Obamas run the gauntlet of choosing a puppy

The HeraldNovember 14, 2008 

Don't get a Jack Russell terrier!

That would be the heartfelt advice I'd give the Obamas as they puzzle over the selection of a family dog. Barack Obama promised his girls, Malia and Sasha, that, if he won the presidency, they could have a puppy.

He etched that promise in stone on the night of Nov. 4. Speaking before thousands of people in Chicago's Grant Park and billions of others worldwide, he addressed his two daughters: "I love you both more than you can imagine. You've earned the new puppy that is coming with us to the White House."

Too many witnesses to back out now.

Since then, the attention of the world has focused on the all-important choice -- not who Obama will tap to be the next secretary of the Treasury but which lucky dog will be elevated to the position of First Pooch.

As noted, I would recommend against a Jack Russell. While I dearly love Jack Russells and lived with one for more than 15 years, there are reasons dogs of this breed shouldn't be invited to live at the White House.

For one, Malia, 10, the older daughter, has allergies, and that requires getting what her father referred to as a "hypoallergenic" dog. That would be a dog that doesn't shed a lot or produce much dog dander.

As fans of Jack Russells are well aware, they shed blizzards of tiny white hairs that become impregnated in every surface in the house. Dignitaries visiting the White House would have to be routinely vacuumed before they left.

Jack Russells also can be feisty. The Obamas probably don't want a puppy that might pull down the drapes or chew up the carpet, dig holes in the Rose Garden, jump up on the German defense minister or shred the hose of the Queen of Belgium. They probably want something a bit more placid.

The Obamas also must decide whether to buy a purebred dog or a mutt. The scolds from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, by the way, have declared that buying a purebred dog would be "elitist."

Obama, who may have had enough of being tagged with that label, seems to be aiming for a happy medium. The family is said to be considering a "goldendoodle," a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle, which has the poodle's low-dander coat. And they might be able to get one from a rescue organization that finds homes for unwanted dogs, which should satisfy all the anti-elitists out there.

For the Obamas, of course, choosing a dog is a more serious undertaking than it is for most families. They not only have to find a dog they like, but also one that is acceptable to the millions of Americans who are eagerly waiting to render their judgment on the First Mutt.

That probably means no eccentric dogs -- like those hairless things from China -- no boutique or high-maintenance dogs, no killer attack dogs, no dogs that are too big and no Jack Russells. A goldendoodle -- or even a poodle, one without all the fussy grooming -- might be just right.

But whichever dog the new first family chooses, it has a shot at fame. While some first pets are easily forgotten, others have become closely associated with their owners.

Go to the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial in Washington, for example, and you'll find an oversized statue of Fala, FDR's beloved Scottish terrier.

Checkers, the springer spaniel, will be forever tied to Richard Nixon, who used his dog to save his political hide in the infamous "Checkers Speech." Checkers, alas, was not around for Watergate.

Lyndon Johnson's beagles, Him and Her, enjoyed a moment of infamy during his administration. The president, surrounded by photographers, claimed the dogs liked to be picked up by their ears, and proceeded to demonstrate, causing the dogs to howl in pain. After the pictures were published, Johnson was rebuked by infuriated dog lovers nationwide.

We came to know George W. Bush's two Scotties, Barney and Miss Beazley, from their guided video tours of the White House. And the Clintons' cat, Socks, wrote a book.

The fate of the Clintons' pets, however, illustrates what can await them when they no longer are needed to serve as presidential props. When the Clintons left the White House, Socks was handed off to Clinton's secretary.

Buddy, a chocolate Lab and a later arrival at the White House, was run over by a car near the Clinton home in Chappaqua, N.Y. He probably was chasing a squirrel.

Oh, and that's another reason the Obamas shouldn't get a Jack Russell.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by e-mail, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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