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Portuguese Water Dogs & Pit Bulls: The Politics of the President’s Pets

Anything that President Obama does is news, which goes with the Leader of the Free World territory. And when the President does something warm and fuzzy, like getting a pet for his family — as opposed, say, to making recess appointments of agency heads —  more sections of the blogosphere than just the usual political ones pay attention.

Bo and Sunny

Bo and Sunny, First Dogs (actually, first and second First Dogs)

The official announcement on the White House blog on August 19 read:

Today the Obamas welcomed the newest member of their family – a little girl (puppy) named Sunny!

Sunny was born in Michigan in June 2012, and arrived at the White House today. Just like Bo, she’s a Portuguese Water Dog, which works great for the Obamas because of allergies in their family.

Sunny is the perfect little sister for Bo – full of energy and very affectionate – and the First Family picked her name because it fit her cheerful personality.

In honor of Sunny, the Obamas are making a donation to the Washington Humane Society.

Lots of people had something to say about this.

Normal people’s reactions

Here is the typical normal pet lover’s reaction to the following film, released by the White House along with the article:

Awww!! She’s so cute! She plays so well with Bo, who was lonely for doggie company before Sunny came along. It’s nice that the family got a breed that Melia, who has allergies, could enjoy. It’s nice that the Obamas donated money to a shelter.

Awwww!! Ooooh!

Reasonable and useful reactions from the pet community

This is a teachable moment. The Daily Beast had a sensible article by a veterinarian that includes information about whether you should get a second dog, introducing the second dog to the first dog, etc.

All good things to know.

Well intended but misguided reactions from the pet community

A piece from the Christian Science Monitor, titled New White House pup Sunny: Why not a rescue dog? is typical of the reactions of the “should have adopted” community. After a feel-good introduction, so as not to antagonize everyone who had the above-mentioned “awwww” reaction, such pieces cite a well-known figure in the animal welfare community to make the case.

Cue Wayne Pacelle, director of the Humane Society of the United States:

[Pacelle]  noted on his blog Tuesday that the Obamas made little reference to exactly where Sunny came from, other than to note that it’s the Great Lakes State.

But given her pure-bred status, it’s unlikely that Sunny came from a rescue organization or a shelter. [emphasis mine, and not sourced to Pacelle]

“As we always say in such circumstances, we hope the Obamas considered adoption or rescue as the first choice in obtaining a pet,” wrote Mr. Pacelle.

Like all the other should-have-rescued articles I came across, this one misrepresents or ignores one bit of important information: That about 25% of dogs in shelters are purebred.  There is a breed rescue for Portuguese water dogs, as there is for most breeds.

The fact is, the Obamas went through a reputable breeder for both Bo and Sunny. If they had ordered Sunny over the internet or bought her at a pet store, the pet community would have something to squawk about. But reputable breeders play an essential role in the world of animal lovers. It would be a good thing to emphasize that more, and scold less.

Off-the-wall reactions from the pet community (or an ostensible member)

Yes, pit bulls can be sweethearts

Yes, pit bulls can be sweethearts

This article from Salon.com titled Another Portuguese Water Dog? The Obamas Should Have Made A Different Statement is likely just link/click bait because it is both ill-informed and wildly off kilter. It starts:

Bo Obama, America’s first dog, has a new playmate named Sunny and the first family is getting criticized for not adopting a mutt from the animal shelter. If the Obamas had gone to their local shelter, the Washington Humane Society, they wouldn’t have found a purebred Portuguese water dog. Instead, they might have come home with a pit bull — and that would have been a good thing.

There are three problems right off the bat.

  • The link in “the first family is getting criticized” clause directs us to PETA. A writer who knew anything about animal welfare would know that criticism from PETA means diddly squat — and especially in the context of an article related to pit bulls. PETA advocates that all pit bulls that turn up in shelters be put down.
  • What part of “the Obamas need a certain breed of dog because Melia has allergies” doesn’t the author understand?
  • As I noted above, 25% of dogs in shelters are purebred. You cannot say with authority that the Obamas would not have found a purebred Portuguese water dog at the Washington Humane Society.

I have written often here about how pit bulls are unfairly demonized. But bringing a rescued one into the White House is a ludicrous idea, for many reasons; they are detailed in the 300 plus comments that this piece drew. I couldn’t have summed it up better, however, than commenter “Schmoopi”:

You are fucking kidding me, right?  You want the president who can’t do anything without it being made political and a “Black thing”… to adopt a dog that is the stereotyped official dog breed of the ‘hood?…

I like pits. They are a much maligned breed. They are naturally sweet-natured, loyal and affectionate….Pitbulls are also heavily abused and over bred by idiots…. Nevertheless, I find the suggestion that my President, our first Black president, a man who spends every day being “nibbled to death by ducks,” should deliberately do something that would enable the racist trolls of our country to hit new heights of asshattery to be the dumbest thing I have heard all summer.

This leads me to…

Bat-shit crazy political reactions

The supposition that the name Sunny was chosen because it’s close to Sunni, the sect of Islam to which Obama purportedly belongs, may be a joke, but the observation made by the right wing Daily Caller wasn’t:

With the addition of Sunny, the Obamas now have two black Portuguese water dogs.

The Obamas do not have any white dogs.

For more about how diabolical the decision to get Sunny was, see  Atlantic.com’s Best Conspiracy Theories About the Obamas’ New Dog, Sunny.

