Dear President Elect : about the dog

The original draft of this article was written as a letter to President-Elect Barack Obama on the topic of his desire to adopt a shelter dog who would be non-allergenic. It was written shortly after the election. I've expanded some of the points a bit in this version.
This is basically a letter of advice to anyone who has a member of their human family who has allergy problems and is potentially allergic to dogs. But I am having some fun by using a bit of Obama style phrasing.

Dear President Elect : about the dog

(concerning allergies to dogs)

by Pam Green, © 2008

President Elect Barack Obama & family

Re : adopting a dog

Dear President Elect Obama,

Let me congratulate you on your decision to adopt a dog. Of the many choices you have made in the past two years and the many more you will make in the next four or eight, this is the one you will never regret.

You are keeping your word to your daughter, and you will surely never regret doing so. You are giving both your children the priceless gift of canine companionship, or a friend who will always listen and always offer affection and comfort.

You are giving yourself a gift too, a constituent with whom your approval rating will always be 100 percent. There will be times in the coming years when you will appreciate the stress relief of petting and talking to your family dog. You've chosen one of the hardest and most stressful jobs in the world, and you will need the stress relief that a dog can provide better than a human can provide.

You have announced your desire to adopt a dog who is from a shelter, who is "a mutt like me", and who will not be allergenic for your darling daughter. By now you may be wondering if it is actually possible to accomplish all of these goals. By now you are wondering if you can do all of this. The answer is "Yes, you CAN !" or , more accurately, "yes, you CAN , but it won't be easy" or , most accurately, "yes , you CAN , but you have to be intelligent and thoughtful in how you go about it.".

I am writing to you from the experience of someone who has been doing dog rescue for my breed (a breed which is reputed to be a good choice for people with allergies but which is not a good choice for a first time dog guardia) , for over 20 years and over a hundred personally fostered dogs of that breed, plus a few more of other breeds. So I have the advantage of hearing from people with allergy problems from time to time.

Now because this is a letter, rather than an interactive conversation, and because I don't know you personally, I am having to rely on what has been in the media about you and your family , including that this will be the very first dog any of you have lived with. So forgive me if my assumptions should be wrong about any of this .

your first priority : non-allergenic

You are right to put your daughter's health at the top of your priority list for the dog choice problem. That is your right and your duty as her parent. Thus the non-allergenic qualities of the dog are going to be your top priority, even over your desire to rescue a "mutt like me" from a shelter.

As to the issue of allergies, let me advise some decision steps :

While it is true that there are some breeds of dog or types of dog hair-coat that most allergic people find they are OK with, it's important to know that individual people vary and perhaps also individual dogs within a breed vary. This is true for purebred dogs and even more so for mixed breed dogs. So your daughter should spend some close contact time with any individual dog you are considering adopting.

So I always advise my potential adopters who have a particular breed in mind to first visit a home that has several dogs of that breed present. If they are OK on that visit then this breed is probably good for them. On several occasions I have offered to send hair samples or even bags of hair comb outs to the adopter so they can tape hair to their skin or put hair inside their pillow to see if they have any reaction.

I always advise adopters to spend some period of time with the dog whom they contemplate adopting , breathing the same air and petting the dog, and so on, to see if they have a reaction. Most Rescues are happy or even insistant that you spend some hours with the dog at the home of the person who is fostering the dog. Also, most Rescues consider the first days or weeks as a "try out". Shelters usually have a "get acquainted room" where you can spend time in close quarters with the dog. (Most also have outdoor areas where you can play with the dog, but for allergy assessment an indoor close quarters is most revealing.) Shelters too are pretty good about taking dogs back, and most of them should understand that an allergy is something you don't have control over. (Of course any dog who came back labled as "would have been the President's dog except for allergies" is a dog who will have numerous people lining up to adopt him.)

your second priority : suitable for a dog novice

Because you and your wife are first time dog owners (or that's the impression I've gotten ; forgive me if I am mistaken) you want one of the easier types of dog, ie easier to train. Generally the herding breeds and the gundog (retriever) breeds are the most responsive to training. They were bred to work with a human partner and to be responsive to that partner's leadership even under exciting circumstances. Some of the other working breeds are also bred to work with a human partner, but some (eg sled-dogs, livestock guardian dogs) are bred to work independently. The hounds and the terriers are generally bred to work independently, and that makes them harder for a novice owner.

There are some very good books that discuss breeds in terms of behavior. Pay special attention to what the books say are qualities that can be problems for some homes. Breed rescue people are the very best source of honest information about potential problems, because they get dogs who were rejected by people who considered those qualities to be problems.

A mixed breed dog will more or less combine the traits of the breeds who made up its ancestry. It's easier to judge an adult than to judge a puppy. Easier to judge both the behavior and temperament qualities and easier to judge the physical ones, including judging how your daughter reacts to the dog's hair , dander, saliva, etc.

