The Magazine

All Barack, No Bite

Christopher Caldwell, companion for Change.

Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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For a while, I thought I was on the long slide into sad, sagging middle age, but it turns out I was wrong. My neighbors seemed to be losing interest in me, looking past me, drifting away. You know how it is. One morning you'll bump into a neighbor you've seen taking afternoon walks in the park. He'll be eating his breakfast in the corner bakery, and you'll try to make small talk, lighten things up a little. "Ever had a colonoscopy?" you'll say, and it's almost as if he didn't hear you.

Of course, this sense that I've lost the old conversational magic is all in my head. People aren't really drifting away. I've realized in the course of the last couple of weeks that I have the old charisma back. Suddenly people are eager to see me. They stop me on the street. Our neighborhood is a prideful and snobby one, though, and most people feel they need a pretext for being friendly. Lately they have been feigning interest in our 10-week-old puppy. Our 10-week-old Portuguese Water Dog puppy.

"My God! My God! Mom! Look!" a girl said when I walked the dog through the schoolyard the other day. "It's the kind of dog Malia and Sasha are getting! It's so beautiful!"

Our neighborhood is, by Washington standards, not exactly an Obama hotbed. You see just as many "War Is Not the Answer" signs as you do Obama signs, and there is even said to be a guy on the other side of Rittenhouse Street who didn't vote for Obama, although I think he moved. But the news that the Obamas are hoping to get a Portuguese Water Dog at the dog pound has traveled around the neighborhood quickly. Quite by accident, we have acquired the trendiest breed of dog on the planet. It's like having a Prius that barks.

We, too, had originally planned to get a dog at the pound. There are two types of dogs you see frequently at animal shelters--the confused little thing who cowers in the corner of his stall and the barking, bug-eyed Rottweiler who has been in a state of high-strung panic since his owner, who was probably called something like El Colombiano, got carted off to jail after a gunfight. But the vast majority of dogs in pounds are just dogs--lovable, friendly, loyal, eager dogs. We were ready to take one home when I began to wheeze and weep and break out in a rash. That was a sign we needed to get a hypo-allergenic dog.

So we decided on a Portuguese Water Dog for reasons similar to the Obamas'. Unlike the Obamas, we came to the conclusion that that put an end to our plans of getting it at the pound. In theory, you might find a Portuguese Water Dog in a pet shelter, in the same way that, in theory, you might find a Shakespeare first folio at Second Story Books or the Shroud of Turin on a hanger at your local consignment shop. But it's not the first place you'd look. Maybe it's different for presidents.

There are only about 8,000 Portuguese Water Dogs in the United States, and people are really, really eager to own them. Deciding you want one generally means going to a breeder, putting down a deposit, waiting weeks or months for the breeder to select a stud, and then waiting for the mother to deliver, all the while fending off questions from your kids, who suspect you're pulling a fast one on them, the way you did with that allergy yarn down at the pet shelter. Most dog-lovers would rather forgo those months of dogless purgatory. People who absolutely must have a Portuguese Water Dog are unlikely to ditch at the shelter a pet they've already sacrificed so much for.

Having a Portuguese Water Dog is, I imagine, like being a member of the castle-owning English gentry during tourist season--you're constantly running into people who know more about a member of your family than you do. I'll be walking down the street and someone will tell me that my dog is descended from dogs bred by Portuguese fishermen to shimmy up ropes. The bit about the fishermen is true. The bit about the ropes I'll believe when I see. From the evidence we've gathered thus far it's more likely they were bred to gnaw on furniture.

She is a beauty, though, a great companion and a smart girl. When a crowd gathers around me (whether for the conversation or for the opportunity to pet the dog I have no way of knowing), I explain that we did not get her just because we wanted to be like the Obamas. "Well, why'd you name her 'Change' then?" some wiseacre will ask. Come on. There are probably lots of dogs named Change. And Yes-We-Can would have been kind of a mouthful.

CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL