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Obamas' pet preference gives some pause

Portuguese water dogs, bred to work with fishermen and known for their high energy, are notoriously hard to handle. Portuguese water dogs, bred to work with fishermen and known for their high energy, are notoriously hard to handle. (Mary Altaffer/ Associated Press)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / February 26, 2009
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President Obama hasn't even filled his Cabinet. And yet now it appears the first family is ready to move ahead and fill at least one key vacancy in the White House.

In an interview with People magazine, Michelle Obama revealed that the long search for a family dog - unveiled to the world during her husband's victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park more than three months ago - is finally nearing an end. She told the magazine that daughters Sasha and Malia will get their promised pooch in April, after spring break, and they are planning to adopt a Portuguese water dog from a shelter.

The news sparked cheers from lovers of the breed but also waves of worry about whether the Obamas are ready for the challenge. Bounding with energy and sometimes mischievous, the dogs were originally bred for their strong swimming skills by Portuguese fishermen, who would send them diving overboard for nets and buoys. They are notoriously hard to handle.

"They're really good at opening refrigerators and cabinets and, so, thank God the White House has staff to take care of things," said Janet Boyd, an "Obama fan" from Snohomish, Wash., who owns three Portuguese water dogs and is active in the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America. "I don't think they're an easy dog and that's why I have a little hesitation - and hope for the best."

Steve McNelly, who lives in Lisbon, Maine, and owns three of the dogs, was also of two minds about the presidential pet. "I think it's great they're getting one," he said. "We just worry about the celebrity part of it. Everybody's going to want one, and there's only so many out there."

US Senator Edward M. Kennedy is by far the nation's most prominent owner of the breed. His three dogs - Splash, Sunny, and Cappy - often romp by his side in Hyannis Port and on Capitol Hill. A close ally of the new administration, Kennedy was almost certainly lobbying for the robust breed. "We love our Portuguese water dogs, and if the first family decides to go in that direction, we know they'll fall in love, too," he said in a statement yesterday. "And Splash, Sunny, and Cappy look forward to welcoming the new first dog to Washington."

Yesterday, breed owners accustomed to the reflected spotlight from the Kennedy dogs were steeling themselves for even more attention with the prospect of a more prominent owner in the White House.

"They've gotten a lot of exposure from Senator Kennedy, so, excited? It's probably not the right word," said Debi Vaccaro of Harvard, a breeder and owner of Portuguese water dogs. "If it's the right dog for them, I'm sure they'll be happy with them." But she added: "Extra exposure makes people think that it's the perfect dog, and there's no such thing. They're not an easy dog for a first-time dog owner."

Michelle Obama had said months ago that the family was thinking about adopting a Portuguese water dog or a labradoodle, because Malia has allergies and both breeds are considered hypoallergenic. The Portuguese water dog apparently prevailed.

"Temperamentally, they're supposed to be pretty good," Michelle Obama said in the issue hitting newsstands tomorrow. "From the size perspective, they're sort of middle of the road - it's not small, but it's not a huge dog. And the folks that we know who own them have raved about them. So that's where we're leaning."

The remarks immediately reverberated in kennel clubs nationwide. "It's like the biggest thing in the dog world now," said Christina Duffney, director of public relations at the American Kennel Club, which was flooded with inquiries about the breed.

Michelle Obama said her daughters had suggested a few names - Frank and Moose - that were not winning favor with her. "Moose," she said. "I'm like, no, come on, let's work with the names a little bit."

The dog ranked 62d in popularity among the 161 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. "People tend to mistakenly put them in the soft, cushy, teddy-bear category of dog because of the way they look, but they are very much working dogs," Boyd said. "They need a job. They're not a very good lay-by-your-side sort of pet."

The American Kennel Club, however, was confident the dog would be a perfect fit for the Obamas. "I think the dog will thrive on meeting a lot of different people and traveling and going here, there, and everywhere," said Lisa Peterson, a club spokeswoman. She added: "It's an ideal pet for the first family."

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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