Water dogs are inherently strong swimmers. They have waterproof coats and some have webbed feet. Originally, water dogs such as water retrievers, decoys and the all-purpose Newfoundland, were bred to assist fishermen. Some of these dogs still carry out the tasks they were bred for, while others, with their intelligence and desire to please their handlers, have become popular pets for active families who don't mind living with dogs that simply love to swim.
Today's flat-coated retrievers and Labrador retrievers used to work as fishery dogs, retrieving fish and other objects from the water. Labradors helped to pull small fishing boats. With improvements in firearms, however, hunters shot birds in flight and needed dogs to find and retrieve fallen birds. As the fishery dogs were efficient swimmers and natural retrievers, they were crossed with pointers, setters and other retrievers to hone their bird skills. Other water retrievers include the tough and curly coated Chesapeake Bay retrievers, that navigated the chilly waters of the Chesapeake Bay to retrieve birds. American water spaniels and Irish water spaniels continued to be bred mainly for hunting, and are now rare compared to other water dog breeds. A surprising member of this group is the standard poodle. Poodles were bred in Germany as water retrievers, and their salon style hairdos, originally helped them in the water. The close clip made swimming easier, but the poodles' coats were left longer on their chests for warmth and around their joints and tail tips for protection.
Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers have webbed feet and are powerful swimmers. They were developed in Canada in the 19th century as decoys. The dogs would chase sticks and play along the shore, sometimes disappearing from view and then reappearing -- an activity called tolling. Their antics lured the curious waterfowl closer to the shore and into waiting nets or within shooting range. The dogs also retrieved fallen birds from the sea. These high-energy, playful dogs make great pets, but they need long walks and a daily play session.
Portuguese water dogs have long, curly waterproof coats, webbed feet and can work all day. They were once found all along Portugal's coastline, herding fish into nets, retrieving lost equipment from the sea and taking messages between ships and back to shore. In the early 20th century the dogs started to disappear, along with traditional fishing methods. A wealthy Portuguese shipping magnate saved the breed and these robust water dogs arrived in the United States in the 1950s. The Portuguese Water Dog Club of America has created water trials -- modern day water work activities -- to help develop and promote the breed's historical water abilities.
The massive Newfoundlands, with their heavy black or brown coats, large webbed feet, powerful hindquarters and well-developed lungs cope easily with long distance swimming, even in the coldest conditions. They were developed in Newfoundland as all-purpose dogs. They rescued people from drowning, carried lifelines to ships in trouble and helped fishermen, by hauling their heavy fishing nets through the cold sea. Back on land, Newfoundlands pulled carts and acted as pack horses and still serve as draft dogs today. Newfoundlands can also be found patrolling beaches in Britain, France and Italy, where they continue to save lives. The Newfoundland Club of America in 1973 started a program of water tests comprised of exercises designed to develop and demonstrate the Newfoundlands' instinctive lifesaving abilities in the water.
- The Dog Breed Bible: Descriptions and Photos of Every Breed Recognized by the AKC; D. Caroline Coile, Ph.D.
- American Kennel Club: Get to Know the Labrador Retriever
- American Kennel Club: Portuguese Water Dog History
- Portuguese Water Dog Club of America: Water Work
- American Kennel Club: Newfoundland History
- Colonial Newfoundland Club: Newfoundland - Water Rescue Dog
- Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images