Obama dogged by pet challenge

Country weighs in as the first family-elect ponders a pooch for the White House

November 08, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

President-elect Barack Obama has promised change. He has also promised his daughters a puppy. With the right dog, he can make good on both.

From Thomas Jefferson's briards to George W. Bush's Scottish terriers, the White House doghouse has been stuffed with austere purebreds. The 44th president appears destined for a different kind of dog. Perhaps he'll choose one from a shelter, where there are "mutts like me," he said yesterday at his first news conference, addressing both the weighty family dog issue and the economic crisis.

But 10-year-old Malia Obama, who has allergies, has done the research and concluded that the "goldendoodle," a low-shedding poodle/golden retriever blend, is "the optimal dog," Obama said while campaigning in Iowa last year.

At the news conference, Obama acknowledged that his family must reconcile those criteria.

"Whether we're going to be able to balance those two things, I think, is a pressing issue in the Obama household," he said.

First dog-elect mania kicked into overdrive with Obama's acceptance speech Tuesday night in Chicago's Grant Park, where he told daughters Malia and Sasha, 7, "You've earned the new puppy that is coming with us to the White House."

It's a family decision, but this being a democracy, his fellow Americans also want a vote.

"Wish there was something like 'primaries' for selection/nomination for the 'first puppy,' an iconic member of the first family," one New York Times reader wrote yesterday, responding to one of the newspaper's numerous dog blog entries and articles.

The Chicago Tribune has weighed in with an editorial, urging citizens to let the Obama girls pick their own puppy. Thousands have opined on their personal blogs and at news sites. There's an "obamafamilydog.com" Web site devoted to the issue. This summer, in an American Kennel Club online poll, 42,000 picked a poodle as the preferred presidential pet.

"This is a very, very, very important decision," said Claire McLean, founder of the Presidential Pets Museum, which moved recently from Maryland to Virginia. "There hasn't been a president without a pet since the early days. It'll be interesting to see what they decide. And of course, everyone will have a different take on it."

If the Obamas fulfill their campaign promise to use a shelter or rescue organization, it would have a "huge impact" on pet adoption across the country, predicted Jennifer Mead-Brause, director of Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter.

"Someone that important is saying to everybody, 'Shelter dogs are good dogs, too,' " she said.

As their three daughters played yesterday with Gumbo, a 2-year-old brown shepherd mix, at the Baltimore shelter, Kevin and Nikkie Preston said they would be thrilled to see the president adopt.

Seven-year-old Tabitha crouched beside the rescue dog, who had pins in his left rear leg from a recent operation, and nodded in approval as she pet him. The Prestons signed the paperwork to adopt Gumbo last night.

Kevin Preston urged the president to bring his wife and his girls to "take the dog for a test drive" before adopting.

But about that goldendoodle ...

Mead-Brause said poodle mixes are "breeds of choice" right now, meaning they don't regularly pass through shelter doors. "Doodle" owners rarely let go of these pricey pooches.

That's just fine with McLean, who recoiled at the notion of a doodle dog in the White House.

"A goldendoodle? They'd be the laughing stock of the country," she said. "Genetics are very important. They should go for a purebred." (Specifically, she recommended the Sen. Edward M. Kennedy-favored Portuguese water dog).

The American Kennel Association counts 22 U.S. presidents who owned purebred dogs. President Bush's Scottish terriers have their own government-funded Web site, replete with streaming video of them frolicking.

One of them, Barney, made news this week when he bit a reporter who'd bent down to pet him. Perhaps he was feeling out of sorts over the Obama dog fervor.

A handful of presidents have gone farther afield than the Obamas plan to. According to presidentialpetmuseum.com, John Quincy Adams had an alligator and silkworms. William Henry Harrison had a billy goat. The Kennedy family brought a veritable zoo to the White House: birds, hamsters, dogs and Macaroni the Pony.

Maybe a goldendoodle will be the first of many Obama pets.

"With young children, anything could show up at the White House," McLean said. "I'd bet there will be a string of pets that accumulate there."

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