet and leg issues later on in life. Brush your dog’s teeth with a dog-friendly toothpaste every day to prevent gum disease.

Exercising your Portuguese water dog. Make sure you give your Portuguese water dog vigorous exercise every day in the form of walks, runs, agility training, or swimming. They also love dock diving, obedience training, and anything active that they can do with their owner.

Vet visits. If you plan to breed your Portuguese water dog, you should take your dog in for an annual eye exam to rule out genetic eye diseases that are common in the breed. Breeding dogs also require a hip x-ray on or after their second birthday to rule out hip dysplasia and genetic testing to make sure there are no other genetic conditions that could get passed down to puppies. 

Otherwise, Portuguese water dog care is typical. You should bring your dog to the vet for their normal annual check-up once they are older than one year old.

Before the age of one, your dog will need a series of vaccinations preventing:

  • Distemper
  • Parvovirus
  • Hepatitis
  • Parainfluenza
  • Rabies

Some of these vaccinations require multiple shots or boosters every 1 to 3 years as your dog ages. There are also optional vaccinations that your vet might recommend based on your dog’s lifestyle. For example, if your dog spends a lot of time in the woods, your vet may recommend the Lyme disease vaccine. Talk to your vet to find out which vaccinations would be best for your dog.

You should also take measures to protect your dog against fleas and ticks, like using a flea collar or prevention medication. Medication to prevent heartworm is now recommended throughout the United States. You should also give your dog heartworm medication year-round to prevent this parasitic infection.

Like many purebred dog breeds, Portuguese water dogs are at a higher risk for certain genetic conditions. 

Because of this, breeders are encouraged to get their dogs tested for:

Early-onset progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). This condition affects dogs as young as two months old. Early-onset PRA affects the photoreceptors, cones, and rods in the eyes. Rods help with night vision, and cones help dogs to see color. This condition will cause your dog to become blind over a period of one to two years. If you notice your dog does not want to walk into dark rooms, bumps into things in unfamiliar environments, or seems more nervous at night, take them to the vet. Some dogs with this condition also have reflective eyes that will seem to glow when a light is shined on them.

Progressive rod-cone degeneration. This form of PRA affects only the rods, leading to nighttime blindness at first. However, cones don't work very well without rods, so dogs with this condition may have some sight issues during the day as well. Most dogs with this form of PRA have noticeable symptoms by the age of 4, and many will eventually go completely blind.

Juvenile dilated cardiomyopathyThis condition causes the heart to be less effective at pumping blood throughout the body. This results in decreased oxygen, lung congestion, and poor circulation. 

Symptoms include:

  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Collapse or fainting
  • Coughing
  • Fast rate of breathing
  • Abdominal distention
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Sudden death

This condition is treated with heart medications that help the organ function better. While this is a serious diagnosis, medical treatment can improve the lifespan and quality of life for dogs with juvenile dilated cardiomyopathy.

Gangliosidosis. Gangliosidosis is another name for Tay Sachs disease. Dogs with this disease lack an enzyme that helps to break down waste produced by brain cells. Over time, the waste builds up and causes neurological symptoms including:

  • Loss of intelligence
  • Not coming when called
  • Going to the bathroom inside
  • Balance issues
  • Goose-stepping gait
  • A regularly shaking head
  • Poor coordination
  • Weakness

The symptoms usually manifest by the age of 1 and 1/2 and progress until quality of life dramatically deteriorates and euthanasia must be considered. The symptoms of this disease can look similar to others, though, so it is important to visit a canine neurologist to get a proper diagnosis.

Hip dysplasia. This condition causes the hip joint to fit together improperly. Over time, this leads to degeneration of the joint. 

Symptoms include:

  • Decreased range of motion
  • Avoiding jumping or going upstairs
  • Limping
  • Larger muscles on the unaffected legs
  • Decreased activity

Luckily, there are many treatments that may help, including medications, physical therapy, and surgery. Many dogs with hip dysplasia go on to lead happy and fulfilled lives with proper care.

Addison's Disease. Portuguese water dogs are also prone to a few other conditions that are not genetic and thus cannot be tested for before breeding. Addison's disease is a condition in which the adrenal glands do not produce the right amount of hormones to regulate the body. In most cases, the disease is caused by a possible autoimmune reaction that damages the adrenal glands, but it can also be caused by a tumor, an infection, or certain drugs that inhibit the glands. 

Symptoms include:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Depression or lethargy
  • Blood in the stool
  • Increased thirst
  • More frequent urination
  • Shaking
  • Hair loss
  • Low temperature
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Hyperpigmentation
  • A sensitive abdomen

Some dogs with Addison’s disease can have an Addisonian crisis in which they may collapse, vomit severely, have diarrhea, and appear weak. If you suspect your dog is having an Addisonian crisis, take them to the vet right away. An Addisonian crisis is an emergency, and your dog will need special care.

There is no cure for Addison's disease. However, the condition can be managed for your dog's whole life with medications that replace the hormones they are lacking. You may need to bring your dog to the vet once a month to receive an injection or give them a daily medication orally.

With that treatment, your dog may be able to live a more fulfilling life with Addison's disease.

Portuguese water dogs are sweet-natured and bark only a moderate amount. They may alert you to someone coming or a creature outside, but they don't often bark without reason or just to get attention.

They are not big droolers and won't make a big mess inside your house. 

While no dog breed is fully hypoallergenic, this breed is more hypoallergenic than others. They have less dander and shed less than other breeds, so they are less likely to trigger someone's dog allergy.

Portuguese water dogs are usually great with kids and enjoy being around other dogs.

This breed, as the name suggests, originated in Portugal. They were bred to help guide fish into nets, retrieve things from the water, and carry items between ships. Because of that, they are great swimmers and love to be around water. 

Some theorists believe that Portuguese water dog origins go back to Asian herding dogs that were captured by Berbers. The descendants of these people, the Moors, settled in Portugal around the year 800, bringing their dogs with them. 

Over time, the dogs were bred to become the water-loving helpers they are today. 

Another theory is that the Goths, a confederation of ancient German tribes, brought their dogs with them as they traveled west across Europe. These dogs became the breed known as the "poodle-hund" or puddle hound, meaning water dog. 

Over time, the Portuguese water dog became a separate breed from their curly-haired cousins, the German poodles.

The first historical account of this breed is very favorable. In 1297, a monk wrote about how a Portuguese water dog saved a man from drowning.

Despite their usefulness, by the early 1900s the breed was nearly extinct. However, a wealthy Portuguese shipping magnate, Vasco Bensaude, sought to re-establish the breed. He created a breeding program that led to the resurgence of the Portuguese water dog.

They have become even more popular in recent years due to their hypoallergenic nature and their time in the spotlight as the presidential pup.