He’s barely begun his term as our country’s 44th president, but already Barack Obama risks alienating some powerful core constituencies: fans of mixed-breed shelter dogs, a.k.a. mutt mavens. And if you think mutts and their supporters don’t matter, think again. As Obama himself quipped in answer to a reporter’s question at his historic first press conference on November 7, little knowing how much truth underlay his jest, “With respect to the dog, this is a major issue.”
Fans of mixed-breed shelter dogs, this reporter included, were charmed when the biracial president-elect announced that day that his family’s preference was to adopt a pound pup, noting that “a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me.” With animal shelters across the country experiencing enormous operating difficulties due to the recession, many of them forced to close, and the remaining ones barely able to keep alive the animals already in their care before the recent onslaught of more pets surrendered by owners who now can’t afford to care for them, a shelter-dog advocate in the White House sounded like a dream come true. In a curious, embarrassing case of lingering racism, American animal shelters report that black dogs (and cats) have historically been the last to be adopted, so many mutt mavens — this reporter included — were hoping that America’s first president of color would tap a black shelter dog as canine-in-chief.
The Santa Monica Museum of Art recently commissioned portraits of Obama from A. Michelle Page, a dealer in hand-painted dog signs whose business employs Nepali artisans in Kathmandu. Deeply impressed by Obama’s reclaiming of the M-word, having authored a book titled The Underdog: A Celebration of Mutts, I ordered a sign with the legend MUTT! to commemorate Obama’s pride in his mixed racial heritage.
Mutt appreciation is a grand presidential tradition that has always crossed party lines; it’s “bi-paw-tisan,” if you will. Commanders-in-chief with beloved mixed-breed dogs have included Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. First Daughter Malia Obama charmed fellow history buffs when it was revealed that she intends to write papers at the desk where Lincoln signed the Gettysburg Address, “because I’m thinking that will inspire big thoughts.” Here’s a historical factoid Malia will surely appreciate: Lincoln had a beloved dog named Fido, and Fido was a plain, brown mutt. That’s right, Lincoln was a mutt maven.
Now, because of Malia’s well-documented pet allergies, to the dismay of mutt mavens on both sides of the political fence, the search for the presidential pup has narrowed to two types of canine alleged to have hair that’s easier for allergic humans to tolerate: the Portuguese Water Dog and the Labradoodle. The first is a purebred recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), and a usual suspect at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show; the second is a designer hybrid dog, first created in Australia in 1970 by crossing the Labrador Retriever and Standard Poodle, to produce a service dog for blind people who are dog-allergic. The Labradoodle is definitely not recognized by the AKC, and widely sniffed at by purebred purists; in fact, Westminster co-host and commentator David Frei calls it “a fad breed.”
Pooch pundits predict that the Obama camp won’t want to piss on the hydrant of the powerful lobbying force that is the AKC — which, for better or worse, oversees all purebred dog activity in this country — by selecting an unpedigreed un-breed. So that leaves the fancy-pants Portuguese Water Dog as the front-runner.
Never mind the impressively double-jointed ideological acrobatics of the shift from “a mutt like me” to an elitist purebred or “designer” hybrid. Never mind that shelter-dog adoption is the right thing for all proud Americans to do. Never mind that one of Obama’s most high-profile supporters, Oprah Winfrey, renowned for having purebred Cocker Spaniels and Golden Retrievers, announced last April that henceforth, she would only adopt dogs from animal shelters. This after viewing an upsetting expose of puppy mills on her own TV show.
Here’s why it’s politically unwise for Obama to let down the mutt contingent. Back in July, an AP-Yahoo News poll revealed that pet owners were favoring McCain (who owns two dogs) over Obama (who’s never owned one) 42 percent to 37 percent, with dog owners in particular rooting for the Republican. And yet, by election night, dog lovers came out in force to support the dogless candidate, thanks largely to the tireless efforts of animal protection organizations — mutt mavens with strength in numbers — in reminding the public of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s appalling record on wildlife issues, which was driven home by shocking YouTube videos. Especially disturbing was Palin’s proud support of aerial hunting of the wolf, ancestor of all dogs.
