The Cao da Serra de Aires is a breed of sheep herding dog native to Southern Portugal. For most of the 20th Century, the breed was almost exclusively kept as a working dog in southern and central Portugal, but in recent years it has become increasingly popular as a companion dog throughout Europe. The Cao da Serra de Aires is known for its athleticism, intelligence, working ability, charming appearance, and good temperament. The Cao da Serra de Aires is also known as the Portuguese Sheepdog, Portuguese Shepherd Dog, Cao Macaca, Monkey Dog, and Serra de Aires Mountain Dog.
The Cao da Serra de Aires is thought to be a relatively recently developed breed, but its history is actually quite mysterious. No one is fully certain how the breed was created, but there are a number of theories. All that is definitely known is that the Cao da Serra de Aires was developed in Portugal, probably southern or central Portugal, and that is has been found in the mountainous region of the Serra de Aires since the early years of the 20th Century.
The first records of the Cao da Serra de Aires come from the first decades of the 20th Century. Because of this, it is widely assumed that the breed was first developed at that time. However, this lack of evidence is not entirely conclusive because accurate records of most European herding breeds do not exist prior to that time. Even the earliest mentions of the breed claim that it was primarily found in the Serra de Aires Mountains, a small chain located in the south-central portion of the country. The Serra de Aires Mountains formed the border of the traditional regions of Ribatejo and Oeste, which along with the Alentejo are considered the breed’s primary homelands.
Although records of the Cao da Serra de Aires is only known from the 20th Century, the region where it was developed has been home to sheep herding dogs for thousands of years. Breeds such as the Catalan Sheepdog and the Pyrenean Shepherd are considered to be among the oldest of all European herding breeds, and could possibly directly descend from the very earliest Middle Eastern sheep herding dogs. These breeds are very similar to the Cao da Serra de Aires, and are usually thought to be a part of the same family. Some even claim that the Cao da Serra de Aires was developed by crossing these dogs with other Iberian herding breeds, but there is no solid evidence to support this claim.
The most prevalent theory for the Cao da Serra de Aires’s origin holds that it was developed in the early 20th Century by the Conde de Castro Guimaraes. Although sources are not specific on which holder of that title developed the breed, they almost certainly mean the first, Manuel Ignacio de Castro Guimaraes. The King of Portugal created the title specifically for Manuel Ignacio in 1909, which means that if this theory is correct, the Cao da Serra de Aires was developed no earlier than that time. Allegedly, the Conde had a number of Briards imported from France which he used to herd his flocks of sheep. This seems very possible as the Briard was a very well-regarded herding breed at the time, and it was very famous throughout Europe during the 1910’s and 1920’s as a result of its great success serving the French army in World War I. The Conde’s Briards proved to be excellent herding dogs, but they were not ideally suited to the local climate and terrain. In order to develop the best possible breed for working sheep in the Serra de Aires Mountains, the Conde crossed his dogs with local Iberian herding breeds, possibly the Catalan Sheepdog and the Pyrenean Shepherd. It is unclear what evidence exists to support this theory, but it seems very likely given the appearance and traits of the breed along with the circumstantial evidence that does exist.
However the Cao da Serra de Aires was developed, it became well known in its mountainous home and the neighboring region of the Alentejo by the end of the 1920’s. For many decades the breed was exclusively kept by the working farmers of central and southern Portugal. The dog was primarily used to herd and drive sheep, but was also used to work with cattle and other livestock on occasion. These breeders focused only on those traits which would impact the dog’s working ability, such as intelligence, trainability, climate resistance, athleticism, and the like. The result was an excellent herding dog that was ideally suited to the environmental conditions found in its homeland. The breed became commonly known as the Cao Macaca, or Monkey Dog, because its face resembled that of a monkey. Although primarily kept as a working dog, the Cao da Serra de Aires was standardized at a relatively early date. In 1932, the Portuguese Kennel Club granted full recognition to breed, using a standard that had been written by Dr. Antonio Cabral and Dr. Felipe Morgado Romeiros. Luckily for the breed, Portugal’s involvement in World War I was very limited, and it did not enter World War II at all. This meant that the Cao da Serra de Aires did not suffer the dramatic population declines experienced by many European herding breeds.
Although Portugal did not suffer as severely as many other breeds, it did become very rare in the post-war years. The introduction of modern technology made the breed increasingly less necessary. At the same time, vast tracts of the breed’s traditional homeland were converted from farmland to suburban housing developments as the Portuguese capital of Lisbon continued to grow. The breed may have also suffered from the fact that it was not recognized by the FCI and therefore did not receive the international popularity that comes with such recognition. By the end of the 1970’s, the Cao da Serra de Aires was very rare, and many thought that it was on the verge of extinction.
