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What America Needs In Its New First Dog

by Julie Rovner
Dec 26, 2008 (Morning Edition)

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Julie Rovner

There's an old saying in Washington: If you want a real friend in this city of political backstabbers, get a dog.

That may help explain why there's been so much attention focused on the first family's search for a new canine companion.

So far, says David Frei, director of communications for the Westminster Kennel Club in New York, the Obamas seem to be doing pretty much everything right.

"They're doing their homework. They're asking a lot of questions. They're considering all the things that are important to them, not the least of which is the question about allergies," says Frei, referring to the fact that Malia, the older Obama daughter, has a dog allergy.

For example, the Obamas have already said they won't be adding their new family member until they are actually settled into their new home, probably later this winter or early in the spring.

"As responsible pet owners, I don't think it would be good to get a dog in the midst of transition," Michelle Obama explained in a 60 Minutes interview last month. And the president-elect has suggested that the family would like to adopt a homeless dog from an animal shelter.

The Allergy Question

But most of the suggestions that have been flooding into the presidential transition office on the dog issue have more to do with the allergy issue than anything else. And that's a problem, says Frei, for two reasons.

First, because there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog. There are dogs that shed less than other dogs, he says, and therefore would cause less of a problem for someone with allergy problems.

But breeders claiming that their labradoodles and goldendoodles are hypoallergenic breeds could run into trouble, he jokes. "If they're telling that to the president-elect, that's probably a violation of a federal law, to be lying to your president."

Personality Over Looks

But more important, say Frei and other dog experts, getting a dog is about much more than hair — it's about personality.

"Not every breed is for every family," says Gary Weitzman, executive director of the Washington Animal Rescue League, a private animal shelter in Washington, D.C. The shelter has already invited the Obamas to visit and adopt one of its animals after they move into the White House. "You should do your homework and know what kind of a dog you might find to be the best companion in your home," Weitzman says.

In the commentary he does for the Westminster and other nationally televised dog shows, Frei is often quick to point out certain breeds that may be less appropriate for the first-time dog owner. For many of those dogs, "you have to be strong enough to establish yourself as the alpha dog; you have to be in charge of the relationship," he says. "If you're not strong enough to do that, then don't get a dog that's bullheaded and stubborn and insists on being in charge."

Many herding breeds, for instance, including border collies, Australian shepherds, and corgis, are highly intelligent, but "they are so used to doing their thing, especially over vast expanses of pasture and herding land, that they're used to doing it without a lot of direction," and that can make them difficult for a novice dog owner to direct, Frei says.

Hounds, on the other hand, like Uno, the beagle who won Best in Show at this year's Westminster Dog Show, are affectionate and friendly family dogs. But off the leash, he says, if they get a scent, "they put their nose to the ground and you're getting the hindsight view of them quite often as they're running down the hallway or, worse, running down the street. That's I think the biggest consideration with a beagle, or a lot of hounds like that."

'Meet Your Match'

At the Washington Animal Rescue League, where roughly half the dogs up for adoption are purebreds, the staff uses a novel program called "meet your match" that ranks dogs by color to denote personality and activity level. They can range from purple "couch potatoes" that just want to get cozy to a green "life of the party" that wants to fetch a tennis ball nonstop for two hours a day.

Even if you're getting a mixed breed from a shelter, knowing the characteristics of the breeds that went into the mix can tell you something about that dog's likely personality.

Weitzman, the executive director of the league, says that no matter where you get your dog, the most important thing "is that you get one from people who can help you along that path and show you what's in that breed and what challenges you might be faced with and how best you can work that dog into your family."

For the first family, says Frei, there are a few more considerations. "As we've seen with dogs in the White House, they're part of the greeting program that goes on there when somebody comes to town." Because of that, he says, "You want to have a dog whose temperament and personality can put up with a lot of activity, with strange people hanging around, and be a part of the family in spite of all those things."

"After all," he says. "This is going to be America's dog for the next four or eight years."

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