Obama dog faces tough job requirements

WASHINGTON – It's not always a dog's life being a White House pet.

Sure, you get to cruise around in the presidential limo, but seldom can you stick your nose out to sniff the breeze. One chewing spree in the wrong room and you're in the doghouse for wrecking a national treasure.

The way everyone wants your attention, you'd think they elected you, too. You're supposed to act with decorum, no matter how pushy people are or what kind of mood you're in. Go a little loopy and you might get exiled to the ranch, like one of Ronald and Nancy Reagan's dogs. Get a little nippy like President George W. Bush's Barney and the meltdown footage is sure to hit the Internet.

Still, experts say President-elect Barack Obama and his family can find a pooch well-suited to the White House. The important thing is to realize there's no perfect dog — only the perfect dog for them. That means casting aside worry about offending anyone and searching for a dog that fits the job requirements.

"It's not the breed, and it's not even so much where it's from," said Patricia McConnell, an animal behaviorist and host of Wisconsin Public Radio's "Calling All Pets." What's important, she said, is that the Obamas set a good example by "picking a dog based on its behavioral as well as its physical health, from a credible, responsible place."

The search can take weeks or even months. McConnell and other experts advise a deliberate approach, avoiding impulsive decisions. A cuddly puppy with a red bow around its neck makes a cute Christmas gift, but soon the baby fat disappears and the new owners realize a dog is a lot of work, especially one ill-suited to their lifestyle.

Debate about the ideal Obama dog has become a hot topic for canine enthusiasts.

The search is complicated by daughter Malia's allergies. Depending on the severity of the allergies, the family may need to consider only dogs with little or no shedding — or give up the idea of a dog altogether.

Allergy concerns would rule out the breed chosen by Vice President-elect Joe Biden: the German shepherd, which sheds. Biden has selected a male pup that will live with him and his wife Jill at the vice presidential residence, the Naval Observatory. The pup's breeder is housebreaking it, but Biden plans to handle other training himself, spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander said Friday.

Biden previously owned three other German shepherds, "so he's familiar with the breed and its personality," Alexander said. "He's excited to bring it home when it gets a little older and has promised that his grandchildren can name it after the New Year."

Allergies are just one consideration, said Cesar Millan, host of the National Geographic Channel program "The Dog Whisperer" and co-founder with his wife of a nonprofit foundation to help abused and abandoned dogs.

Another key question is how energetic a dog the Obamas want. Millan suggests a medium-energy dog would be just right. As a busy family, the Obamas may not have time to give a high-energy dog enough exercise, yet they also need a pet they can play with, ruling out a couch potato, he said.

Also, medium-energy dogs tend to be natural followers rather than pack leaders, making them easier for inexperienced dog owners like the Obamas to handle, Millan said. Such dogs tend to be more easygoing and less affected by rookie training mistakes.

"Since this is a brand new family raising a dog or rescuing a dog, the dog definitely is going to pick up on that," said Millan, who hopes to do an episode with the Obamas. "The dog doesn't know or is not going to know that he's going to live in the White House, that Mr. Obama is now the president of the United States. What he's going to know is how much common sense this family has" about dogs.

It's also important for a White House dog to be highly trainable, naturally sociable and robust enough not to get trampled in all the hustle and bustle. After it arrives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., it is important that the dog get regular exercise, obedience training and socialization — methodical exposure to a variety of people, other dogs and situations, to help it take life in stride.

"You have to socialize the dog," said dog expert Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and author of "The Modern Dog." "But the dog also has to have his own place to go." It would be wise to set up several crates to which the dog can retreat when it needs a quiet place, he said.

One way the Obamas could stack the deck in their favor would be by selecting a breed generally known to have traits they want, then working with a reputable breeder.

Temperament trumps cuteness when picking a puppy, says Jack Volhard of Culpeper, Va., a professional dog trainer and co-author of "Dog Training for Dummies." He advises spending time with a litter when it's seven to eight weeks old. "Which puppies come to the children, are they relatively calm, are they not too excited about the process?"

The Obamas also should work with a breeder who will take the dog back if it doesn't work out, Volhard said.

The couple has said they'd like to get a dog from a pound or a breed rescue organization. That can be risky. Such dogs often have unknown histories and issues ranging from a lack of housebreaking to shyness or aggression.

And it can take days, weeks or even months for problem behavior to emerge. It may require careful management and long-term rehabilitation. Not every dog is cut out for the Oval Office.

If the Obamas are determined to adopt from a shelter or rescue group, they should have a professional help them choose, said Brother Christopher Savage, head trainer in the Monks of New Skete's dog board-and-train program in Cambridge, N.Y. "You can get a wonderful dog from a shelter, and it's a wonderful thing, but you have to really be going in with your eyes open," Savage said.

White House life can be demanding for a dog. People are always coming and going, many eager to schmooze. One of Bush's two Scottish terriers, Barney, is famous with children nationwide for his "Barneycam" holiday Web videos, but more recently he popped up in a clip on YouTube nipping a reporter who persisted in trying to get his attention. The Reagans' Bouvier des Flandres, a large, energetic dog named Lucky, was moved to their California ranch after becoming too rambunctious.

Whatever choice the Obamas make, it could set off a national scramble for such dogs, like the frenzy for Dalmatians after the release of the Disney movie "101 Dalmatians."

Trendiness usually isn't good for dogs. It can lead to ill-bred, poorly treated dogs as entrepreneurs scramble to churn puppies out before public interest fades. Shelters are full of young dogs discarded after the novelty wore off.

"Pick the right dog for you," Millan said. "Make a decision, a psychological decision, and then fall in love."

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Sharon Theimer is the owner of — or more accurately, is owned by — two Australian shepherds, Kanga and Baxter.


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