A Chat with Hilma, the Swedish Water Dog

Article and photos courtesy Gudrun & Tarik Güngör

Allow me introduce myself—I live in Sweden, I’m a Lagotto Romagnolo, and my name is Hilma. I’m named after my owner’s grandmother Hilma, and I like to think that by sharing her name, I’m helping to keep her soul alive for my humans. On March 18th, I will be six years old. That may sound young, but keep in mind that if I were a human like you, I’d be 35 years old. That’s practically middle-aged!

Now, I don’t like to brag, but you should know I come from a fairly prestigious lineage. We Lagotto Romagnolos are an ancient breed of water retriever, originally from the lowlands of Comacchio and marshlands of Ravenna, Italy. Experts believe us to be the founding breed that every type of water dog descends from! There are different types of Lagottos, including Italian, French, Spanish, and Dutch. My mom is Italian and my dad is French. Me, I consider myself Swedish, although I am technically an Italian Lagotto. For the most part, all of us are usually called simply “water dogs.”

My grandparents immigrated from Italy to Sweden in the 1980s. The full record of my family was archived in 1995 with the Swedish Dog Club—the “svenska kennelklubben,” or SKK. I belong to a Swedish Lagotto dog club called SLKK. Just as my parents were, I am registered and hold a pedigree.

But don’t think I just sit around being regal. I like to get outside and get my paws dirty, like any dog. In fact, what I really love is swimming. Dogs of my breed can swim very well, and some of us have significantly webbed feet, meaning we have a good bit of membrane that connects our toes and helps us move easily through the water. It’s part of our heritage, as early members of our breed would retrieve birds shot by hunters in the swampy waters of northern Italy. They brought the birds back to their hunters, and they were grateful—they didn’t want to get into the water, but the Lagottos loved it. As the climate changed and environments became drier, we Lagotto dogs were used less and less for this kind of retrieval job. But not to worry—we’ve since found another calling that also makes our owners very happy, and it requires using our keen sense of smell. 

Our new job? Truffle hunting! Truffles are rare and very sought after mushrooms that are hard for humans to find on their own because they grow anywhere from 8 to 24 inches below the ground. Pigs are often used to sniff out truffles, as well as dogs like me. I went to school to take classes in mushroom searching and nose work. I learned to distinguish different smells, and my owners learned what my different barks mean, which helps us understand each other while I’m working. I love my job, because my humans get so excited when I find mushrooms! It’s easy for me to smell their aroma with my sensitive nose, so when I find them, I alert my owners and they dig it out carefully with a special shovel. We make a great team.

Apparently humans find these truffles delicious, because they are very expensive to buy. That’s why our role is so important—our owners can’t do it without us. There would be a lot fewer truffles available without the help of our highly trained noses. People call it “the fruit of love,” and it must be true, because I get a lot of extra love and praise every time I find one. They tell me I’m particularly good at the job, because I can find some of the deepest buried truffles that pigs and other dogs miss. I’m also in training to spot yellow Chanterelle mushrooms, which I hunt for visually. My eyesight isn’t as strong as my senses of smell and hearing, but I’ve got pretty sharp eyes and I’m learning to use them for my mushroom hunting job.

Hilma is playing with her brother Felix

When I’m not working, I enjoy walking with my owner to downtown Falun, the city where we live. I get a lot of attention there from people who want to pat my head and tell me I’m like a beautiful lamb with my wooly, curly white hair. I have a brother, Felix, whose coat is a bit darker than mine, more of a light brown. He lives in Falun, Sweden, just like me, so I still get to see him even though we went off to separate homes after leaving our mother. Both of us started out different colors, and our coats changed color as we grew from puppies into adult dogs. The great thing about our hair is that it doesn’t shed and people aren’t allergic to it like they can be to fur. I haven’t met anyone yet who is allergic to me, and that makes me happy. I don’t like it when people can’t pet me.

We’re both medium-sized dogs—16 to 24 inches tall—not too big, not too small. I believe I’m the most beautiful of the two of us, but that’s probably because I’m a girl and I think about those things. He’s a boy and doesn’t care as much as I do, but people are always telling him he’s a handsome boy, and it’s true. Felix is a little taller and a little bit stronger than me. But we both love to play and play hard. When we were puppies, I used to overpower Felix; now that we’re older, he’s got an edge on me. But we’re still pretty well matched. We’ve both got rather rectangular bodies, with heads that are bigger and wider than our bodies. We have big, strong noses, big ears that flap over and point to the ground, and a medium-length tail. We’re pretty cute, if I do say so myself. 

Felix and I are two in a litter of eight puppies. Although our father did visit occasionally and had several litters of puppies with our mother, we never got the chance to meet him. Our mother’s owners helped raise us when we were tiny, and we stayed with them until we were 12 weeks old. By then we were old enough to set out on our own and live with new families who love us and would give us different but equally happy lives. I love my new family and I’m glad my mother’s family helped prepare me to be responsible and happy as I grew older. And my mother has grown older, too, so she’s not having puppies anymore. I’m glad she had me before she stopped!

“Mom” and I in the garden

When I first came to live with my new family, the vet had to give me some vaccinations, take a few X-rays of my hips, and take my registration papers. Then he put an ID chip just under the skin on my neck, which can be scanned by any vet if I ever get lost. The chip contains information about me and my owners, so I can always find my way back home. And it also shows that I’m registered with the Swedish dog club, the SKK.

“Dad” and I in the forest

When I first got to my new home, my owners gave me a toy that looks like a cat. I loved that cat and had lots of fun playing with it. In fact, I still lick it from time to time, remembering the fun we had. But as for real cats, well, I don’t like them one bit. I don’t even know why! But when I saw one in the street once near our house, I just wanted to attack it. I suppose that shows poor manners, but I really couldn’t help myself. It all ended well, because once the cat hunkered down and stopped moving, I felt a little guilty and less like running after it. I stood a few feet away and stared at him, and then my owner picked me up and the whole thing was over with no loss of fur and no harm done.

Jumping Hill in FALUN-SWEDEN
Copper mine in Falun

I live in a villa in Falun, Sweden, and it’s a fascinating place, with lots of smells and plenty of things to do. There is a copper mine in this city that brought wealth and prosperity to Sweden for 700 years. That mine, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, is now an open air museum. I can’t go to the museum for underground sightseeing, but tourists can. Falun also hosts world cup ski competitions with its large ski jump hills and has even hosted the World Ski Championship three times. My owners took me to the ski stadium, Lugnet, a few times. Everyone was standing and watching, so I couldn’t see very much; in fact, I got a little bored. But the people weren’t—they were very excited about it all. 

I get excited about snow, too, and I love to play in it. But it’s not all fun and games. Sometimes the snow fills the gaps between my toes and freezes into hard, cold balls, which makes it hard for me to walk. My owners have to hold their warm hands on my feet to melt the snow. But recently they made me some small, sack-shaped boots out of waterproof red cloth. Now I can walk more comfortably in the snow, but I do miss feeling my claws on the ground when I’m wearing my boots. 

So that’s me, Hilma, and that’s my story. If you ever find yourself in Sweden and can make it out to Falun, I’d love to show you around my beautiful city. We have lush grasses, tall forests, and beautiful lakes. If you come to my house, I can offer you raspberry and black currants.

And I can introduce you to my owners, who are my favorite people in the world and who take such good care of me. They cut my fur, put ear drops in my ears, trim my claws, and keep my teeth clean and my gums healthy. I sleep at the foot of their bed at night—always watching out for them like they watch out for me. I’m very lucky to have owners who love me so much, and that love is mutual. They’re my best friends, and I know I’m theirs, too.