Victoria’s Tips for the Bo Obama, the First Puppy.

Watching the First Family’s beautiful new Portuguese Water Dog, Bo, frolic on the South Lawn of the White House last week and seeing the joy that he has brought to Sasha and Malia reminds us all once again why dogs share such an important place in our lives. Along with the rest of the world, I have followed the Obamas’ search for Bo with great interest and am so happy for the entire family, especially the lucky puppy.

The joy of welcoming a new dog into the family is one of the most rewarding and wonderful experiences we can have, and yet even the best-behaved puppies can sometimes test our resolve and patience. When you stop to think about it, there are actually several requisite traits common both to being the Leader of the Free World and being a dog owner: consistency, patience, perseverance, fairness, a sense of responsibility, and compassion. As Americans (I became a citizen in 2005), we choose our leaders based on their ability to both inspire us and lead us by example, and it is very exciting for me to see such a responsible, smart family in the ultimate position of leadership, even where dog ownership is concerned. That’s why I’m thrilled to see that as new dog owners, the Obamas are following the ever-growing movement away from outdated dominance-based training theories and towards the scientifically-based positive reinforcement ideologies. For far too long, dog owners in the US have been relating to their dogs using punitive training techniques under the premise that in order to have a well-behaved, obedient dog, they have to first teach the dog to ‘submit’ to them, often using the threat of punishment or fear to achieve results. Positive reinforcement training methods demonstrate that these old ideologies are not just highly flawed, they are also potentially damaging to both dog and owner, and that following modern scientific research (and general common sense!) is much more successful in achieving true balance with your dog. By learning to ‘think dog’ and see the world from the dog’s perspective, an owner can begin to truly appreciate a dog’s life experience. Only then can the owner teach the dog effectively and treat the true root cause of any misbehavior while building a relationship based on trust and respect instead of fear. A truly effective leader is one that can persuade others to trust and follow him (or her) without having to threaten the use of force or intimidation, and it certainly appears that President Obama aspires to that goal not only in the political world, but as a responsible dog owner as well.

As a lifelong advocate of rescue shelters and the work they do giving unwanted dogs second, third and sometimes fourth chances at finding a forever home, I was interested to see what would end up resulting from the First Family’s extensive search. As we all know, Malia’s allergies severely limited the choices available to the Obamas when looking for their dog. In his earliest comments about what type of dog they would get, President Obama made it clear that he would have preferred to help one of the millions of unwanted shelter dogs in the US. They focused their search on Portuguese Water Dogs because of their reputation as a ‘hypo-allergenic’ breed (no breed of dog has scientifically been proven to be hypoallergenic, though certain breeds such as the PWD do seem to elicit reduced or sometimes nonexistent reactions in allergy sufferers). As it turns out, while they did get Bo from a registered breeder, he still somewhat fit the description of a ‘second chance’ dog since his original home (to another Washington D.C. family) didn’t work out. The fact that Bo’s breeder took him back from the original family and continued to search for an appropriate home for him is also encouraging, as many ‘back-yard’ or puppy mill breeders will refuse such an arrangement as the well-being of the dogs they breed is their very last concern.

Puppies like Bo can very often take a few tries before landing in the perfect home, especially puppies of high-energy breeds such as the Portuguese Water Dog. I have every faith that the Obamas have done their homework before settling on Bo and welcoming him to the White House, but even the most prepared and responsible owners can be met with unforeseen challenges when adapting to life with a happy, bounding puppy. Here are a few tips for owners that will help to ensure that any puppy will adapt successfully to living in a domestic environment:

  • Be Positive! Positive reinforcement is more than just a way of training – it becomes a firm foundation on which you can base your entire relationship with your dog. In extremely general terms, if you reward a behavior that you like in your dog, there is a very good chance that this behavior will be repeated. When unwanted behaviors occur, constructive discipline is given rather than harsher punishments that are used by many traditional trainers. Constructive discipline aims to guide rather than frighten the dog into behaving. Examples of constructive discipline may include time outs (removal), sounds to interrupt behavior and refocus the dog onto something more positive, or ignoring inappropriate behavior (such as jumping up), so that the behavior is not reinforced and eventually goes into extinction. Traditional trainers would lead one to believe that when a dog is behaving badly it is trying to become top dog by being dominant over an owner. Very few dogs that are demonstrating controlling behavior are actually attempting to be dominant. In fact, the majority of behavioral issues are rooted in a dog’s insecurities or fears – both of which require patience and understanding on your part to overcome by helping the dog to learn to feel differently. Positively.
  • Think Dog. In order to have a truly balanced relationship with your dog, it is crucial to try and view the world from the dog’s perspective. Toileting in the Oval Office isn’t really a big deal in a new puppy’s eyes – he doesn’t know that that’s a bad move unless we tell him. Same with chewing on the First Lady’s sofa or eating Sasha and Malia’s snacks off the table. Over thousands of years, we’ve domesticated dogs and welcomed them into our strange, human world, and now it’s our responsibility to help teach our dogs how to live in it appropriately and with confidence.
  • Be Consistent. No training will stick unless everyone in the family follows the same rules and enforces the same boundaries and limitations on the dog. For example, dogs begin to understand what we want from them only when we are consistent in rewarding what we like and giving constructive feedback of what we don’t.
  • Keep him busy. President Obama has joked that even he will have to take turns walking Bo, and I’m sure that the entire First Family and their staff will do a great job of keeping Bo physically fit. For a PWD puppy as young as Bo, it is also critical that they stimulate his mind as well. Nowadays there are a lot of great games that I introduce to my clients, and even basic activities like hide and go seek, go find the toy, and learning tricks can help keep a dog’s mind alert. PWD’s were originally bred to work with fishermen and once taught, they are excellent swimmers. Interestingly, they were responsible for taking messages from the fishermen to shore (sometimes swimming for five miles at a time) helping the fishermen bring in the nets and acting as guard dogs, protecting the boat and the catch.
  • Find some friends. It’s also really important to make sure Bo stays socialized with other dogs. Living in the White House could be quite a reclusive proposition, and he’s still young enough that not seeing other dogs regularly could hamper his development and lead to behavioral issues around other dogs in the future, especially when he is away from the White House. Regular doggie playdates will ensure that he retains the ability to feel comfortable around other dogs in all environments.
  • Beware the teenage years! As dogs mature out of puppyhood, they often undergo some behavioral changes as their bodies and maturity levels grow. Think about the occasional awkwardness of your teenage years – dogs go through many of the same issues. Bo is six months old now, and since a dog’s ‘adolescent’ period can range anywhere from 6 months to 2 years old, the First Family should prepare for a few bumps in the road over the next year or so. It’s all very normal and to be expected (as with many rebellious teens, it’s just a phase), and as long as they continue to employ the responsible approach to dog ownership they’ve shown throughout this process, everyone should be fine.

I wish the Obama family all the best as they settle in with beautiful Bo. I’ll enjoy watching his development along with the rest of the country, and I’m sure he’ll be given all the tools necessary to become a well-adjusted, happy family pet.

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