At the beginning of the last century, Portuguese Water Dogs were considered indispensable crewmembers on the fishing boats of Portugal. Known for their bravery and loyalty, always at the ready and attentive to the fisherman’s movement, catching the fish that got off the hooks, retrieving any object that would fall overboard, placing and then surrounding the nets in the water, and stopping fish that escaped the nets. As valuable as any human crewmember, they were entitled to a share of the catch.
Fast forward to the 1980s when many groups from around the United States became interested in developing exercises that replicated the tasks that the Portuguese Water Dog performed as a working fishing boat dog.
In 1989, the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America formed the Water Work Committee. Cynthia McCullough and Julie Madderra (Hayes) were the Committee Chairs, with Kathy Monroe serving on the committee and Beverly Rafferty acting as liaison to the Board. At the time, three proposals were submitted by The Dixie Club, the Portuguese Water Dog Club of the Twin Cities, and the Fairfield County Portuguese Water Dog Club (now the Nutmeg PWD Club).
The committee made all three proposals available for people so that they could hold mock trials and evaluate the exercises. The committee gathered feedback from these mock trials and was charged with developing a final proposal, incorporating elements of all three proposals based on the feedback. In 1990, the PWDCA Board voted in the first Water Trial program and, in 1991, the Fairfield County Club held the first PWDCA sanctioned Water Trial.
The exercises developed in 1990 were based on the tasks that the Portuguese Water Dog performed as a working fishing boat dog. Exercises such as riding on a boat under control with their handler, or delivering a courier pouch to another boat, or retrieving multiple items that have fallen overboard, or placing a fishing net between two boats—all of these exercises—showcased the Portuguese Water Dogs skills and heritage.
So well crafted were these exercises that thirty years later, very little has changed. As the program has grown, training methods have been modified and perfected. From 2009-2019, the PWDCA Water Trial Committee was tasked with developing an advanced level, further showcasing the skills of these working dogs. In 2019, the Master Water Dog level became a title: MWD.
Today, the water program is thriving. In 2022, 38 water trials over 19 weekends will be held around the US. Canada holds water trials based on our US water program as well. In 2021, 343 qualifying water trial performances were recorded, encompassing the seven water work levels offered.
Earning a title requires a dog to pass all the exercises at the level that he is entered. There is no competition between the dogs, just the dog and handler showing their mastery of the exercises. The spirit of camaraderie is wonderful to see among the participants, as everyone cheers for each team’s success.
The water trial program offers challenges from the beginner to the most advanced level Portuguese Water Dog. There are seven levels in the water trials. The levels and exercises are listed here:
Junior Water Dog: Certificate
- Retrieve a dummy thrown 25 feet into the water.
- Board and ride a boat with handler.
- Swim out to the handler on the boat 60 feet from shore.
- Swim for one minute with handler.
Apprentice Water Dog: AWD Title
- Retrieve a submerged object.
- Retrieve a dummy thrown 60 feet into the water.
- Carry a dummy to a boat and ride with handler, then wait until recalled to shore.
- Retrieve a floating line in the water from shore.
- Swim for two minutes with handler.
Working Water Dog: WWD Title
- Retrieve a gear bag with equipment.
- Retrieve a dummy from a boat.
- Retrieve multiple articles overboard from a boat.
- Ride alone on a boat away from the handler and retrieve a dummy.
- Blind retrieve of a floating line from a boat.
Working Water Dog Excellent: WWDX Title
- Dog must qualify two more times at the Working Dog level.
Courier Water Dog: CWD Title
- Deliver a courier pouch to another boat and return with another to handler.
- From the Boat: Blind retrieve of a floating line left on shore.
- Double directed retrieve of dummies from the boat.
- Retrieve a fishing net from another boat and return to handler.
- Place a buoy ball 75 feet away from the handler and boat.
Courier Water Dog Excellent: CWDX Title
- Dog must qualify two more times at the Courier Water Dog level.
