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Obamas settle on first dog? Not so fast

WASHINGTON - After months of speculation, it appeared today that the selection of a first dog was at hand. People magazine, in a report on its website, said that First Lady Michelle Obama had narrowed the family's choice to a rescued Portuguese water dog.

The first dog arrives in April, she said.

"You're getting some scoops here," the first lady told People in the magazine's upcoming cover story. "The only thing still up in the air is the name."

But is People barking up the wrong tree?

The first lady's press secretary, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, threw cold water on the report today, saying that a decision on the breed of dog had not been made.

"They have not selected a breed," Lelyveld said. "Mrs. Obama likes the Portuguese water dog, but she is only one of four votes."

"Their primary focus now is that they get a dog that works with their lifestyle," Lelyveld said.

President Obama had said in an earlier interview that the family had narrowed its search to the water dog or a Labradoodle, which is not an American Kennel Club-recognized breed, but a cross between a Labrador retriever and a standard poodle.

If the Obamas do decide on a Portuguese water dog, the breed could be a difficult choice for a family in the White House, particularly one that is new to dog ownership, said Mary Harkins, coordinator of rescue and relocation for the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America.

A very active breed, some Portuguese water dogs "are without an 'off' switch; they just go all day," Harkins said. "It might be a little bit too much for a family who has never owned a dog before, especially this family."

The primary reason that Portuguese water dogs are surrendered to rescue groups is that owners who bought them as puppies didn't realize their prodigious activity levels, she said.

Intelligent with strong swimming skills, the dogs historically worked with Portuguese fishermen, diving underwater and herding fish into nets.

The AKC describes the relatively obscure breed as providing an "indelible impression of strength, spirit and soundness."

Finding a rescue pup may be tough: Last year, only five water dogs were rescued, she said, and she already has a long waiting list.

"It's pretty difficult," Harkins said. "We're not that big of a breed that we would see a lot of dogs."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) owns two Portuguese water dogs, Sunny and Splash, and has lobbied hard for the breed, even championing them to the first lady and her daughters at Obama's inauguration.

Like the Portuguese water dog, the Labradoodle, which was introduced in the 1980s in Australia, is hypoallergenic. Upon learning the Obamas were considering one for the White House, the AKC put out a report in early January from the Poodle Club of America voicing concerns about the trend of "designer dogs."

Fred Kampo, vice president of the Labrador Retriever Club, agrees. "Some breeders breed to improve a breed, while others do it for profit," he said.

" 'Doodle' breeders hype them as the ideal dog, but every dog in a litter of mixed-breed pups is different," he explained. "There is no predictability in size, temperament, energy level [or] coat type, so selling them for thousands of dollars to an unsuspecting public as so-called 'designer dogs,' often at prices higher than what a reputable breeder of purebred dogs would charge, makes no sense."

For his part, the president has refrained from settling the issue -- at least publicly.

"This is a major issue," Obama deadpanned at his first news conference as president-elect in November, noting that two factors had to be reconciled: the desires for a hypoallergenic pet and for a shelter dog.

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

rcole@tribune.com

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