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Original Issue

An old dog, new chic

Its origins hypothetical, this forebear of the poodle is making a comeback with help from such masters as Trudeau and Kosygin

Is this dog the missing link between an ancient Asian breed and the modern-day poodle? The animal shown above is a C√£o de Agua, or Portuguese water dog, and, according to Mrs. Sherman R. Hoyt, grande dame of dogdom and international authority on poodles, is not only the progenitor of the poodle but contributed to the development of the Irish water spaniel and England's curly coated retriever. "This breed is early poodle," Mrs. Hoyt said recently after judging the first Portuguese water dog "fun match" held in the U.S. "It's a very old breed and was described in very recognizable terms as early as the year 1450."

Unfortunately, the Portuguese water dog is faced with extinction in its native land. Fishermen in the Algarve, the southernmost province in Portugal, used the dog to retrieve nets, lines, gear and even escaping fish on occasion, but with improved equipment and technology the need for the breed began to wane. As a result of interest in the U.S., however, the Portuguese water dog is now undergoing a population boomlet. Of the 75 known purebreds in the world, 55 are in this country, and although that number may seem small, many of the dogs are owned by Establishment types, especially those who sail or are among the internationally influential, and the breed may soon become In. Jacques Cousteau, for instance, has owned two Portuguese water dogs, and the folks at the Disney studios are talking of doing a show on seven pups born in California.

Being favored by the rich and influential does not make a breed, but it certainly will not hurt in the quest to win recognition from the American Kennel Club. At present all the dogs in this country are registered with the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America, which is maintaining a registry for future presentation. The club's corresponding secretary and driving spirit is Mrs. Herbert H. Miller Jr., of New Canaan, Conn., at whose home the first fun match was held. A longtime breeder of poodles under the kennel name of Farmion, Mrs. Miller got interested in the Portuguese water dogs in 1965 when she saw a pair of puppies of English stock owned by a couple in Bedford Hills, N.Y. She liked what she saw and began corresponding with the Clube Português de Canicultura in Lisbon, and in 1968 she and her husband, a paperboard company executive, made the first of several trips to Portugal to learn about the breed.

After touring fishing villages in the Algarve, where they discovered that the dog had all but disappeared, they met Senhora Conchita Cintron de Castello Branco, who had taken over the outstanding kennel of Portuguese water dogs that had belonged to a shipping tycoon, the late Vasco Bensaude. Fearing the extinction of the breed, Bensaude had gathered the best specimens he could find over a 40-year period, even dispatching his own fishing vessels to the Algarve in search of dogs. The Millers bought an eight-week-old female from the kennel and named her Ranasçença do Al-Gharb, and in early 1970 they imported a male puppy, Anzol do Al-Gharb. At dawn on June 17, 1971 Renasçença gave birth to seven puppies at the Millers' summer home on Nantucket, the first Portuguese water dogs ever born in the United States, and the world population was increased by 30%.

As best as can be determined, the breed was developed in Russia as a herding dog, passed into the hands of the Turks and, following the spread of Islam, arrived in Africa and thence to the Iberian Peninsula. Ships in the Spanish Armada carried Portuguese water dogs as couriers, and after the remnants of the Armada foundered on the Irish coast, dogs and crew members made for shore, where the dogs made their mark upon the Irish water spaniel.

Portuguese fishermen are presumed to have taken the dogs along on voyages to the Grand Banks, and there is a chance they might have gone into the foundation stocks of the Labrador and the Newfoundland. At least Farley Mowat, the Canadian writer and wolf authority, thinks so. Mowat, who is fascinated by Mrs. Miller's work, has informed her that when he was living on a barren stretch of the southern Newfoundland coast he managed to find and buy a native water dog, which he named Albert. Since no female native water dogs were available, Mowat bred Albert to a Labrador in the hope that the pups would have the Portuguese's characteristic white chest and feet. They did. Unfortunately the two females in the litter died, but, for what it is worth, males from the litter are now owned by Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Kosygin. "It is fascinating to think that at long last a water dog has gone back to Russia," Mowat wrote Mrs. Miller last year.

With luck, the Portuguese water dog could enter the AKC miscellaneous class within a few years. How long it stays in this canine limbo before receiving full recognition and the opportunity to compete in the show ring largely depends upon public acceptance. As one of the first steps toward getting into the miscellaneous class, the Portuguese Water Dog Club held its fun match at the Millers', with Mrs. Hoyt and Bernard Berman, an AKC judge of four working breeds, on the panel. This was like getting the Papal Nuncio and a bishop to draw numbers at the Wednesday Bingo binge of a new parish.

Part of the idea of the match was to acquaint newcomers with the breed and the dogs with show-ring procedure. The 18 dogs entered were a mixed bag. Some came in show clips like those for poodles; a few were cloaked in a mass of curls and looked like truant sheepdogs. Others, of the wavy-coated variety, suggested retrievers or spaniels. A few of the dogs were skittish and quarrelsome, and some had light eyes, not looked upon with favor in the breed. There was also a marked disparity in the sizes; the breed standard calls for a weight of between 35 and 55 pounds. The winner, or best adult dog, was the Millers' original male import, Anzol, handled by Joseph Gratton of Albany, N.Y.

For all the criticism—and it was to be expected because that was the prime reason for the match—there was hope. Mrs. Hoyt said, "I'm interested in this breed because it's a poodle, and it's a very good poodle. I prefer its head to the pointy poodle head in fashion now. I would like to help this breed, and I would recommend it to someone who lives near water, or to a young married couple with children. It's a good watchdog."

Among owners there was talk of which direction the breed should take. A few, like Melvin Dichter of Stamford, Conn., would like to see the breed join the sporting group of the AKC. Dichter is planning to train his dog to retrieve ducks and geese, and the club has scheduled a water and field trial to be held next summer. After all, the poodle was originally a retriever, and where but in the water would you expect to find a Portuguese water dog?