Master Water Dog: MWD Title
Note: Dog must qualify five times at the Master Water Dog level.
- Double directed retrieve of two dummies between two boats. (Dog rides on the platform without the handler.)
- Shore retrieve with discrimination between two articles.
- Retrieve fishing net from another boat with a dummy thrown within view as a distraction.
- Three-Way Exchange of Articles: Dog goes to shore, picks something up and takes it to steward on a different boat, then returns to the handler with an article from the second boat.
- Blind placement and retrieve of overboard article followed by buoy ball placement.
A full description of all the exercises and rules for water trials can be found in the PWDCA Water Trial Manual. It is available for downloading at: http://www.pwdca.org/
The gift of training for water work is that it helps to strengthen the bond between the handler and the dog. A good way to get started is to play with your dog. Play in your yard, play at the park, play in the house, just PLAY! That helps to build the connection between you and your dog. A little tug and fetch are perfect games to play. And, if you have the chance to take a Beginning Obedience class, do it. It will help you in every area of your life, including water work. In fact, if you have a sit, stay, come, and fetch, you are in business for some water work success!
The fun can begin at the earliest stages of puppy life, and if you have a bathtub or a kiddie pool, add some water and play in the water too! Older dogs can also join in and achieve
Many people think water is critical to success in the water. At some point water is important, but so much of water work can (and should) be taught on land. If you have access to a pool, that is a benefit. It may not give you the distance that a lake or pond would, but it gives you the opportunity to play in the water with your dog. Practicing the exercises on land can give your dog an understanding of what you are asking, so when you try it in the water it will be a familiar task.
Teaching your dog to fetch a ball is a good start. Add fetching a canvas dummy or a piece of rope or a ball with a rope on it. Then, throw them all out and have your dog retrieve them all. If a dog can do that, the skill will transition to many of the exercises in the various levels. Formal heeling is a fabulous skill, but that precision isn’t necessary for water work. However, if you can walk with your dog at your side and make turns and go back the other way, and continue on for a minute or two, you are on your way to successfully swimming with your dog.
If you have access to a lake or a pond or a pool, use it and enjoy it with your dog. But all that playing you do at home should be exactly what you do at the water. Run along the shore. Play some tug while walking in the water. Take a leisurely swim. Water work is fun, so don’t forget this when you get to the lake.
Some Portuguese Water Dogs naturally just start swimming, which is fantastic. But many don’t. It doesn’t mean they don’t like the water. It just means it’s a new environment and they might need some time to adjust. That’s where playing along the shore comes in handy. Or, if there is another more seasoned Portuguese Water Dog that likes to play and doesn’t mind another dog running along with him, it’s a good way for a young dog to get so caught up following the big dog that he doesn’t even realize he’s swimming. Patience, and not pushing the dog into the water, is important. It should all be fun for the dog and the handler.
The PWDCA regional clubs host water trials all around the US, so most people will be able to find one in their area. A list of water trials can be found on the PWDCA website. Many of the regional clubs also host training events, seminars, and workshops on water work. Visiting the regional club’s website is also a great resource for connecting with people in your area.
Water Trials welcome spectators as well as competitors. Going to watch is a great way to see exactly what the trials are all about. Entering a trial is also a lot of fun too. Water Trials are open to any Portuguese Water Dogs with an AKC registration, a foreign registration recognized by the AKC, or an AKC PAL/ILP (Purebred Alternate Listing/Indefinite Listing Privilege). Dogs must be six months of age to enter the Junior level and one year old to enter the Apprentice level (unless they have passed the Junior level). Each individual regional host club may decide if bitches in season may be allowed to enter. However, most clubs do allow bitches in season to compete. They just go at the end of the day.
One of the greatest things about doing water work with your Portuguese Water Dogs is watching them do what they were bred to do. It is a magnificent sight. And, how great a day is it when you get to spend it at a lake with a bunch of other Portuguese Water Dogs and their owners playing in the water?
Photos by John Wilson
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