Known as the Cão da Serra de Aires in its native Portugal, the Portuguese Sheepdog may descend from the Briard and Pyrenean Shepherd. We know little about its background, but it resembles both breeds in appearance and behavior. The breed was established in the early Twentieth Century and faced near-extinction before making a comeback.
The Portuguese Sheepdog is a herding type sheepdog. Its Portuguese name refers to Serra de Aires, a mountain near Montforte in the Alentejo region. Local shepherds needed a dog to work large herds of sheep, cattle, or goats in a territory with extreme terrains that range from glacial and windy in the winter and hot and dusty in the summer.
The modern Portuguese Sheepdog excels as a companion dog, with only a few individuals still herding in its native mountain region. Embraced as a pet by middle-class Portuguese suburbanites, the breed has undergone a resurgence of popularity in Portugal, although it is rarely seen outside that country.
The breed’s history seems somewhat of a mystery, but Portuguese Shepherds are likely descendants of crosses between dual-purpose herding and livestock guardian breeds like the Briard and the Pyrenean Shepherd. Although the breed founders recorded no history, the generally accepted theory is that sometimes after 1909, the first Conde de Castro Guimaraes, Manuel Inácio de Castro Guimarães, decided to import Briards to work and guard his sheep.
Briards, a French breed, were imported to other countries for their unparalleled ability to function as both a herding dog and flock guardian simultaneously. Over a century earlier, Thomas Jefferson had brought a pregnant Briard with him to the U.S. after his time in France and established the breed here. Portugal’s extreme climate and challenging terrain were too much for the Briard. The Conde crossed his imported French Briards with local herding breeds better suited to the locale.
The breeds he may have crossed with his Briards are presumed to have been the Catalan Sheepdog and Pyrenean Shepherd. The basis for this theory is the Portuguese Sheepdog’s appearance and herding ability, which reflects both breeds’ influence. By the end of the 1920s, the Cão da Serra de Aires had established his place as a dual-purpose shepherd. Times changed, and the need for herding dogs diminished over the next fifty years. Although the breed was recognized by the Portuguese Kennel Club in 1932, by the 1970s, it was no longer used widely as a sheepherding dog and was on the brink of extinction.
Like most breeds developed to guard flocks of herd animals, the Portuguese Shepherd is intensely loyal to both its herd and its people. Keenly intelligent and trainable, the breed has a knack for keeping animals from escaping the pasture and finding any who managed to do so. Like most livestock guardians, he barks to deter predators. This breed is one of the few that tend to be successful guardians and herding dogs simultaneously. Typically, a breed is one or the other, and trying to cross the two types produces an untrustworthy dog with conflicting impulses.
Size And Appearance
The Portuguese Sheepdog is a medium-sized dog, standing between sixteen and a half and twenty-one and a half inches at the withers. His body is longer than tall, and he’s relatively flat-sided. He moves athletically and handily covers enough ground to herd large flocks of hundreds of sheep. His nickname, the “Cão Macaco,” translates to “monkey dog” for his ape-like appearance and personality.
Coat And Colors
The Portuguese Sheepdog’s long single coat protects it from temperature extremes in its native region. They are well suited to covering the dry, flat land of their native Portugal, and their goatlike hair protects them from extreme weather ranging from glacial and windy in the winter to arid and dusty in the summer.
They range from black, brown, and fawn to gray, wolf gray, and yellow. Although both breeds believed to be the breed’s foundation stock have a double coat, the Portuguese Sheepdog has a single coat. His long, wavy hair falls slightly over his eyes and forms a beard on his chin, and he does not shed as excessively as if he had a seasonal undercoat.
Few Portuguese Sheepdogs are still working herds, but they still have exercise requirements that reflect this active past. Aim for at least two periods of twenty to thirty minutes of moderate exercise each day with your Cão Macaco. If you spend the first exercise period jogging a familiar path, consider a game of tug or throwing a ball for him later in the day. Consider his long coat and his native arid climate as you exercise. On a temperate day, take him for a hike. Variety is not only the spice of life but the key to keeping this breed content.
Although Portuguese Shepherds can be full-time outdoor dogs, their bond to their family allows them to adapt to home life. He’s best suited to a home with a large fenced yard and land for him to roam. Portuguese Shepherds can run miles per day to herd their flocks. They have a natural need for lengthy periods of exercise.
These dogs cover a lot of ground, and they naturally herd other animals. Be sure this instinct doesn’t make them the neighborhood pariah. They have a moderate prey drive and an instinct to guard their flock or family, so they generally regard strangers with suspicion. If most of your Portuguese Shepherd’s exercise occurs in a public space such as a dog park, introduce him carefully to other dogs until you’re sure he does not see them as threats.
Portuguese Sheepdogs evolved as a working breed, and their eagerness to please makes them great family companions. Their intelligence allows them to work independently of their human shepherd but still be very biddable dogs. He may be a challenge for an inexperienced dog owner, but his moderate size and patient, sober nature allow a learning curve.
Crate training your new puppy provides them a safe space and can be necessary even if your working dog spends most of his time outdoors with a snug dog house for protection from the elements. If extreme weather or injury dictates your dog should come inside, he will take comfort in his cozy den.
As with any puppy, working dogs will need patience and positive reinforcement to become comfortable in their crate. Purchase a crate that will be large enough to house an adult Portuguese Sheepdog, and allow yourself and your puppy several months of learning time as you gradually increase the time he spends in his crate each day.
Portuguese Shepherds are relatively healthy dogs with no significant health issues. They are the product of more than one breed and may exhibit hybrid vigor, although we must consider the breeds from which they originated when considering possible health issues.
When the dog does not produce sufficient thyroid hormone for the body to function normally, we say he is hypothyroid (hypo means under, so this means thyroid under normal levels). Symptoms include lack of energy, hair loss, changes in behavior, and obesity. Because hypothyroidism is not uncommon in Briards, see your veterinarian if your Portuguese Shepherd gains weight unexpectedly or presents other symptoms. They may prescribe a hormone supplement to balance the deficiency.
Just like in people, the patella is the knee cap. The patella sits in a groove at the top of the shin. A luxating patella slips in and out of this groove, dislocating and stopping the knee from bending correctly. Not only does this cause lameness, but it can also cause pain and arthritis.
Luxation of the patella is usually a genetic condition. Although it typically affects small breeds, it can occur in larger dogs. If you notice your dog holding a leg up for a few steps as he runs, but then he uses it normally again, take your dog to the vet to check it out. This condition can lead to stiffness and arthritis later in life. Treatment varies with the severity of the condition. Mild cases of patellar luxation may be treated with NSAIDs to alleviate discomfort. In severe cases, however, surgery will be the recommendation.
Portuguese Sheepdogs can suffer from the hip and elbow dysplasia found in many herding breeds. Feeding a large breed puppy formula that does not encourage rapid growth is advisable to help avoid this condition. Because they likely descend from Briard and Pyrenean Shepherd lineage, the OFA Evaluation or PennHIP Evaluation are appropriate.
Feeding only a single meal per day increases the risk of bloat, a life-threatening condition in any breed but most often seen in deep-chested dogs. Exercising immediately after eating a large meal or drinking a lot of water is a predisposing factor. Splitting his ration into two or more feedings morning and evening may mitigate the risk. Feed a calcium-rich kibble with protein sources such as meat/lamb meal, fish meal, chicken by-product meal, meat meal, or bone meal topping the list of ingredients to help him avoid this potentially fatal condition.
The Portuguese Sheepdog’s long single coat directly reflects his health, and health begins with good nutrition. Your Portuguese Sheepdog will likely need about three cups per day of high-quality kibble divided into two meals depending on his activity level. Monitor his body condition to ensure he is getting the calories appropriate to his activity level. Quality food may be a little more expensive up front, but it will save you money in additional supplements and vet bills in the long run. It will improve the texture and reduce the breakability of his haircoat, making grooming him more manageable.
The brand you choose should include omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties considered beneficial for dogs’ skin and coats. Research has shown that omega-3s have health benefits for dogs beyond just making their coats shine. They reduce inflammation in the body, keeping your buddy more comfortable and keeping itchy skin at bay. Active breeds with the stamina of the Portuguese Sheepdog benefit from the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s.
Their coats require weekly brushing using a medium pin brush. His rough textured coat will be prone to picking up burrs and debris if he runs outdoors, so briefly check him over for knots and tangles every evening. If you work out his tangles with your fingers or a fine-toothed comb daily, his weekly deep brushing will be more pleasant for you both.
The breed’s rustic appearance is due largely to his abundant coat, so do not brush him to the point of thinning it excessively. His seasonal shedding is not excessive. Bathe him only as needed using a gentle shampoo that rinses easily from long hair. Afterward, using conditioner or a grooming spritz makes his hair easier to comb through.
Portuguese Shepherds have a beard, mustache, and eyebrows that will need daily attention to stay clean. He grows hair between his pads for protection. Check for debris after outings, and you may need to trim this hair back every few weeks. Although Portuguese Sheepdogs are relatively low maintenance for the length of their haircoat, they need the same nail and dental care as most dog breeds.
Breeders And Puppy Costs
You’ll probably not find many Portuguese Sheepdogs in the United States, although the breed has gained some popularity in Europe. You may expect to pay between $700 and $1,500 for a pup if you can find one available.
Rescues And Shelter
Although the breed is currently rare outside of Europe, keep in touch with your local shelter in case a Portuguese Sheepdog arrives needing his forever home. This breed’s friendly and hard-working nature and handsome appearance could make him an impulse purchase for people traveling abroad.
As Family Pets
In general, the Portuguese Sheepdog is:
- A good companion for families with active lifestyles.
- A watchdog for home and farm who alerts when confronted by strangers.
- A medium dog with a strong, athletic build.
- A herding breed whose instincts may lead him to herd his family and other pets.
- Friendly with small children and loyal to family.
- Intelligent and active.
- Independent but trainable and trustworthy.
- Best kept in a securely fenced yard with room to run.
- A fit for an owner who understands his dual-purpose nature.
A Portuguese Sheepdog is a unique option for an active family with adequate space and time for his active nature. The same characteristics that make him such an amazing dual-purpose sheepdog in the field make him an excellent family companion. Their wonderful personality and general versatility already brought them back from the brink of extinction in Portugal. Hopefully, the breed’s popularity will grow outside of Europe, and they will be more readily available in the United States in years to come.