Boring but important political pet news that got lost in the Sunny fuss

While the President was busy not adopting a pit bull, he was actually doing something much more important. The White House responded to a petition asking it to “Ban and outlaw Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) in the United States of America on a Federal level!” with the following statement:

We don’t support breed-specific legislation — research shows that bans on certain types of dogs are largely ineffective and often a waste of public resources.

In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at twenty years of data about dog bites and human fatalities in the United States. They found that fatal attacks represent a very small proportion of dog bite injuries to people and that it’s virtually impossible to calculate bite rates for specific breeds.

The CDC also noted that the types of people who look to exploit dogs aren’t deterred by breed regulations — when their communities establish a ban, these people just seek out new, unregulated breeds. And the simple fact is that dogs of any breed can become dangerous when they’re intentionally or unintentionally raised to be aggressive.

For all those reasons, the CDC officially recommends against breed-specific legislation — which they call inappropriate. You can read more from them here.

As an alternative to breed-specific policies, the CDC recommends a community-based approach to prevent dog bites. And ultimately, we think that’s a much more promising way to build stronger communities of pets and pet owners.

That’s a far better use of the President’s bully pulpit — pun intended — than making the family dog into a political statement rather than a pet.

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16 Comments

  1. Posted August 26, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the wrap-up, as I deliberately stayed away from the news the presidential family got another dog, as I expected it to be a magnet to anyone with an agenda as an opportunity they couldn’t resist to twist and tweak the story to further their own message. And like you say, the statement against BSL was the actual and only real news item coming out of the White House – about dogs – and … it even reached little Denmark, awesome!

    btw, did you tip the Daily Show on the “obama family doesn’t have a white dog”?, that’s Jon Stewart material.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted August 26, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Glad to provide a public service — but even more glad that the BSL statement from the White House made it to Denmark.

      Jon Stewart is still on vacation, but he’s a real dog lover, so I’ll bet his staff is on top of the story. It is perfect Daily Show material, isn’t it? Let’s hope he covers it when he returns.

  2. Rebecca Boren
    Posted August 26, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    In Daily Caller world, we will note that Bo has substantial white markings. Apparently, that makes him a black dog. I love Sunny and Bo playing together. I just wish rescue community had given First Family credit for adopting a young adult dog, as opposed to a puppy. One is an age when shelter turn-ins spike.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted August 26, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      In Daily Caller world, President Obama hates white people and does not have a white mother. Good point about Sunny’s age. The rescue community was apparently not in the mood to give President Obama credit for anything.

  3. Clare
    Posted August 26, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Thanks for a fun read. All I thought was, “Awwwww,” and, “Are you fuckin’ kidding me????”. The dogs are cute together (aww); the yakking about what kind of dog, from whence it came, and its color are white [sic] noise (kidding me).

    Wish I could contribute something to enlarge the topic (good point, Rebecca), but it makes no damn difference what kind of dog the president gets (yes, it make make a statement about him, may spike popularity of Portuguese water dogs for awhile, but really doesn’t change our lives). The banning of BSL is important, will change lives, and I congratulate you on giving us that focus.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted August 26, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Blame — or thank — Facebook for this. I kept coming across these weird reactions and I started ranting there. If only I had a more permanent forum, I thought… and then Oh wait, I have a dog blog again!

  4. Posted August 26, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Very well researched and articulated post which convinced me, for the first time, not to have a knee-jerk reaction every time I see a pure-bred. In fact I recently learned that my friends who have have some dough and have Newfoundlands – that the dogs were former show dogs – and which cost a small fortune to feed – they weigh about 180 lbs each.

    my website address doesn’t seem to fit above, it is:
    http://www.examiner.com/judaism-in-albuquerque/diane-schmidt

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted August 26, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Diane. I’m glad I made a convert! If we didn’t have healthy purebreds, a lot would be lost. Re: the Newfies — yikes! I can’t even imagine having a 180 lb dog.

  5. Posted August 26, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I just… I mean… I guess… sigh….

    Excellent job breaking the discussion down into its parts. I’ve been following the conversation and haven’t been able to form a coherent response. I applaud the White House for the thoughtful response regarding BSL. As for the rest, I have nothing articulate to contribute to the discussion. Just a general WHA?!?!?

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted August 26, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Maggie (and for the useful pitbull/PETA rundown). Yep, WHA?! was my response too — plus a sense of deja vu. Didn’t we go through this before — except without the pit bull/anti BSL statement as bookends?

  6. Posted August 26, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Leo. I deliberately stayed away from all information about the First Family’s new dog and made no mention of it anywhere. But I was thrilled to share the CDC statement recommending against BSL.

    Thank you for throwing yourself into the bat shit world of dog adoption second guessing so I didn’t have to. 🙂

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted August 26, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      What can I say? I’m a political junkie, and when there are dogs involved in the politics, it’s like crack! I’m happy to provide a service to those like you and Leo who (understandably) want to steer clear, to put my addiction to good use.

  7. Posted August 28, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Edie! What more can I say? Thank you 😉

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted August 28, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Deborah!

  8. Posted August 29, 2013 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    Notice how the past few presidents, Bush 1 & 2 and Clinton, who bought a puppy while he was in office, didn’t get this kind of scrutiny. The Obama’s are nitpicked to death over the stupidest crap in their personal lives. They got a dog. That’s nice. Get on with it.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted August 29, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      Yep. And note that Barney, Bush’s dog was all black…

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