Tail of the Unexpected: Canine Country

Follow Bo's lead to the Algarve

As the spring days lengthen into summer and southern Europe warms, early holidaymakers are beginning to make their way to the Algarve, sunning themselves on the sandy beaches and filling up the cafés.

But the terrain at the eastern end of Portugal's south coast is more suited to wildlife than to human visitors. Along the shore between Tavira and Faro, sandy scrubland and marshy salt flats provide a habitat for a rich variety of birds, animals and wild flowers. This is the Ria Formosa, a 50km expanse of coastal parkland established to preserve the natural environment and protect its delicate ecosystems. The park occupies the area between the Algarve railway and the Atlantic Ocean, and is signposted off the main coastal highway.

The best way to explore the Ria Formosa is to start at the visitor centre and follow the waymarked trail, a peaceful track through pine woods and olive groves that never meanders far from the water. Storks nest on distant telegraph poles, while fiddler crabs can be spotted sidling in and out of mud holes. About halfway along the path, though, the sound of distant birdsong is drowned out by the barking of a colony of dogs.

These are the Portuguese water dogs for which this part of the Algarve is now enjoying some global recognition. With their curly black coats, they resemble overgrown and overly enthusiastic poodles as they jump up to greet any visitor who heads in their direction. But these are no ordinary hounds: one of their breed, named Bo, this week took up residence in the White House as First Dog. A glance down at their paws reveals another important difference between them and the average domestic pet: these dogs have webbed feet. They acquired their name – and the membrane between their toes – from the role that they carried out on the Algarve coast for centuries, guiding fishing boats towards their catch. Diving from the boats and swimming underwater when necessary, the dogs would sniff out the shoals of sardines or tuna, bark to alert the crew, then head into the water to round up the fish and steer them into funnel-shaped nets.

While most dogs navigate through the waves using doggie paddle, these working animals use their distinctive paws to swim more like humans. Traditionally, a dog was part of the crew, working alongside the fishermen and paid for its work – although in the case of the dogs, payment was in fish rather than cash. Canine coats were trimmed into a lion cut, thick and shaggy at the front so that the animals didn't feel the cold when they jumped into the water; short at the back so they could swim faster and dive deeper.

The main fishing grounds are out to sea, beyond the line of sandspits and islands which protect the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean with a barrier of dunes forged by centuries of wind and tidal currents. Boats from Olhao, the town nearest to the entrance to Ria Formosa, take passengers to the islands of Armona and Culatra, whose sandy beaches and waterside cafés are popular with visitors; and to Farol, where a cluster of attractive fishermen's cottages nestle around the base of a lighthouse.

More modern methods of fishing were introduced in the 1950s, and when traditional fishing nets were finally abandoned in 1972, the water dogs were no longer needed. The breed came dangerously close to extinction until a colony was established in the Ria Formosa park. It is now one of the most fascinating attractions on the entire coast. Like the old tuna boat lying by the water's edge at the far end of the park, these dogs are a reminder of the traditional way of life which once existed along the Algarve.

There are other memorials to bygone times in the park, too. Near the kennels is a waterwheel, designed by the Moors who once occupied this part of Portugal. Donkeys and mules plodded monotonously around a circular path, attached to a system of wheels and pulleys that irrigated orchards full of apricots, plums and citrus fruits.

A little further along the coast is a tide mill, one of nearly 40 that once existed in Ria Formosa. Built in the 13th century to harness energy from the tide to grind cereals, it was used almost continuously until the 1950s; by then, mechanisation had made this practice obsolete, too.

Fishing remains the most important industry in Ria Formosa. There are an astonishing 1,600 shellfish farms on the tidal flats, their boundaries visible at low tide like maritime allotments. Seven thousand tons of clams and oysters are harvested each year, while visitors pick up cockles and razor clams that are half-submerged in the sand. Dogs have no role to play in the modern fishing industry, but the small colony in the park continues to prove popular with those visiting. And now that there is a Portuguese water dog in the White House, perhaps one day the Obama family will be among the visitors.

Ria Formosa park (00 351 289 700 210; icnb.pt) is on the outskirts of Olhao. It opens 9am-12.30pm and 2-5.30pm Monday to Friday; admission costs €2.50 . The water dogs come out of their kennels 11am-1pm and 2-4pm Monday to Friday.

Suggested Topics
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
people

Tennis star is set to marry his long-term girlfriend, Kim Sears

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?