The Cao da Serra de Aires may have been lost forever were it not for the dedicated work of a small number of followers. Beginning in the late 1970s’, a group of breeders and owners had banded together in order to save the breed. For the past forty years, they have worked to slowly increase breed numbers while maintaining its overall quality. The Cao da Serra de Aires has greatly benefitted from a new group of fanciers. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the breed was increasingly discovered by Middle Class Portuguese suburbanites. The breed was favored because of its intelligence, good nature and charming appearance. Realizing that the breed’s future probably lies primarily as a companion, breeders are increasingly focusing on traits which make the breed ideally suited for life as a companion dog.
During the last 2 decades, increasing numbers of Caos da Serra de Aires have been exported to other countries. Outside of Portugal, the breed is almost exclusively known as a companion animal and a show dog. In 1996, the FCI granted formal recognition to the breed as a member of the herding group. It is unclear whether or not any breed members have been exported to the United States, but if any have it is a very small number of individual dogs. Despite this rarity, the United Kennel Club (UKC) granted the breed full recognition in 2006 as a member of the Herding Dog Group, although the UKC officially calls the breed the Portuguese Sheepdog. Although there are now a number of breed members outside of Portugal, the breed remains extremely rare outside of its home country. There are a few Caos da Serra de Aires still working in Portugal, especially in the breed’s mountainous homeland. However, a sizable majority of breed members are now primarily kept as companion dogs, which is where the breed’s future probably lies.
The Cao da Serra de Aires is quite similar to a number of other Iberian herding breeds but has a coat more similar to certain French herding breeds. This is the epitome of a medium-sized dog. The average male Cao da Serra de Aires stands between 17½ and 21½ inches tall at the shoulder while the average female stands between 16 ½ and 20½ inches tall at the shoulder. Although weight is heavily influenced by gender, height, and build, most breed members weigh between 25 and 45 pounds. Most of the Cao da Serra de Aires’s body is obscured by the breed’s coat, but underneath is a very muscular and athletic dog. Because of its coat, the breed looks thickly build and even slightly stocky, but this dog is actually fairly lean. The tail of the Cao da Serra de Aires is long, strongly tapering, and held straight out or down. The tail usually has a slight but noticeable curve. Occasionally, a Cao da Serra de Aires will be born with a naturally bobbed tail, but such dogs are penalized in the show ring.
The facial features of the Cao da Serra de Aires are largely obscured by its coat. In fact, this is a breed with so much facial hair that many look like they could potentially have difficulty seeing out of their eyes. Underneath the hair is a skull that is slightly longer than it is wide, and flat between the ears. The muzzle and head are quite distinct from each other, meeting in a sharp angle. The muzzle and the skull do not run parallel to each other, instead having divergent top lines. The muzzle itself is quite short, only about 2/3 the length of the skull, and possesses tight fitting lips. The nose of the Cao da Serra de Aires is preferably black, although other colors are permitted as long as they are darker in shade or color than the coat. The ears of the Cao da Serra de Aires are medium in length and possess fine leather. Sometimes the ears of this breed are cropped and pricked into an erect triangle to increase the breed’s ability to locate the sources of sound. However, this practice is quickly falling out of favor and is actually banned in some countries. The natural ears of the Cao da Serra de Aires fold down close to the sides of its head.
The coat of the Cao da Serra de Aires is perhaps the breed’s most important feature. The coat is very long and either smooth or slightly wavy. The hair on the face forms long beards, mustaches, and eyebrows. Ideally the hair should not cover the eyes, but the hair on some individual’s does. The hair is usually longest on the head, body, and legs. The hair itself is medium in terms of thickness and of a goat-like texture. This breed does not possess a wooly undercoat or wool.
The Cao da Serra de Aires is found in seven acceptable colors: yellow, chestnut, fawn, grey, wolf grey, black, and black and tan. The yellow, chestnut, fawn, grey, and black dogs should be a solidly colored. The wolf grey dogs should range in shade from ordinary to dark. Black and tan dogs are largely black in color but have varying degrees and numbers of tan markings, usually on the face, chest, feet, legs, and around the vent. Any color may have white hairs interspersed with its coat but white markings should be entirely absent except for a small one on the chest. Occasionally, a Cao da Serra de Aires is born with an alternative color scheme such as tri color. Such dogs are ineligible in the show ring and should not be bred, but otherwise make just as excellent pets and working dogs as any other breed members.
