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Nancy Gaffney
Portuguese Water Dog 'Gilligan' loves competing in water work with her owner, Rachel Cullen. The Portuguese Water Dog Club of America created water work exercises In order to help preserve the original working qualities of the breed. These skills include retrieving overboard objects and swimming buoys into place.

Gilligan isn’t your average dog. Just take a look at her long list of titles: Fishbay’s Merchant of Venice CD BN RE AX AXJ OF RATN DN CGCA TKA WWDX CWDX MAC-3 SROM.

The versatile Portuguese Water Dog has earned an array of accolades, including winning multiple agility, Rally, and obedience classes at national specialties. Perhaps most impressive is Gilligan’s Courier Water Dog Excellent title, the highest award in Portuguese Water Dog Club of America water work at the time she received it.

Owner Rachel Cullen couldn’t be more proud. “This is a very tough test requiring great mental and physical stamina from a dog,” she says.

While Rachel enjoys the ribbons and awards, she says Gilligan’s biggest accomplishment is that she gives 100 percent no matter what she is doing.

“She loves to work, and it shows in her constantly wagging tail,” she said. “As a handler, there’s nothing better than knowing your dog loves what they do and loves to do it with you.”

Rally is one of Gilligan’s favorite sports. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Rachel has been using the virtual Rally and Trick Dog programs to continue earning titles. Photo by Nina Sage

Finding and Loving Portuguese Water Dogs

Rachel’s love for Portuguese Water Dogs started more than 20 years before she met Gilligan. When she was a child, she remembers begging her parents for any dog.

“Not being ‘dog people’ themselves, my parents told me to research breeds that would fit our family’s needs,” Rachel explained.

She looked for a dog that was great off-leash, medium-sized, didn’t shed very much, and of course, was friendly. With the help of dog breed books and encyclopedias, she decided that the Portuguese Water Dog was the best fit. While the breed was still rare at the time, she was able to find several breeders in her area.

After some interviews, she brought home a puppy and met a breeder who still mentors her today. Now, more than 24 years later, she has four Portuguese Water Dogs and whelped her first litter last summer. Her favorite thing about the breed is its versatility. She says they’re true working dogs who take on any task.

“Gilligan can go from flying off boats and bringing in nets, to doing hospital therapy work in a single afternoon,” Rachel said. “They are intensely driven and high energy, yet incredibly connective and emotionally in tune to their handler.”

In addition to loving their versatility, she likes that they’re close to their working roots. Portuguese Water Dogs almost went extinct in the 1960s because of the mechanization of fishing. But, thanks to some preservation breeders, they made a comeback.

“As a result, they are not far removed from dogs that worked on Portuguese fishing vessels day in and day out,” Rachel said. “I appreciate that true rustic work ethic mixed with the clownish humor that is the hallmark of the breed.”

Rachel started her own training business after noticing a need for someone who understands the unique needs of Portuguese Water Dogs. Photo by Nancy Gaffney

Competing, Training, and Dealing with COVID-19

Gilligan competes in water work, agility, Rally, obedience, coursing ability, tricks, dock diving, barn hunt, tracking, and conformation. While Gilligan loves all sports, her favorites are water work and Rally. Gilligan has also done therapy work, herding, and the Reading with Rover programs.

Like most people, COVID-19 greatly impacted Rachel and Gilligan’s plans this year. “Our plans for our regional and national specialties, trials and shows, training and handling classes, and public spaces to train were all thrown for a loop,” she said.

Rachel said she’s sad that she isn’t competing for most of the year, but the dogs are still training. During quarantine, she’s been preparing two puppies for their debuts in the show ring and is working through AKC’s virtual Trick and Rally programs. “I’m so glad we have that outlet during this time,” she added.

Along with competing and training her own dogs, Rachel started her own training business after noticing a need for someone who understands the unique needs of Portuguese Water Dogs.

“I saw many frustrated pet owners feeling overwhelmed by providing a mental outlet for their dog beyond what’s offered in traditional training classes,” Rachel explained. “I also saw breeders struggling to find resources for their puppy owners that would take a breed-specific approach to any issues.”

“Rumor is the breed used to herd sheep during the fishing off season, and I was amazed at how much natural herding ability she has,” Rachel says. Photo by Rachel Cullen

Advice for Training Portuguese Water Dogs

Rachel trains with positive reinforcement methods such as free shaping and clicker work. While this approach works for her, it may not for every person or dog.

“My biggest piece of advice would be to remember that dog training is never linear,” she said. “Whether you’re working on basic foundations, behavioral problems, or advanced competition behaviors there will always be roadblocks and unexpected occurrences.”

She explains that if things aren’t going smoothly, owners should go back and look at what their dog understands, and try to discover the disconnect.

Join Gilligan

Follow Gilligan —along with Rachel’s other dogs — on Instagram to keep up with their training. To find the right dog breed for you, check out the AKC Marketplace.

Think your dog has what it takes to be Dog Star of the Month? Use the hashtag #ThisIsAKC on Instagram.

Related article: Working Dogs: Meet 31 Purposely-Bred Dogs
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