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Leisure Spending

How to Buy a (First) Dog

The Obamas can take heed: With 158 canine breeds, finding the ideal pup can be an elusive goal. See where our search ends.

The Obamas are looking to buy a dog? Tell me about it. Ten years ago, my family and I explored the same idea -- and only the "perfect" dog would do. We conducted our search with nary a pollster to gauge public opinion or a single Secret Service agent to drive us from dog show to animal shelter.

Here’s the real-time description of how we researched our choices, and an update on what we decided.

I'm standing in the middle of a cavernous building trying to persuade my 9-year-old daughter, Devon, that the short, squat, pop-eyed, mug-faced, sissy-looking little animal scampering around ring 8 is cute. Real cute. A 15-pound love bucket of cuteness -- and way more adorable than the big, messy, galumphing golden retriever she has spotted across the room. Devon, pragmatic soul that she is, seems willing to be persuaded. She has detected a tiny fissure in the wall of resistance I have erected against dogs of any shape, size and form -- and she's determined to squeeze through it.

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Call the idea an academic exercise or the musings of a mother whose two older children are teetering on the edge of the nest. Whatever the reason, I've agreed to identify -- in theory, anyway -- the Perfect Dog: one that doesn't slobber, shed, sprint after sparrows, sprinkle on the aspidistras and do all the doggy things that have long led me to steer clear of Canis familiaris. Of course, if I do find such a dog, the next question is inescapable: Would I, a lifelong dogophobe, be willing to buy it?

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GENTLEMAN FROM BOSTON
My search begins with the 158 breeds currently recognized by the American Kennel Club, on the theory that they represent fewer variables than mixed breeds. Now for the fun part: looking though books and Web sites for my paragon of dogdom.

Information on purebred dogs abounds; still, winnowing the list proves fairly easy. First, I eliminate all dogs that require lots of exercise. My children, who usually spring from their beds 30 seconds before the school bus is due, are not likely to spend several hours a day walking a pet. Then I eliminate dogs that shed a lot, bark a lot, eat a lot or drool a lot, plus any that can be called "aggressive" (including chow chows, pit bull terriers and German shepherds) or "snappy (Pekingese and toy poodles).

In the end, I settle on the Boston terrier, nicknamed "the American gentleman" for its tuxedo-like coat and considered "one of the most delightful of canine companions," according to the Roger Caras Dog Book (available used starting at about $3 at Amazon.com). Bostons don't stink, barely shed, need minimal grooming and require only moderate exercise. As a nonsporting breed, they aren't desperate to retrieve dead birds or stalk squirrels. In fact, writes Caras, "the Boston has only one use: love."

Perfect!

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GOOD BREEDING WILL OUT
Actually, there is one little problem, I discover as I watch eight Bostons hurl themselves in the direction of their owner, Norman Randall, at his kennel in Accokeek, Md. I have driven about an hour from my home to see the dogs and meet Randall, who is president of the Boston Terriers Club of America. Visiting a reputable breeder, experts say, lets you check out a dog and find out if it suits your family. Randall's kennel is spotless, and he has decades of experience. I've come to the right place.

But here's the problem. Bostons are smaller than I had anticipated and don't exactly exude manly ruggedness. In fact, they bear a striking resemblance to the pampered pets that used to sit on my great-aunt's lap and nibble Pepperidge Farm cookies. I can't quite envision one in my chaotic household, but Randall assures me that Bostons are lovable animals, suitable for a family with older kids (younger children can be too rough) and valued for their temperament. "These dogs will lick you to death," he says.

That endorsement is good enough for me. I inquire about price-a stiff $1,000 to $1,500 for Randall's dogs, all champions -- and health risks, which I'm told include a tendency toward juvenile cataracts and trick knees. With careful screening, Randall says, some of those problems can be avoided, but all Bostons are sensitive to temperature extremes, and require air-conditioning in the summer and a coat in the winter. As for the cost, I should "spend the bucks" to get a good dog, he says. "You'll have it for 12 to 15 years-considered that way, they're not very expensive."

