A Dog We Can Believe In

The politics of presidential pet care.

At President-elect Barack Obama’s first postelection press conference, amid questions about economic crises and foreign dangers, he was also asked to describe his ideal candidate for a particularly prominent and sensitive White House position: first dog.

Obama was noncommittal, though he did appear to rule out the one real candidate of change—a mutt “like me”—because daughter Malia required a hypoallergenic animal. Still, his answer set off a round of speculation and commentary that will not abate until the new dog becomes part of the family—and then President Obama will have a whole new set of issues to deal with. Even the family dog is not immune from presidential politics.

By stating his preference for a mutt, Obama sidestepped only part of this puppy political battle. In fact, Americans’ lingering fascination with breed purity is a fading aspect of pet culture, something that may someday look as goofy as those tuxedo-clad TV announcers who pontificate about the proper size of basenji paws during the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual show.

Slate V imagines Barney the Dog’s farewell video:

But that’s not to say that the world of pet ownership has become a carefree one. Picking the breed will be easy compared with some of the other political tasks facing the dog owner in chief. Over the past few decades, the relationship between Americans and their pets has changed dramatically, as the animals have been promoted from loyal servants to faithful pals to ersatz family members. The change has spurred the growth of a $41 billion pet industry. Only a small portion of that total represents the boutique canine couture displayed at New York’s annual Pet Fashion Week. Most of it involves vast expansions in basic aspects of pet ownership: food, health, training, and care. In other words, the same basic nurturing needs of our human families. And like other family matters in a society riven by cultural politics, each category is fraught with controversy.

Take education. President Obama will want a trainer to help avoid the international incident that might ensue should the pooch, say, nip Vladimir Putin the way George Bush’s Barney recently bit a Reuters reporter. Not long ago, hiring a behaviorist was something you did only if you needed to train a seeing-eye dog or a police canine. These days, it’s about as ordinary as sending your teenager to driver’s ed: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation’s population of animal trainers tripled to 43,000 in the years between 2000 and 2006.

We’re sharply divided, though, about what those professionals should teach. In the late 20th century, the field was transformed by the same pedagogical revolution that reshaped human education, with sharp yanks on the choke collar replaced by a positive model that emphasized rewarding pooches when they do well. That establishment-endorsed theory now faces a backlash in the form of the tough-love model popularized by the uncredentialed TV celebrity Cesar Millan. The furious debate—with accusations of dangerous permissiveness on one side, heartless cruelty on the other—represents a four-legged version of the culture wars. Whichever side the new president takes, he’ll disappoint a large chunk of the electorate.

Then there’s food. Modern pet food is a mind-boggling marketplace that has, since the 1970s, transformed itself in the same way as the human-food market. Once upon a time, we all shopped at Safeway and bought 35-pound bags of basic Alpo. Now we choose among Sam’s Club, Whole Foods, or the vegan co-op for ourselves—and navigate a world of ever-pricier pet selections that feature human-grade ingredients, raw meat, all-organic contents, or menu descriptions such as “grilled tuna, wild rice, broccoli and dill.” Wal-Mart’s low-cost house brand remains a best-seller, but it’s also possible to buy an 11-pound bag of imported ZiwiPeak for $105—or order a home-delivered meal from one of the doggie bakeries that have sprung up around the country.

The investment might seem worth it to those scared by the tainted Chinese wheat gluten that poisoned dozens of mass-market brands last year. But does a president’s political adviser, particularly an adviser to a president who’s already been accused of being an arugula-loving elitist, want him to spend more on his dog’s dinner than his constituents spend on their own?

Then there’s health care. As a pet owner, Obama will find that many of the inequalities that affect human health care are present in the veterinary version, which, in scarcely a generation, has gone from basic deworming and rabies-inoculating to administering psychopharmaceuticals and practicing advanced specialties like dermatology or radiation oncology. In 1980, there were less than 2,000 vets credentialed by 12 specialty organizations; by 2007, there were about 9,000 members of 27 groups like orthopedics. American spent $1.32 billion in 2003 on anterior cruciate ligament surgery to repair dogs’ knees.

The phenomenon explains why one of the industry’s fastest-growing sectors is veterinary health insurance, which expanded 26 percent a year between 2003 and 2008. Of course, when you’re president, the fact that your pet has insurance becomes more politically complicated, given that millions of your human constituents do not. Balancing the new pooch’s life, on the one hand, and the visuals of spending thousands on intra-arterial chemotherapy during a recession, on the other, makes picking a breed look awfully simple.

In grappling with pet-ownership’s contemporary dilemmas, Obama will actually embrace an old tradition. The way we live with our pets has always reflected the way we live, period. And that includes politics: Long before there was a White House, there were potentates with pets. Once upon a time, such animals—like the well-dressed lapdogs of Mary, Queen of Scots—elevated leaders above the masses who couldn’t afford to feed nonworking beasts, much less outfit them in royal velvet.

In our democratic society, by contrast, dogs let presidents play everyman. The patrician FDR was humanized by pictures of him cuddling with his beloved Fala. Serving the same purpose for President Obama will be the family’s new dog. Whatever breed it happens to be.