Ernest Hemingway defined heaven on earth as “a trout stream that no one else was allowed to fish in.” For the DelMarVa Portuguese Water Dog Club, heaven is access to a beach that allows dogs, with water that’s the right depth for training them.
On summer days, and stretching into the early fall, these dedicated hobbyists can be found on the Chester River in Queen Anne’s County, teaching their canine companions to work with nets, float lines, and other gear. They jump their dogs off the sterns of rowboats, simulating the tasks that, once upon a time, Portuguese fishermen coaxed their dogs to perform in pursuit of cod in the North Atlantic.
And they love it.
“It’s just one of those highs, you know, that can be inexplicable to other folks,” said Mike Mobley, a past president of the club. Mobley and his wife Jen live in Chestertown, and have trained four Portuguese water dogs in their traditional skills.
Owners of this breed “can get hooked on water work, and that’s what happened to me,” said Sue Augat of Lake Shore. “It becomes very important to your life.”
It’s a volunteer group, so participants are not only working with their dogs but hauling boats, setting up the training area, and helping DelMarVa and its sister organization in Pennsylvania, the Keystone Portuguese Water Dog Club, conduct water trials a couple of times each summer. “There is plenty of opportunity to carry heavy things like cement blocks and anchors and things like that,” said club member Peter Paige.
The trials are pass/fail. This means “you don’t despise your competitors,” said Paige. “They’re not competing against you, they’re just trying to complete a list of tasks.” And exacting tasks they are, whether at the water’s edge (having the dog duck under the surf to retrieve an object, a timed exercise) or 60 feet from shore (having the dog carry nets or other equipment between two boats).
Paige and his wife, Anne, used to drive to the Chesapeake Bay from their Pennsylvania home to sail their 34-foot sloop and do water work with their DelMarVa friends. Their long-distance avocations became short-distance when they moved to Chestertown two years ago. The Paiges, with dogs Rio and Dazzle, now live in a renovated captain’s style home tucked between the Chester River and Wilmer Park.
Part of the challenge of this activity is locating suitable sites. “The Chesapeake is notorious for lots and lots of shallow water,” said Augat. She studied the nautical charts and found that “where we practice, the two beaches in a little area along the Chester River are some of the deeper places close to shore.”
It takes luck and perseverance to secure the special conditions needed. Short of actual thunder and lightning, the hardy club members take the weather in stride. “We don’t care about rain, or wind, or choppy water,” said Mobley. “It is what it is.”
Competitors come to the trials from nearby states, and from as far away as Connecticut, New York, and the Carolinas. Judges are flown in from around the country. It can take several attempts, over many summers, to qualify and move up to the next level of difficulty. But that’s what these people enjoy—difficulty, as long as it takes them out in nature in partnership with their dogs.
“I didn’t grow up as a water person, I grew up as a mountain person,” said Cindy Miner, of Olney. After the Colorado native moved to the East Coast, she learned to appreciate the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. A lifelong bird-watcher, she is “always the one who spots the bald eagle flying over the training site.”
Teleworking during the pandemic, Miner occasionally got to the water with her dog Kiki on weekdays, which is when the group trains. Now, having retired from the National Institutes of Health after 29 years of service, she is eager to devote more time to this activity. “When you trial and you actually pass, or you see a friend pass,” said Miner, “you know how much work they put into it, and you’re so excited for them. I’ve been known to bring a bottle of champagne to celebrate afterwards.”
Water work is demanding, which is why these people just can’t get enough of it. They are, so to speak, a special breed. Said Augat: “What are you going to do, sit around and watch TV? I don’t think so.”
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