04.15.09

Bring On the First Dog Controversies!

Sure, it's all smiles for Bo, the first pooch, now. But whether he knows it or not, Barack Obama has entered a cultural minefield, in which everything about Bo—what he eats, where he sleeps, whom he bites—will bring a fierce national debate.

Despite the apparently unplanned leak of an advance picture, Tuesday’s introduction of Bo, the first puppy, was a masterpiece of White House stagecraft. First promised on the campaign trail, evoked in an election-night victory speech, and discussed in increasingly specific detail during the months since, the Portuguese water dog was such a hot commodity by yesterday that for much of the day CNN had a special “Presidential Dog Arrival Soon” graphic up on screens.

For the Obama administration, Bo’s arrival must feel like a PR coup. But notwithstanding yesterday’s cable-news hoopla, the first family may find that pet politics are a lot more complicated than they were when Franklin Roosevelt held Fala, or even in the era of Bill Clinton’s beloved Buddy.

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Ron Edmonds

This isn’t because we’ve somehow soured on our four-legged friends. Quite the contrary: I’ve just written a book on how Americans today spend nearly three times as much each year on their pets than they did when the previous Democratic president introduced a dog into his own White House family. That $45 billion annual tab means pet owners have a newly vast array of choices on how to feed, house, and nurture their furry dependents. Each of those choices, in turn, is freighted with political significance. Indeed, there’s already online sniping that by not getting a rescue dog, the Obamas have abetted the noxious American puppy-mill industry.

And that’s probably just the beginning. Like their dilemmas over where to send the girls to school, or where to attend church in D.C., the first family’s outings to PetSmart will offer canine Kremlinologists no shortage of analytical opportunities.

For instance, what food will Bo eat? Time was when dogs had just a handful of pet-food choices. Nowadays, the pet market has diversified, with an ever more nutritious array of organic, all-natural, human-grade or raw-meat ingredients at the high end. In the process, the contents of the dog bowl, like the contents of the family fridge, reflect not just basic tastes but broad attitudes about nutrition, the environment, and agribusiness—pretty weighty stuff for something as simple as a puppy’s daily meal.

And what happens if Bo, like George W. Bush’s Barney, winds up biting someone? In many places, hiring a dog trainer has become a normal, good-citizen thing to do, the four-legged equivalent of taking CPR. But the field is riven between adherents of tough-love training like you’d see on Cesar Millan's hit TV show, and the positive-reinforcement variety espoused by most professionals. With one side saying America just needs more discipline, and another side saying that pats and rewards make a more humane way to train, it’s the sort of debate that could play as a red-versus-blue yelling match on cable TV. There are no bipartisan dogs in that fight.

As he’s just six months old right now, Bo will likely outlive even a two-term Obama administration. If his health faces challenges, though, end-of-life issues could represent another cultural minefield. Over a generation, veterinary medicine has evolved to offer advanced oncological procedures and space-age arthroscopic surgeries. But they all come at a price, one reason veterinary insurance is a particularly fast-growing sector of the pet industry. How the family handles the unhappiest choices—the benefits of heroic life-saving measures versus the quality of life after the procedure versus the cost to the family wallet—will be closely watched.

Luckily for the Obamas, they were able to mostly sidestep some of the most morally troubling questions in petdom—adopt or buy? shelter or breeder?—by getting their pet as a gift from Ted Kennedy. But other questions will no doubt crop up. Will Bo sleep in a family member’s bed? (Behaviorists disagree about whether this is good). Will he stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., or get the occasional chance to romp with other pups? (Experts advocate such exercise; local leash laws often discourage it). Will he wear a seat belt in the presidential limo? (Prepare for howls of outrage from modern canine-safety advocates).

Such are the changes in American pet culture that it seems Bo’s every move will carry a meaning about things that were once solely two-legged issues. Is this unfair? Maybe. But in just a few months in the White House, the Obamas have proven at least sometimes willing to use aspects of the mansion’s domestic sphere to telegraph views about cultural touchstones. Witness Michelle Obama’s new vegetable garden, with all of its implications about food politics in this era of locavorism and slow-food activism. Like it or not, Bo’s world will present yet another such opportunity.

So: Was that a choke collar or an extension leash the president was holding yesterday? An anxious nation wants to know.

Michael Schaffer is a writer in Philadelphia. One Nation Under Dog, his book about petmania, the pet industry, and what modern petkeeping says about modern America, is available from Henry Holt. For more, visit www.michaelschaffer.net.