A dog for the Obamas

Some advice from an expert. Why a puppy?

My friend Lowry Heussler is on the board of an outfit called NEADS, which trains service dogs for, among others, disabled veterans. It turns out that the NEADS training program is so rigorous that many dogs flunk out, even though they’re astonishingly well-trained by normal standards.

She writes:

I applaud the President-Elect’s most important post-election decision: a puppy for the girls. However, we’ve had terrible precedents in this matter. Despite many handlers, Clinton’s Buddy got away and was killed by a car. Don’t get me started on the Reagans, who could not manage a single dog &#8212 three of them were surrendered after biting staffers. And even Barbara Bush, a pretty good dog owner, allowed Millie to have a litter, which was highly irresponsible.

Selection of breed is critical, as is early training. My preference for this family would be a Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen, but I don’t know about any particular issues they might have.

Also, I want to go on record suggesting that the Obama family consider an older, trained dog. If they wish, I will personally ensure the gift of a NEADS “Fabulous Flunky,” a perfectly behaved and healthy dog that washed out of our program.

The key point here is that raising a puppy is a complicated business, not one to be left to a pair of children and their exceptionally busy parents. Why not get skilled people do the job instead?

Even before Obama expressed a preference for “a mutt, like me,” I asked the same question, based only in a belief in hybrid vigor and a dislike of breed-snobbery. Never ask an expert a question unless you want to know the answer. Here’s Lowry’s reply:

Well, yes. I hate snobbery, too. Problem is that dog temperament, particularly aggression, is genetic.

Good dog breeders don’t just care about looks, they are carefully working toward producing a dog that is structurally sound and genetically healthy, with a steady temperament. When you buy a purebred puppy from a good breeder, you’re buying 20 years of careful monitoring of bloodlines to ensure health and temperament.

When you go to the pound and get a puppy, you don’t know who the parents were. A dog might look like a lab mix, but be a Chow crossed with a pit bull. You’ll figure it out, but probably after Fido kills your cat.

Here’s the continuum for those acquiring a dog:

Worst: Go to a pet store and plunk down good money for an AKC registered dog. You just threw away your money, bought a dog almost certain to have every health and temperament problem out there, and you supported the puppy-mill industry.

Better: Learn that your neighbor’s nice dog Muffin had an unfortunate liaison with Scout, the lovable mutt from down the street. Take one of the puppies. Muffin and Scout might both have hip dysplasia and other horrors, but who knows?

Better: Take a behaviorist to the pound and enlist expert advice in choosing an adult dog.

Better: Take a breed recommendation from someone like me. Go to a breeder with high ethics. You’ll know, because she’ll put you through a process that makes adoption of a baby look easy. After the breeder decides you’re worthy of one of her dogs, have her give you a retired brood bitch or a re-home, already trained. If you must have a puppy, follow the breeder’s recommendation about which one will be best for your family.

Then enroll Fido in puppy school and devote at least 10 hours a week to training for the first year.

Best: Adopt a flunk-out from a service dog program.

Update Even if you’re not moving to the White House, you might want to adopt a NEADS “Fabulous Flunky.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com