On a warm day in Western Maryland about fifteen years ago, my husband Terry,our friends Meg and Dave and I decided to eat outdoors at the Rocky Gap Resort. Chatting on our way from Dave’s car to the lobby, we were surprised to see dozens of dogs racing about in the parking lot, on the grassy hill by the lake, and even in the hotel lobby. You don’t expect good sized dogs loose in a hotel lobby. Yet there they were, dozens of Portuguese water dogs–black, black with white paws, brown, or brown and white– some with curly fur, some clipped, others not. Eyes barely visible, tails wagging like mad. All so happy and eager to please.
Almost immediately, Terry gravitated toward one of the dogs, got down on his haunches and began talking to him as if they’d known each other forever. As I watched them together, Terry’s stories came back to me about his Portuguese grandfather Vasco, a businessman who loved water dogs and others that Terry’s mother. told me about Leão, king of the kennels in Lisbon. “He saved the breed, you know. Thanks to Pop, Leão was bred to so many females that half the pedigreed Portuguese water dogs today can trace their lineage back to him.” As Terry petted the dog and talked with its proud owner, I let it slip that Terry was Portuguese and his grandfather was Vasco Bensaude.
“Vasco Bensaude was your grandfather??” asked the young woman. “Really?” She seemed beyond delighted by this news and started calling to friends –- other water dog owners -– that she’d just met Vasco Bensaude’s grandson. They all seemed as thrilled as she was. An instant celebrity, Terry –- a modest man –protested that it was his grandfather, not him, who saved the breed. But protests notwithstanding, the happy dog owners couldn’t get over it: Vasco Bensaude’s grandson. Meg, Dave and I looked on, suitably impressed. Who knew?
Inspired by our experience at Rocky Gap, I did some digging, and learned that for centuries the Portuguese water dog (cão d’agua) accompanied Portuguese fishermen on boats along the southern coast of Portugal, retrieving broken nets or lost tackle, hunting and herding fish into nets, swimming as couriers between ships, acting as guard dogs and protecting the sailors’ fishing trawlers. The men so appreciated the dogs that every trip out, they gave them a fair share of the catch. And when they had to part with them, they never sold them; they always offered them as gifts instead.
At the beginning of the 20th century, however, technology had made the cão d’água obsolete and its numbers diminished dramatically. By the 1930s, there were fewer than fifty water dogs in Portugal until “Vasco Bensaude aquired one of the few remaining working dogs and in 1937 began breeding him.” Thanks to Vasco, there are now more than 2000 water dogs worldwide, of which 500 are in the United States.
In 2009, the cåo d’água was in the limelight when the late Senator Ted Kennedy offered President Obama Bo. Not only is the water dog loyal, intelligent and a natural clown, he is also non-shedding and non-allergenic. Malia Obama–who was seriously allergic to dog fur — could not have been more pleased. Five years later, the Obamas welcomed a second water dog, Sunny, to keep Bo company. The duo happily showed up at official events, visited children’s hospitals and welcomed guests to the White House.
Three years ago – encouraged by our friend and devoted water dog owner, Susanne – Terry and I moved to the Alto Alentejo where the cão d’água abounds: at flea markets in Estremoz, the hot-air balloon festival in Coruche, even in the ancient quarter of Castelo de Vide.
Recently, Terry and I were in Lisbon where we spent an afternoon at Parque Bensaude. Not far from the kennels where Vasco used to keep his dogs, we discovered a dog park where several people were watching their dogs play. Standing there, I was reminded of the dogs bounding about at Rocky Gap, how full of life and eager to work they were. I remembered the strangers in Maryland who were so grateful to Vasco Bensaude and the joy his dogs brought them.
Now, no visit to Susanne’s is complete without Ari snuggling up to his friend Terry, reminding him that of all the things his grandfather did in his life, it’s for the dogs he’ll be remembered. Terry couldn’t be prouder.