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Obamas' dog has relative in Evergreen

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Pioneering dog lover praises breed for cuddle quotient, intelligence and sense of humor

By Vicky Gits

In the 1930s, the number of Portuguese water dogs had declined to about 18. Today the count is closer to 10,000, Vanek said.

“I was with the breed when nobody knew what it was,” said Vanek, who has lived in Evergreen for 30 years.

Vanek, a dental hygienist, is an international AKC dog show judge and dog breed expert. She also does anesthesia-free canine teeth cleaning on a freelance basis.

Since a dog named Bo moved into the White House in April, the world has fallen madly in love with the breed, and having a two Portuguese water dogs makes Vanek something of a celebrity in the canine fashion world.

Vanek’s 3-year-old, Toti, is a second cousin of the Obamas’ dog, Bo, Vanek said. That means Toti’s great-grandsire and the Obama dog’s grandsire are the same animal.

In 1986, Vanek’s dog Lancer, then 2, was photographed for a cover story in the Canyon Courier because it was considered such an unusual animal and Vanek was the first person in Colorado to have one.

She has owned a series of nine Portuguese water dogs over the years, is a member of the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America and is a fierce protector of the breed.

She is not really happy that water dogs are getting so much publicity, in view of the fact that publicity encourages unethical puppy mills. While she occasionally breeds her dogs, she is not a professional breeder and doesn’t do it for money. The going price for a water dog is about $2,000 today. Genetic testing can be about $1,000.

At the moment, Vanek has two water dogs, Toti (pronounced “Totty”), 3, and Kita, 8. (Their AKC-registered names are Champion Timbermist Tip of the Iceberg and Timbermist Diamond in the Ruff.)

“They are very intelligent. They are easy keepers. They don’t bark " at least mine don’t. And they are easily trained. They have a cute sense of humor,” Vanek said.

Water dogs also do not shed and are compatible with people who have allergies, which is one reason why the Obamas chose one.

According to the association website, they have a decreased tendency to cause allergies, but they are not allergy-proof. They are medium-sized, weighing 40 to 50 pounds.

“They like to sleep with you. They like to follow you into the bathroom and be with you in the kitchen. They like cats. They like to do what you want to do. Mostly they don’t want to be just sitting around,” Vanek said.

“I call them the Bed, Bath and Beyond breed. They want to be with you 24/7,” she said.

On the downside, water dogs can be a little too affectionate. But they aren’t slobbery-affectionate, just pushy. They aren’t shy about jumping on strangers in a friendly way. They like to counter surf and raid refrigerators and cabinets, Vanek said.

They need a lot of attention and companionship. Don’t get a water dog “if you want a dog that can go up against a cougar,” she said. “They aren’t guard dogs. They aren’t the type of dog that tracks down rabbits, antelopes or gazelles. They aren’t feisty.”

There is a lot of upkeep involved as well. The dogs have to be hand-scissored often because they have hair that constantly grows. Vanek brushes out her dogs every three days.

Water dogs appear to enjoy showing off and entertaining people. On a trip to the local swimming hole, Toti made a big deal out of racing around the shore, hiding from her master and refusing to chase a stick into the lake at first, as if to heighten the dramatic effect of the inevitable big plunge.

Toti is known for eating Redi-Whip straight out of the can and holding it in her paws like a squirrel.

Portuguese water dogs are members of the poodle family and have something of that aristocratic mystique, combined with a working-dog practicality.

Hundreds of years ago, water dogs were trained to be excellent swimmers and seafarers. They were underwater divers, herded fish into nets and carried messages from ship to ship.

The first water dog didn’t come to America until 1968, when the population count was only 18. The transplant was a descendant of one of the few remaining water dogs rescued by a wealthy Portuguese businessman. The breed grew gradually in popularity and numbers, but there were still less than 1,000 in 1995, according to the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America website.

Vanek first saw a picture of a water dog in a Geo magazine in 1974, but it took a few years before she found one suitable for a long-term relationship.

Early on the dogs she looked at did not have the right temperament. But she was already hooked on their “energy, intelligence, versatility and affinity for water.” She and her late husband hiked 14’ers and rafted whitewater with their water dogs. One time a dog named Lancer helped save a kayaker from drowning.

Many of her dogs were champions, including the first owner-handled, multiple Best in Show winner, the No. 1 Portuguese water dog in the world.

All of her dogs have been good therapy dogs, and have made hospital, school and nursing home visits and trips to the dialysis center, when her late husband was ill.

As adorable as water dogs may be, they are not for everyone, Vanek warns.

“Just because the Obamas have one there are people who want to jump on the boat " not a good thing. Interested people should contact responsible breeders with documented credentials.” A

good place to start is the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America’s website. For information, visit www.pwdca.org or www.AKC.org. 

Contact Vicky Gits at 303-350-1042 or vicky@evergreenco.com.

Rare dogs of today

• Pyrenean shepherd

• Norwegian buhund

• Puffin hound (“very cat-like”)

• New Guinea singing hound

Source: Joyce Vanek, AKC dog judge