PUTTING ON THE DOG
Randall's dogs aren't for sale now, and I'm not ready to buy yet, anyway. He suggests I visit an all-breed dog show to look around and meet other breeders. A few days later Devon and I are in York, Pa., where almost 2,000 dogs of all assortments have gathered to strut their stuff.

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Pulik. Borzois. Basset hounds. Briards. A dog show, it turns out, is a cheap, fun place to see the best specimens of each breed and chat with people who are happy to share their know-how. Plus, the show provides valuable life lessons: After Devon steps in a puddle of drool left by several slavering mastiffs, she decides little dogs are much, much nicer.

We watch the animals go through their paces and learn through their owners that, in addition to their desirable qualities, Cavalier King Charles spaniels shed, Westies are willful, and Bostons wheeze. Oh, and some Bostons can be stubborn. Devon glances over to see my reaction to that last comment. "Not a big deal," I respond airily. "Nobody's perfect."

The next week, in the spirit of thoroughness, I take my older kids, Bennett and Lucy, to the local animal shelter. There, for about $145 in veterinary care and pet accouterments, we can choose among purebred and mixed-breed dogs that have been lost or given up.

Walking into a shelter is like visiting the Last Chance Hotel: Every guest represents a sad story. For a neophyte pet owner, it's also kind of scary. While my children inspect the animals pacing inside wire cages, I'm inspecting the padlocks. Finally, anxious to make my escape to the outer room, I agree to ask about two dogs. One is a medium-size furry dog I'm sure will shed, and the other is a short-haired, golden dog with a noble expression.

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The first, Katie, turns out to be a chow-German shepherd mix, two breeds I've been avoiding because of their domineering temperament. The other? "Oh, that's a pit bull," Gerry, the adoption counselor, informs us. "It's not up for adoption." Yikes!

STAYING IN TRAINING
"Mean people have mean dogs," observes L. Joe Deal as we discuss the pros and cons of various breeds at the Capital Dog Training Club, a Washington, D.C., obedience school. Deal, a retiree, is trying to get his soft-coated wheaten terrier, Abby, to "stay"-a concept she mainly ignores in favor of big, exuberant lunges-while I've come to find out more about dog behavior in general and Bostons' in particular.

Soon, pay dirt appears in the form of Tessie, a beautiful Boston puppy owned by Pat Moss of Silver Spring, Md. Moss has conducted research similar to mine and come up with the Boston terrier for her family, which includes two kids. "She's smart, loving and very clean," Moss reports of Tessie. "I can't say enough good things about her."

But as I watch Tessie and the other animals attempt maneuvers like sitting and staying, I become increasingly aware that training any dog is a time-consuming commitment, one I'm not sure I'm ready to make. And Moss acknowledges that no amount of research can anticipate every problem. (Tessie, she later confides, has been nipping her younger child.) In truth, she fell in love with a neighbor's Boston terrier before she hit the dog books: "You can analyze and analyze," she says, "but you have to love the dog."

THE VERDICT
All of which leaves me feeling torn. Although I'm still partial to Bostons, I've been looking at the family schedule to see where the walking, obedience training and attention-giving would fit in around soccer practice, work assignments and the other stuff we do, and I can't find many free slots. A friend suggests we do some pet-sitting as a tryout before making a long-term commitment, which is a good idea-but, naturally, that would be with someone else's perfect dog.

Meanwhile, Bennett tells me he would rather give up his driver's license than own a dog that wears a little coat; Lucy is insisting on a shelter pet; and Devon seems to be veering toward a cocker spaniel. My husband says if we put off the decision much longer, the older kids will be grown and we might as well forget the whole thing.

Hmmmm.

I'm thinking! I'm thinking!

Epilogue: We never did get a dog, although Devon insists she'll take matters into her own hands when she graduates from college, two years hence. I don't regret the decision, but I must admit that every time I see a Boston terrier, I feel a pang for the pet that might have been.

As for the Obamas, the vote is in. According to a survey by the American Kennel Club, the poodle is their perfect dog: It's smart, friendly and sneeze-proof (one of the Obama girls has allergies). President-elect Obama is still weighing the decision.