by Kathryn Monroe                                                 

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The first cycle

It is a small, weathered pier, because it is a small, old village. Equally nondescript are the men trundling down the Algarve cliffs through the mist, bundled against the chill in work jackets and snug hats. They do not swim, most of them, yet daily they fish on the open seas.

In first light, boats emerge from dark silhouettes, flaunting hulls painted bright colors traditional to the Portuguese fishing fleet. Roosters for good luck and yellow stripes embellished with red and green peep through huge nets draped over gunwales. Vibrant, energetic, engaging.

Energy streams also from the arriving crew: a rowdy, milling pack of dogs. Like the workmen, they wear no uniform—flashes of brown and white dance among black. Discerning eyes, however, detect the badges of honor: rippling muscle for wrestling heavy nets, piercing eyes to focus in rolling waves, profuse coats to protect vital organs, low centers of gravity to aid in balance at sea.

A captain whistles, long and shrill. The dogs halt, on alert, magnificent heads and tails held high, front legs set slightly forward, just as they brace on the heaving deck.

A voice calls out, "Ready to cast off!" The dogs spring forward, larger ones towards the hefty boat owned by a man with many sons for crew, smaller ones to more moderate craft. Smooth and straight they come, heads pulling forward, tails slightly aft in balance. No wasteful prancing here—they want to go!

They will work a long day, mastering, in their courage and stubbornness, jobs that few of the fishermen would even undertake: they will jump into powerful waves, grab a net if it breaks, deliver a message or a tow rope if needed, and retrieve objects that fall overboard, even if they have to dive to get them. Their tails will respond like the best of rudders, pitting the tail’s strength and plume against a cross wave to maintain forward motion, or flipping side to side to turn abruptly as they complete their tasks.

On board, they will brace on the bouncing bow, ears cocked to catch the echo of waves crashing on the shore, ready to sound the alarm that will save the boat and all hands. Throughout all tasks, intelligence will guide their choices, while pride will fuel determination not to fail, not to cease until the job is done.

In the taciturn way of workingmen, these dogs received no praise, no coddling, no special accommodations on board. But at the end of the day, when the catch was safely delivered, the dogs were checked as carefully as nets and winches, ropes and gear, and the owner of each dog was paid—one large cod and a bowl of rice for each dog’s work.


The second cycle

Summer mornings are among the true treasures of life, timeless in their tranquility, energizing in their gathering strength. Years have passed, and the old ways are no more: power winches now handle the nets, radios dispatch messages, and GPS pinpoints the rocky shoals formerly signaled by frenzied barks.

But the dogs remain, still filled with desire to solve a human need, and the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America will not let them down. On this summer morning, owners and dogs echo history as they troop to the water’s edge. Out come the boats, nets, gear bags, lines, message pouches, and buoys.

The PWD trials boast a singular suitability for this breed and its work. Every exercise in the titling levels is a useful task proving the Portuguese Water Dog extends man’s grasp across the sea. The model is of teamwork and crew rather than dog and master. Teams have latitude in style, as long as the job gets done. Judging assesses achievement. Simple rules deal only with safety, equalizing physical differences, and judgability.

The first trial level is not a title but a certificate of readiness, interest in water tasks, and basic teamwork. Three titled levels expand on these basic skills, with retrieving, carrying, swimming, following direction, and discipline. Gear is dropped underwater or overboard. Objects are thrown or placed blind. Equipment is varied—float lines, buoy markers, dummies, bait buckets, and nets. Dogs work from shore and from the boat, starting near the handler or far across the course.

The pinnacle of the PWDCA water trial is the Courier Water Dog level, in which the dog works from the boat in a compelling display of its history. The dog delivers a message pouch to another boat and returns with the reply; it swims to shore to locate and retrieve a line of floats. The dog executes a double directed retrieve in the order determined by the judge based on conditions at the time of trial; and it pulls a fishing net from one boat to another.

By far the most difficult task is the next one. When nets are in place, they float beneath the water’s surface, extending a hidden hazard that could foul the rudders and nets of other boats in the area. Traditionally, marker buoys are set to designate the net’s trailing edge. In the final task of the water trial, the dog follows a complex chain of commands: jump off the boat, return to the handler, grasp a large marker buoy by the attached rope, turn and swim 75 feet away in the direction indicated—beyond the course boundaries into unmarked water, and drop the ball when signaled to do so. The dog must leave the marker in place and return to the handler.

This task flies against all instincts to retrieve, to secure objects, to follow clues of place and relationship. Success denotes trust…mastery…training…utility…intelligence…obedience… skill…strength… stamina…in sum, the past value and current competence of the working Portuguese Water Dog.


The third cycle

Another day of work begins. Here, sunlight shines on dry land. In the middle of one ring stands an extraordinary man, a man who more than loves dogs; he loves the relationship between dogs and humans. His heart and soul are filled with years of studying their faithful work, with the efforts of breeders to produce dogs true to the unique purpose of their breed.

Our man is on a mission. Soon his ring will be filled with Portuguese Water Dogs. Superficial examination will not help him, even he were inclined to it, for this breed comes in black, brown, white, and combinations thereof. Coats are straight and glossy, curly and matte. Some emphasize utilitarian function with a short, uniform trim; others present with shaven rears to highlight freedom of movement, coupled with long shaggy fronts to conserve body heat for protection of heart and lungs in chilly waters.

Our man, our judge in fact, is not daunted by this array. Echoing in his mind is a nondescript pier in Portugal, peopled by stalwart men. Just as they chose dogs by their ability to work more than by differences in their appearance, so yearns our judge to do.

He surveys each dog, noting those with the strong, braced stance and low center of gravity that served so well on the heaving deck of a small boat at sea. In movement, he admires the forward-striding, well-balanced movement that bespeaks a dog of serious purpose, of energy conserved for a long day’s work.

Finally, with delight, the man steps forward to touch each dog with his knowing hands. He covets muscle, strength of back, and depth of chest forward as well as in the ribs. The illusion of variety offered by coat and color fades away—beneath their profuse protection lies a consistency of well-knit, balanced bone and flesh. He looks into proud eyes, connecting with those that welcome his attention and respond with intelligent dignity to his contact.

He knows the objective of his search—connection with humans, economy of motion, sturdy, abundant muscle, a solidly grounded, longer-than-tall impression of purpose and soundness, a proud arch of neck and an equally spirited arc in the signature tail. He wants no fluff, no prancing, no wasp-like elegance, nothing extraneous to the work for which the dog was bred. He is looking, simply, for a capable, well-engineered tool.

He asks himself, "If I wanted a dog to work all day beside me, to be surefooted and balanced on deck, to have strength equal to the tasks, to jump when bid and wait quietly until then, which one would I choose? Which one is my Portuguese Water Dog?"


Most trilogies are fiction—Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Wagner’s Ring Cycle—ending, sometimes through divine or alien intervention, with the triumph of good over evil, at least for the moment.

This account, too, is open ended, but our future relies solely on human effort. Every PWD owner who keeps her dog competent and tests that training in water trials writes a line of the story. Every breeder who plans a mating with function in mind writes a paragraph. Every judge who recognizes that the power and essence of the Portuguese Water Dog lies deep beneath its coat writes a chapter.

Together, right now, owners, breeders, and judges are writing the book.

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