The Cao da Serra de Aires was bred almost exclusively as a working animal until the last 40 years, and has a temperament similar to most other working herding dogs. In recent years, the breed’s demand as a suburban pet has caused breeders to somewhat soften its temperament. This breed is known for being extraordinarily devoted and loyal, usually forming closer and more intense bonds than is common among herding dogs. The Cao da Serra de Aires has a strong tendency to become a one-person dog if primarily raised by a single individual, although they will form equally strong attachments to all members of a family if brought up in such an environment. The Cao da Serra de Aires is a generally a light-hearted breed that has a playful, “monkey-like personality.” When properly socialized, most breed members are fine with children with whom they are familiar. Some male breed members do tend to be somewhat too territorial and rambunctious for young children, however. The Cao da Serra de Aires has a tendency to be somewhat challenging and dominant, and may not make the best choice for an inexperienced owner.
Bred to watch and protect its livestock and home, the Cao da Serra de Aires tends to be somewhat suspicious of strangers. This is definitely a breed that strongly prefers the company of its family to strangers. This is not known to be an aggressive breed, but aggression issues can develop without proper training and socialization. Once socialized, most breed members will be polite with strangers, although few will be friendly. Some of these dogs also take a very long time to warm up to new people. This breed is not only protective but also highly alert, making it an excellent guard dog. Most breed members are too small to make a truly effective guard dog. However, this breed is very willing to defend its family and territory and is more than strong and imposing enough to deter most potential intruders.
The Cao da Serra de Aires is usually fine with other dogs. Most breed members do not show high levels of dog aggression and prefer to share their lives with at least one canine companion. However, this breed also tends to be very dominant which can create problems with other dominant dogs, a trait which is significantly more pronounced in males than females. Some males also exhibit substantial levels of same-sex aggression. As a herding dog, most breed members will be fine with other creatures with which they have been socialized and raised alongside. This breed does tend to have issues with strange animals and will usually attempt to drive them away. Some individuals also exhibit such high prey drives that they are probably not trustworthy around small pets such as cats.
The Cao da Serra de Aires is famous for its intelligence and trainability. There is probably no task that any breed can learn that a Cao da Serra de Aires is incapable of learning. This breed has long been used to perform very advanced herding behaviors, and would almost certainly make an excellent competitor in canine sports such as competitive obedience and agility. If a Cao da Serra de Aires respects its trainer, this breed tends to be highly obedient and very willing to learn and please. However, this breed tends to be very dominant and will regularly challenge the authority of a master whom it does not respect. Because this breed will not respond to someone who is not a true leader, it is important that owners of these dogs maintain a constant position of dominance.
Although increasingly kept as a companion animal, this breed is still a true working dog. The Cao da Serra de Aires is capable of working for very long hours, and often appears to genuinely enjoy doing so. This is an incredibly active and energetic breed that requires a substantial amount of daily activity. The average breed member requires a minimum of one to two full hours of vigorous physical activity every day. Without the necessary exercise, this breed will almost certainly develop behavioral problems such as destructiveness, hyperactivity, over excitability, mental instability, nervousness, excessive barking, and aggression. All that being said, the average Cao da Serra de Aires is less demanding than a number of other herding breeds such as Border Collies and Australian Cattle Dogs, and most breed members adapt well to life as companion dogs provided they receive enough exercise. Although this breed makes an excellent jogging or biking companion, it also craves activity that provides it an opportunity to use its keen mind. This breed is happiest when provided a job such as herding or a complex activity such as an agility course. Because of this breed’s exercise requirements, it does not adapt well to apartment life. Most breed members will adapt to life in the suburbs, but the larger the available yard the better.
The Cao da Serra de Aires requires less grooming than one would expect from its appearance. This dog should never require professional grooming, only a semi-regular brushing. Owners actually need to be careful to avoid grooming the dog too frequently; otherwise the harsh texture of its coat and naturally rugged appearance may be altered. The coat does tangle and mat on occasion, but ideally that section of coat would be worked on exclusively. Probably the most important regular maintenance tasks are regular, thorough ear cleanings and regular clippings of the hair on the feet and in between the toes. This breed should only be bathed when absolutely necessary to avoid removing essentially body oils.
It does not appear as though any health studies have been conducted on this breed which makes it impossible to make any definitive statements on the breed’s health. However, most fanciers seem to believe that the breed is in excellent health. There is allegedly no health problem of significant concern in this breed, and most breed members live healthy lives. The health of the Cao da Serra de Aires has likely benefitted from a number of factors including its medium-size, being bred primarily as a working dog, and having been spared the worst commercial breeding practices. None of this means that the breed is immune to genetically inherited health disorders, but it does mean that the breed is impacted by fewer of them and at lower rates than is common among pure-bred dogs.
Although skeletal and visual problems are not thought to occur at high rates in this breed it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
Even though health studies have not been conducted on the Cao da Serra de Aires, they have been for similar and closely related breeds. Among the problems of greatest concern that have been discovered include: