At some point yesterday my site meter went berserk. I checked the "referrals" section and saw dozens of hits that had "portuguese water dog" in them. Ah hah, I thought, Progress and Change. And sure enough, it appears that there is, at last, a First Dog. Bo, nee Charlie, the Portuguese water dog puppy, will be joining the Obamas at the White House this week. You can see him on the left, wearing a welcome lei and enjoying a First Pat. He is striking a typical PWD pose: as Barack strokes him, Bo is pressing up into the extended hand. Had the photograph been taken a bit later, Bo would be seen edging closer to lean against the President's leg, and finally, collapsing onto his shoes with his body pressed up against the First Shins.
As the Obamas will soon learn, full body contact is the position of choice for a PWD. One breeder said to me, "If you require a lot of personal space? Not the dog for you."
Already I have seen comments criticizing the Obamas for not getting a shelter dog and instead getting a dog from a breeder. To those people I say, give me a break. First of all, like many Portuguese Water Dogs, Bo was returned to the breeder from an original owner who could not handle his feisty ways (more on this below.) So although he wasn't rescued from a kill pen, it is only the breeder's thoughtfulness and professionalism, and care in choosing responsible homes, that kept him from being dumped anonymously. PWD breeders, knowing how difficult their dogs can be for many people who expect all pets to be passive, decorative and compliant, check out homes very carefully. All good breeders stress their desire to have a dog returned if the home doesn't work out: it's usually part of the contract of sale. And yet, a full sister of my own darling dog was dropped off anonymously at an animal shelter in Massachusetts by people who didn't have the patience, or perhaps the time, to train her. Only the microchip our breeder had paid to have installed in her shoulder led to her safe return.
Ironically, although the Obama campaign sought my opinion relentlessly for eighteen months, they are not asking for it at the precise moment that I have copious amounts of advice to offer. But since the one thing that nosy Americans are unable to do is restrain themselves from offering unsolicited advice about other people's children and pets, not only am I going to resist addressing the Obama family directly, I am going to confess that they are not my main concern. They, after all, have a staff -- perhaps the optimum conditions for raising a PWD. No, I do not worry about the Obamas.
It's the rest of you I am concerned about.
I am concerned that suddenly PWD's, or "Porties" as they are sometimes known, will become popular, and all kinds of people who don't have a clue will start breeding and buying them. This was, after all the fate of Dalmations, a tricky, high-strung, and high-maintenance breed, following the remake of A Hundred and One Dalmations. The adorable spotted puppies that people rushed out to buy turned into neglected adolescent hounds that chewed the furniture, peed on the carpet and knocked down the children -- predictably they soon filled the nation's shelters as unwanted, throwaway dogs.
There are three reasons that PWDs are particularly vulnerable to being exploited in the puppy market (aside from their irresistible cuteness; even as grown dogs they still look like puppies.) The first is that they are a breed that was more or less brought back from obscurity by their dedicated fans (which includes, by the way, the Government of Portugal), and there were comparatively few dogs to work with. This means there are serious genetic flaws -- one of which produces a heart defect and the other blindness -- which make the PWD a poor choice for the hobby breeder. The community standard for breeding these dogs includes genetic testing, and no one should buy a PWD puppy without proof that such testing has taken place. But my second caution is that these are highly intelligent, energetic, working dogs. When we were talking to breeders prior to adopting our dog, one warned us, "If you don't find something for them to do, they will find jobs for themselves." This is absolutely true, and leads to a critical piece of information -- this is not a dog who will, like many other dogs do, be so keenly desirous of your approval that s/he will figure out how to please you, eventually slipping seamlessly into the household routine. PWDs expect you to organize your life around them, making dog school essential to reaching equality, much less human dominance, in the relationship between person and dog.
Behind that fluffy mask is also a set of serious teeth which PWDs need to be taught, early on, to use gently; and children have to be taught to respect. When buying toys, go straight to the "power chewer" section.
Of all the people who spot my dog (pictured at right) on the street or on campus, and coo "What a cutie! What a love! How sweet!" as she presses her fluffy self into their bodies, tail wagging, at least a quarter have a story about a Portuguese Water Dog that they really didn't like. They tell tales of PWDs who were bossy and destructive, who drank noisily out of the toilet and barked loudly and imperiously if the toilet was closed, who plotted mayhem against valuable household items and pursued their plans in intricate and secretive ways. This is why all Portuguese water dogs need a job. My dog goes to the office with me nearly every day, for example, and spends a fair amount of her time getting in people's business and tending to the copious emotional needs of an academic community. When she is home she is well-known for rearranging household items (mainly couch pillows in ways that suit her ideas of where she would like to nap that day.) Without four solid walks a day, two of which include vigorous games of ball and running around the park with other dogs, she becomes impatient, intrusive and noisy. She is the only dog I have ever known who will walk in the room and begin to chat, in a voice that varies from a growl to a whine to a squeak, and she expresses her irritation at being ignored by sighing. Loudly. There is also a peculiar humming noise that is just conversational.
I'm not going to go on and on with boring dog stories, but the moral of the tale is that this is a breed that requires a proactive stance for the relationship to flourish. PWDs are one of the finest and most satisfying dogs to live with when cared for properly and, when neglected or expected to take care of and amuse themselves, they can terrorize a household to an extent few dogs are capable of. Since humans ultimately have the most power, the outcome for an out of control PWD is predictable: they get the boot. That may well be how Bo ended up with the Obamas in the first place. In closing, I have no advice for the Obama family, but all the rest of you? Go get a dog from a shelter unless you are an experienced dog owner who is well aware of how much time and energy this breed requires to become the wonderful companion dogs they can be.