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Portuguese water dog owners fear Obama effect

It's nothing against the Obamas. But some Portuguese water dog owners aren't thrilled the breed is a front-runner for the first family, worrying that fickle owners will adopt and then abandon the now-trendy pet.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's nothing against the Obamas. But some Portuguese water dog owners aren't thrilled the breed is a front-runner for the first family.

The choice could mean a spike in the dogs' popularity — and that could mean a rise in shady breeders and fickle owners who don't understand the dogs and eventually abandon them, owners of Portuguese water dogs say.

"There's always the danger of something like that," said Stu Freeman, president of the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America. "It's '101 Dalmatians' syndrome."

After that movie came out, "everyone thought, 'aren't they cute,'" ran out and bought the dogs and found out they were not quite as adorable as the ones in the movie, Freeman said.

First lady Michelle Obama told People magazine that the family is looking to rescue a Portuguese water dog in April, though her press secretary said Thursday that the decision isn't final. President Barack Obama had also mentioned a Labradoodle as an appealing choice.

"Obviously they have their favorites that the president and first lady have outlined before — with of course the Portuguese water dog being a top contender — but there hasn't been a selection yet," Katie McCormick Lelyveld said.

Portuguese water dogs were bred centuries ago to help fishermen along the Portugal coast, working as couriers, retrieving nets and diving for fish.

Even before the Obamas, the dogs' star was rising — Sen. Ted Kennedy has two.

All the presidents’ pets

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All the presidents’ pets

Harry Truman said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Plenty of presidents did, and other pets besides.

In 1998, the breed ranked 82nd in popularity, according to American Kennel Club registration statistics. Ten years later, they were ranked 62nd.

Elena Gretch, a dog trainer and owner of two Portuguese water dogs, attributes some of that to the fact that the dog is good for allergy sufferers. Malia Obama, 10, has allergies.

Michelle Obama also praised the dogs' personality and size in the People magazine interview.

"Temperamentally they're supposed to be pretty good," Mrs. Obama said. "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."

Gretch worries that if the Obamas choose the breed, puppy mills will sprout up. The dogs cost $1,800 to $2,500 and aren't as common as other popular breeds. They're prone to hip dysplasia, so finding a good breeder is important, she said, and the dogs don't often end up in shelters for adoption.

The dogs also require a lot of attention, grooming and outdoor exercise. "It's agile, it's a great swimmer, it loves to be outdoors," said Gretch, founder of the pet care and training service It's A Dog's Life in New York City.

But Portuguese water dogs are usually not great for first time dog owners, said Freeman, because it takes experience to train them.

"These are dogs that if you don't keep them busy, they will be busy and do something you don't want them to do," he said.

Steve Brooks, a dog trainer who works with celebrities, said he's already training more Labradors, which may be the result of "Marley & Me."

After "101 Dalmatians," the shelter where Daphna Nachminovitch worked was flooded with Dalmatians. Parents broke down and bought the puppies, she said. As the puppies got older and harder to manage, the kids lost interest and the dogs ended up in shelters.

The Obamas have said they plan to adopt from a shelter, something Nachminovitch, now vice president of cruelty investigations for PETA, hopes others will keep in mind.

"With the way the economy is now, animal shelters are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of abandoned animals. It's certainly not a time to make more dogs," she said. "We have plenty of dogs in animal shelters who need a home."