WASHINGTON -- Is Bo a rescued dog or not? Did President Obama keep or break a campaign promise in picking the purebred as the family's new pet?
The twists and turns of the Portuguese water dog's journey to the White House make for the kind of intrigue that political junkies and the highly opinionated dog world delight in.
Barack Obama and his wife Michelle said during the presidential campaign that they had promised their two girls a dog after the election, and they repeatedly said they wanted it to be a rescued dog such as one from a shelter. Their search was complicated by daughter Malia's allergies, which would rule out many of the "mutts" the president has said he would prefer.
Enter Bo, a 6-month-old puppy given up by his first owner and matched with the Obamas through his breeders. Because he was given up by his first owner as a poor fit and is now with his second owners, the Obamas, but never spent time in a shelter or with a rescue group, Bo is a "quasi-rescue dog," says Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of The Humane Society of the United States.
Here's where the intrigue comes in:
-- Bo's breeders happen to have bred Sen. Edward Kennedy's Portuguese water dogs. The Massachusetts Democrat, an Obama friend and political ally, also acquired a pup from Bo's litter. Bo's breeders are fans of Obama and named Bo's litter the Hope and Change litter.
-- Bo's first owner lives in Washington.
-- Bo was returned to the breeder in early March, fitting the spring timeline the Obamas had given for their dog adoption.
-- Kennedy and his wife Victoria helped line Bo up with the Obamas. Before moving into the White House, the pup spent nearly a month with the Kennedys' dog trainer in Virginia.
Conspiracy buffs might speculate that Bo was meant for the Obamas all along. Was his adoption by the Obamas engineered to look like a rescue -- or at least blur the line to head off criticism that the Obamas had picked a purebred from a breeder?
"I would have to refer that one to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, referring to the Washington Post reporters of Watergate fame. "It's possible, but there's no way to prove it unless one of the principals talks, and I don't think anyone would care anyway."
Still, though Obama may not have made an "ironclad" promise to pick a dog from a shelter, he left the impression the dog would come from a pound, Sabato said.
"He broke a campaign promise, there's no question about it, but notice that he's making a financial contribution to a shelter, so they obviously recognize that he broke a promise," Sabato said. "As broken campaign promises go, this one is fairly trivial."
The Humane Society's Pacelle acknowledged that the Obamas never flat-out promised to get a dog from a pound or rescue group. And the society has kind words for Obama on its Web site: "Thanks, Mr. President, for giving a second-chance dog a forever home," it says.
"He's in a gray area," Pacelle said of Bo. "But I will say that many animal advocates are disappointed that he (Obama) didn't go to a shelter or breed rescue group, partly because he set that expectation and because so many activists are focused on trying to reduce the number of animals euthanized at shelters, and there's no better person to make the case to the American public that you can get a great dog from a shelter than the president."
Bo's breeder, Martha Stern of Boyd, Texas, said she doesn't consider Bo a rescued dog. Owners of dogs from the kennel she and her husband run must sign contracts requiring them to return the dogs to the Sterns if they do not work out, she said. Bo went from his first home, in Washington, to the Kennedys' trainer in Virginia, to the White House, she said.
Portuguese water dogs aren't for everyone, Stern said. Known as PWDs, they tend to be high-energy "in-your-face" dogs that need a lot of attention, and their curly coats require a lot of maintenance, she said.
Stern said she didn't interview the Obamas before allowing them to adopt Bo. She said the first family did a lot of research and already knew the breed's pros and cons, and that Victoria Kennedy was closely involved. Bo seemed like a good fit because the Obamas are an active family and have the resources to give him the training and other things he needs, Stern said.
"I wouldn't say he's excessively high in energy," she said, but still a "little bit more than middle-of-the-road."
"On a scale of five, he's probably about three," Stern said.
The dog's non-shedding coat also makes him a good choice, given Malia Obama's allergies.
Stern worries that puppy mills will try to capitalize on the Obamas' dog choice and start churning out PWDs for an eager public. It's the responsibility of good Portuguese water dog breeders to try to prevent that, she said.