You've already looked up the list of breeds reputed to be easier for allergic people. Poodles are the poster child for this, and they are generally very trainable dogs, being originally a gundog breed. Now it's true that some people think that Poodles are for the "elitist" because the show style of grooming makes them look that way. But the more natural style that some call a kennel cut makes them look like normal dogs. Portugese Water Dogs are also supposed to be easy on allergies and are quite trainable. They are somewhat on the energetic side and , as the name implies, they love to swim and also are good retrievers. Bouvier are reputed to be low allergenic, and my adopters tell me that this works for some people but not for others, but Bouvier are generally not a good choice for dog-beginners because they are awfully strong and strong-willed.

some recommended reading

Now I have some reading to recommend to you so you will be better prepared to take care of your dog . Love and good intentions are not enough : you need knowledge as well. Fortunately you seem to be someone who enjoys reading and learning.


You appear to have one of the requisites of a good pack-leader for dogs : that very calm and unflappable demeanor is a tremendous asset when working with dogs.

Once again, I congratulate you on making one of the best decisions a person can make, the decision to share life with a dog.

And I wish you the best of luck in dealing with the US Congress and the US Supreme Court, neither of which is as cooperative as most dogs.

One last suggestion, since I have your attention, for your first Supreme Court appointment let me strongly urge Sarah Weddington.

         Your constituent,

          Pam Green
          "du Clos de la Fourrière" Dog Rescue
          Davis, California




Of course as everyone knows who hasn't been living on a distant planet in another galaxy for the past several months, the Obamas ultimately adopted a Portugese Water Dog, "Bo" , a 6 month old puppy secured for them by Senator Ted Kennedy, who has been active in the breed for some years.

In my view this was a prudent choice. Firstly because this choice fulfills that first priority of low allergenicity . PWDs as a breed are reputed to be low allergenicity, and doubtless the Obama children got to spend plenty of time with this individual dog before making the decision. Secondly, the dog already had basic training , thus being easier for a first time dog-owner. I'd guess that Senator Kennedy also judged Bo's temperament and personality to be suitable for beginners. Bo does indeed seem to be a fairly mellow pup and responsive to basic cues.

To judge from what I saw on the TV program "Inside the Obama White House", it looks like the Obamas have had some good advice about dog training and management. (Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they have done well in sorting out the better advice from among the utter deluge of advice they have received from every imaginable direction.) Michelle Obama seems to be practicing the "umbilical cord" method, ie keeping the pup on leash and thus being able to interrupt any initiation of undesirable behavior. On leash is especially appropriate when you are living in a national museum filled with historical furniture that must not get dog-gnawed. So far it seems that only a magazine has perished by puppy fangs. One presumes that original copies of the Declaration of Independance will be kept well out of reach. One might also guess that the Pres is learning not to leave his socks on the floor.



Some further Thoughts on Allergies

Today, while talking to still yet another person calling to ask if it's really true that Bouviers are non-allergenic, it occurred to me that there might be two additional factors relevant to persons with allergies. Both concern substances found on the surface o the dog's coat.

One : dogs like to roll in all kinds of stuff. They roll on maggoty rotten fish. They roll on other dead critters, They roll in the grass, possibly on something undetectable to a human, and probably picking up various kinds of vegetation oils and pollens. My own policy about whatever dogs roll in is "don't ask, don't tell" : I really don't want to know for sure and hope my nose won't know either. But in any case, whatever the dog rolls in might well adhere to his coat. Whether animal , vegetable, or mineral, stuff adhering to the dog's coat might be something that will bother the allergy sufferer. So if you are normally OK with petting and hugging your dog, but now suddenly there is a problem, try giving the dog a good bath or getting someone else to do so for you. Think about whether the dog has rolled in something since the previous time you were in contact without any problem.

Two : many dog caretakers apply various substances to their dog's coat, usually with some beneficial purpose in mind. It's common good practice to use a topically applied flea preventative or flea and tick preventative. All of these have various carrier ingredients as well as the active ingredient. It's certainly possible that one of these might cause a problem for an allergy sufferer. Indeed some might cause problems for non-allergy sufferers, as the instructions usually suggest avoiding skin contact for the person doing the application. Of course you know if you've applied something to your own dog, but you wouldn't know if the dog you meet in public and stroke has had any topicals applied. If you were to get an immediate adverse reaction to touching that dog, it might be worth asking the owner about this, just so you'd know if you needed to add this to your list of things to avoid. People also sometimes apply various coat conditioners to their dog, and some of these may contain something that bothers you.

So it's not always the dog himself that is the problem for the allergy sufferer. So in figuring out your problem list, try "thinking outside the dog."

I wish all allergy sufferers the best of luck in finding a way to live with a dog. Dogs can bring great happyness into your life. Over the years, I've helped a number of people to find a dog that doesn't trigger their allergies or those of their child.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 11/18/08 revised 7/7/2010
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