The contrast was pretty dramatic: While the Obamas chatted about their daughters’ dog obsession, effectively glad-pawing the animal-loving public, Palin was offering hunters $150 for every wolf’s forepaw they could bag, in a most unsporting incarnation of the hunt. It’s not an overstatement to say that mutt mavens deserve some of the credit for Obama’s historic win; to paraphrase a paw-pular slogan spotted on doggie bandannas in Denver during the Democratic National Convention, they helped “BAR(ac)K the vote.”
The straight poop may come as a shock to those who thought they knew a bit about dogs: There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic K9. I hate to contradict the president I voted for, but the truth is that the first dog does not have to be a so-called “hypoallergenic” breed. Just ask dog-allergic owners of “hypoallergenic” breeds, many of whom get regular allergy shots to support their canine habit. The plain fact is that some simple housekeeping measures — not the choice of breed — are what enable dog-allergic people to breathe easy around a dog. Yes, even a mixed-breed shelter mutt.
“In addition to adopting a dog, adopt a routine so the relationship between your dog and allergic family members is set up for success,” says Dr. Andrew Kaplan of New York’s City Veterinary Care. “Remember, it’s not a dog’s hair but rather the dander, the skin’s glandular secretions and dried saliva that both stick to the hair and are automatically jettisoned into the air and onto home furnishings, that are the cause of allergies people have to dogs.”
Here’s important news for the first family, or any family with an allergic child lobbying for a pet: You can adopt a populist shelter mutt and still breathe easy, yes you can. Even so-called “hypoallergenic” breeds have skin, and when an animal’s skin becomes dry, it releases even more dander. Regardless of what breed or mix a dog may be, keeping Spot’s skin soft is key to a smooth, successful transition from dogless home to animal house. Supplement the dog’s diet every day with a few drops of fish oil, olive oil, or flaxseed oil; this moisturizes a dog’s ‘dermis from the inside.
Combing and brushing the first dog outside the executive mansion will provide great bonding time for the first daughters and their new pet, with these added benefits: “The Obamas can significantly decrease the amount of animal allergens in their home by grooming their dog regularly to help remove dead hair and dander; my favorite product for this is Allerpet,” Kaplan adds.
To keep skin moisturized externally, dogs living with allergic kids should be groomed frequently and bathed with a Sodium Laurel Sulfate-free, Paraben-free, emollient shampoo that won’t dry out their skin further, as most chemically-preserved dog shampoos will. An excellent brand for allergic households is TheraNeem Pet Shampoo, which is safe for everyday use. The fringe benefit of frequent dog-bathing for the allergic child: It also removes other environmental allergens that could trigger an allergic reaction, such as pollen and dust mites, that cling to a dog’s coat and paw-pads.
This is the president’s residence we’re talking about, and White Housekeepers already know their way around the best cleaning technology on the planet, but an allergic first child poses a special challenge that requires the right tools. Offers Kaplan: “Use an environmentally safe HEPA air filter — my favorite is BlueAir — paying attention to the square footage limits for each unit, and vacuum with an allergy vacuum cleaner — my favorite is the Dyson DC17 — focusing on the area around your dog’s bedding, which should be washed regularly.” Here’s another hint: Rugs and carpeting are magnets for dander and mites. Even in the Oval Office. These expert prescriptions will remove microscopic traces of irritating dander from the Obama dog, plus pet particles lingering from previous administrations.
Remind an allergic child to wash her hands, and avoid touching her face, after touching the dog. After play sessions, kids can combine hand-wiping with paw-wiping by using CleanWell hand-sanitizer wipes to decontaminate their mutt’s mitts as well as their own. (Incidentally, CleanWell’s botanical germicide, Ingenium, a key ingredient of which is Thyme, was formulated for the company founder’s son Connor, who was born with a compromised immune system; the boy, now ten, lives happily with his family’s Pug — a breed that, if not properly hydrated, sheds copiously.)
Still, no dog, no matter how clean, should sleep in the allergic child’s bedroom. To keep allergens from irritating Malia while she sleeps, so she can recover in time for tomorrow’s playtime with Spot, the canine-in-chief should be kept out of her room at all times — s/he can stay with Sasha instead.
OK, all this does require extra work — but then, Barack Obama already knew life in the animal house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue wasn’t going to be easy. So please, Mr. President, make the ulti-mutt statement in support of the underdog. Be a black-dog Democrat. Adopt a Yes We Can-ine from an animal shelter. Mutts do matter, because they have the audacity of hope — just like you.