Obama: New Pooch Needs to Be Allergy-Friendly and, Hopefully, From a Shelter

Obama confirms dog must be hypoallergenic and, hopefully, a shelter pup.

November 5, 2008, 5:49 PM

Nov. 7, 2008— -- Joking that the topic of his daughters' puppy-to-be has garnered as much attention as anything else since Election Day, Barack Obama described the family's selection process today at his first news conference as president-elect.

Between addressing his plans for the economy and his transition to the White House, Obama noted that whatever dog they get will have to be hypoallergenic so as not to aggravate daughter Malia's allergies.

He also confirmed that the family's intention is to adopt a dog from a shelter, although Malia's medical concerns may preclude that.

"But, obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts, like me," Obama said. "So, whether we're going to be able to balance those two things, I think, is a pressing issue on the Obama household."

Obama was minutes into his acceptance speech Tuesday when he vowed to make good on his campaign promise to get his daughters a dog.

Now it seems everyone has an opinion on what kind of pooch the Obamas should get and where they should get it.

It's a big decision. Many White House dogs -- most presidents have had at least one -- become celebrities in their own rights.

With the help of former first lady Barbara Bush, President George H.W. Bush's springer spaniel, Millie, wrote her own best-selling book on daily goings-on at the White House.

And the public fawned over pictures of the Clintons' lively chocolate Labrador retriever Buddy, pet followers grieved over the dog's death in 2002, when Buddy was hit by a car near the former first couple's New York home.

Some White House dogs are much more than just pets. In many cases, the presidential pet helps shape the president's image with the public.

Stanley Coren, author of "The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events," has extensively researched the role of White House dogs and said presidents and their families have used dogs for everything from companions to sounding boards to publicity props.

Both Bush presidents are "very doggy people," Coren said. "They bring their dogs with them everywhere."

The first President Bush even installed dog-treat dispensing gumball-type machines at Camp David so his dogs were never more than 50 to 60 feet away from a snack. Likewise, the younger Bush often travels with his dogs.

But for all Buddy's fans, the Clinton dog was intended only as a prop, Coren said, to enhance the image of the family, pre-Monica Lewinsky scandal, after Chelsea Clinton left for college. The Labrador retriever was picked in 1997 because it was the most popular family dog and the chocolate variety was selected, he said, because black Labs don't photograph well and yellow Labs were thought to be so beautiful that they might have distracted photographers from the Clintons themselves.

Messages left with Clinton spokespeople were not returned.

"For some people in the White House, dogs are nothing more than a symbol," Coren said, noting that Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Herbert Hoover used dogs as campaign tools to appeal to the common man.

Picking the Obama Dog

But while the Bush and Clinton canines were intended, one way or another, to be companions for the president, the Obama family dog will belong to his young daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.

"What he really needs is a sucky-face dog," Coren said. "A dog that comes up and kisses everyone."

ABCNews.com readers had no shortage of suggestions for the Obamas: Australian Shepherds, bulldogs, salukis, beagles, Chihuahuas, mixed breed shelter dogs -- and a pitbull named "Lipstick," as a nod to GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

"I think since this is going to be the pet of young girls, the girls should select the dog that 'selects' them. This is THEIR pet," one reader wrote. "I would like to see it come from a shelter, but that has to be their decision. This is a decision that they and their parents need to make without input from anyone."

A "sucky face" kind of dog, Coren said, would not only make a great playmate for the Obama girls, it would project a sense of friendliness and would be less likely to cause Obama trouble.

Coren, whose new book "The Modern Dog: A Joyful Exploration of How We Live With Dogs Today," out next month, said some presidential dogs have been less than mannerly.

President Ronald Reagan's Bouvier Des Flandres, Lucky, was exiled to the family ranch after it nipped him hard in the behind trying to "herd" the president across the lawn. Rex, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, took Lucky's place at the White House.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's Scottish terrier once bit a reporter in the nose and Bush's Barney bit a Reuters TV reporter this week, breaking the skin on his finger and sending the reporter to the White House doctor.

While the Obamas have pledged to choose their own dog, most presidential dogs are gifts or were the presidents' pets before they moved into the White House, according to Claire McLean, founder of the Presidential Pet Museum.

President George W. Bush's two Scottish terriers were gifts to the family -- Barney from former New Jersey governor and White House cabinet member Christine Todd Whitman, and Miss Beazley from a breeder. The family's other dog, Spot, passed away shortly after Bush took office and, as one of Millie's puppies, was the only second-generation White House dog in U.S. history, according to the Presidential Pet Museum's Web site.

President Harry Truman received a cocker spaniel named Feller as a gift in 1947, but returned it shortly after deciding that he didn't want a dog in the White House.

"The public was irate," McLean said. "It was all over the media."

Even though Truman had a notorious dislike for dogs, Coren said he hit the nail on the head when he uttered the words, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Amy Carter's dog Grits, a gift from her teacher, was also returned.

All Eyes on the Obamas

"It's really a very highly fascinating topic," McLean said of the Obama puppy-to-be. "Everybody wants to give them their puppy."

Michelle Obama has said that the Obamas would adopt their dog rather than purchase one from a breeder or pet store, a move praised by animal rights groups.

Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, said the Obamas' selection of a White House dog will be closely watched.

Adopting a dog from a shelter, adoption group or breed rescue "sends a strong message to other Americans that rescuing a dog in need of a home is a good choice," Markarian said.

Many Americans don't realize, he said, that dogs in pet stores originate in abusive puppy mills where dogs are stacked in cramped cages.

There are plenty of puppies up for adoption across the country in nearly any breed or mix they could imagine, Markarian said. It has been rumored the Obamas are looking at a mixed breed, designer dog that wouldn't aggravate oldest daughter Malia's reported allergies.

Like any family choosing their first pet, Markarian said the Obamas should consider what kind of dog would fit best with their family's personality and activity level.

"Will the dog be traveling on Air Force One?" Markarian asked. "What types of places will they be visiting with the dog?"

Markarian said the dog would likely have to be a hardy dog that doesn't frighten easily and is comfortable around children and throngs of people.

Another ABCNews.com reader suggested Obama give an underdog a chance just like voters gave him.

"On Tuesday the American people spoke very loudly. They did not look at the color of the man -- they chose a man based on what he believed in and what he represented," the reader wrote. "I truly believe that 'pound puppies' have lived with stigma for long enough and that is the way that they should go."