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As Hunt for First Dog Narrows, Groups Show Their Puppy Love

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

It is a decision of national concern, complicated by symbolism and the medical welfare of children, by irreconcilable demands and irrevocable choice. Pleas from the public pour into the Obama transition team. Lobbyists lobby, pressure groups press.

President-elect Barack Obama said recently that the decision has been more wrenching than choosing a commerce secretary.

After he narrowed the choice on Sunday to the Portuguese water dog and the Labradoodle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) weighed in with a statement supporting his preference for the Portie, as it's called. Kennedy owns three of them. It is known however, that the son of Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has a Labradoodle named Brother, and pressure might be strong from that quarter.

Dog purists are pleased that the first family's tastes have veered away from the common mutt. But the animal welfare lobby wants Obama to live up to his promise to rescue a pup from a shelter.

"A lot of shelter dogs are mutts, like me," Obama joked at a news conference.

How to reconcile tastes with promises?

Shelters are filled with abandoned animals that are often euthanized if they are not adopted. At the Washington Humane Society, four available dogs are featured online: three pit bull terriers and a 2-year-old Chihuahua named Hammy.

But the two designer breeds the Obamas favor are hard, if not impossible, to find at shelters. "I don't remember having seen a lot of Labradoodles," Washington Humane Society President Lisa LaFontaine said.

Will the mutt lobbyists go so far as to put a child's health in danger? The family research has been handled by elder daughter Malia, 10, who is allergic to dogs that shed. She took the lead in narrowing the search to the two hypoallergenic breeds recently announced. Sasha, 7, is no doubt consulting.

Malia "disseminates information to the powers that be," an aide said. "She's been leading the way on this."

Wait. PetFinder.com, a Craigslist for pet seekers, has located about a dozen adoptable Portuguese water dogs and recently featured a photo of Suzy, a Labradoodle in an Iowa shelter awaiting a home.

The Obamas, who have not owned a dog before, plan to bring the puppy home in the spring, when things settle down and the weather is nicer for romps around the White House lawn, a transition aide said.

The animal world, however, is astir about all of this right now. The brouhaha might only grow by spring.

Already, canine specialists have offered tips on housebreaking a pup in the White House. (Start by hiring a "special assistant to the first puppy," recommended Mary Burch, the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen director.)

"I've written about it on my blog; we've sent out alerts," said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. "There's no dog czar that we're aware of, but they may have one."

When Obama called the Portuguese water dog a hound on Sunday, Daisy Okas, a vice president at the American Kennel Club, responded: "It's not a hound. For many people who aren't too familiar with dog breeds, to them a dog and a hound are interchangeable, but it makes me think he's not doing the research himself."

Dog purists dismiss the Labradoodle because it is not a purebred, of course, and not recognized by the American Kennel Club. "We're not too keen about him getting a Labradoodle because it's a trend, and having someone so high profile hop on that trend is probably not the best thing for the dog," Okas said.

Well, fine. Obama could always get past this canine correctness by adopting two goats, as did his idol Abraham Lincoln. But his daughters don't want goats, as far as anyone knows. You can't cuddle up in front of a television with a goat. (Are goats hypoallergenic?)

The Portuguese water dog, for centuries a companion to Portuguese fishermen, is "prized for its strength, spirit and soundness," according to the American Kennel Club. Porties have curly black, white or brown coats, which repel water and do not shed.

"They grow up and are wonderful people-loving dogs," said Stu Freeman, president of the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America. (Don't dog club presidents always say that about their breeds?)

The Labradoodle is a cross between a Labrador retriever and a poodle. Because they are a mix of breeds, Labradoodles have unpredictable coats, but the dogs are generally friendly and good with children.

First created by an Australian breeder in the 1980s, the dog is something of a cultural fad. This provides new fodder for Obama's critics. Does effeteness come into play? "For national security reasons, I really hope he doesn't get a Labradoodle, because that just screams, 'Invade me,' " joked GOP strategist Todd Harris.

Obama is not shy about offering his opinions, either. When ABC's Barbara Walters suggested the Obamas get a Havanese, like her beloved Cha Cha, the president-elect dismissed the breed as "yappy" and "girly."

But would the local shelter's pit bull be possible, given the breed's reputation for aggression, however well deserved? Symbolism is important. What would a Chihuahua say?

With their very public deliberations, the Obamas are opening a window into their future life at the White House, making us part of the family.

"You can imagine what they're doing day by day and get an insight into them moving along as if they're a family living next door to you," said presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. "So many people have pets and know the routine of feeding them."

Some folks are bound to be disappointed by the final choice. But Democratic strategists are convinced a puppy photo op will wipe away ill feelings.

"These are remarkably cute kids," strategist Jim Jordan said, "and the picture of any puppy is going to be irresistible to America."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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