Gail and Tom Allard have owned Portuguese water dogs for eight years, but until President Obama and his family revealed an interest in the breed, nobody knew what they were.
"We've gone from, ‘Oh, man, the breed nobody's heard of' to ‘Oh, man, the breed that is on everybody's lips,' " Gail Allard said Wednesday, a day after the nation's first family introduced the pet the president promised his daughters the night he was elected.
The couple got their first Portuguese water dog, or PWD, after a customer at their store, Allard Custom Jewelers in the Village of East Davenport, suggested they look into the breed because it has a temperament similar to their golden retriever, which had recently died.
Then they found Cruiser, a black PWD who was polite enough to accompany them to work every day. When Cruiser died last summer, they turned to Sweet Meadows Portuguese Water Dogs in Manito, Ill., for Rio, who is brown with a little white on his chest.
Even though Rio is just less than a year old (his birthday is next week), he calmly greets customers at the jewelry store with a quick sniff and a wag of his tail. Pats on the head, scratches behind the ear and other dogs to play with are always welcome.
"He's very smart, he trains very well, but everyone knows that you you have to stick with it and be consistent," Gail Allard said. "Tom and I were joking that with all the input at the White House, now that you have four family members and all the staff and everything, it's going to be hard to know who's boss in that house."
In addition to regular obedience training, the Allards credit Rio's good behavior to two lengthy walks each day at Lindsay Park, which is near their store.
Kathy Bumiller, who has been breeding PWDs for 16 years at Sweet Meadows near Peoria, said the breed generally had two dispositions: very high-energy all the time or excited for a while and them calm and content to spend time with people.
Her PWDs, such as Rio and his brother, Sweet Meadow's Come Fly With Me Piper, which Bumiller still owns, are of the calm variety. Bumiller said it's important for potential PWD owners to visit the dogs to find out what temperament the line has.
Female PWDs usually weight about 40 pounds, and males range between 50 and 60 pounds. The dogs come with wavy or curly coats in a variety of colors. Bo, the Obama's dog, has a black curly coat with white markings, Bumiller said. The dogs cost between $1,850 and $2,500. Because they originally were bred to help pull in fishing nets in Portugal, the dogs constantly like to have something in their mouths, she said.
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"They're very, very smart, and you can train them, but they want a job to do," added Bumiller, who recommended teaching the dogs to fetch the paper or carry dirty clothes to the laundry room. "They don't do well by themselves. They want to be tight with their owners, regardless of what they're doing."
Bumiller isn't concerned that the breed will be exploited by commercial breeders because The Portuguese Water Dog Club of America prohibits selling puppies to pet stores. She continually checks in with her dogs' new owners, who are as far away as Puerto Rico, California and Utah. Most owners send her pictures of themselves with their PWDs at Christmas.
"We're very, very protective of the breed. We do very thorough interviews and reference checks, and puppies are placed on a limited registration, meaning that they cannot be bred," she said. "Most breeders are going to be very, very careful and selective as to where their puppies go."
Bumiller has received only two phone calls from people she thinks want a PWD because the Obamas got one, but with less than 100 breeders registered with The Portuguese Water Dog Club of America, it's going to take a while to get one.
Chris Porter, who also takes his PWD to work with him at the Porter Insurance Agency in Eldridge, Iowa, waited two years to get Indy, a black-and-white PWD with markings similar to Bo's.
"It was a wait worthwhile, however," he said. "She's a great dog, great disposition, great temperament."
Indy displays many of the breed tendencies, including a love of water, constantly wanting to follow Porter around and always wanting to keep something in her mouth.
"Every morning when when she gets up, she will go to my wife's side of the bed or go in the closet and grab a sock or two; there are some times that she has five socks in her mouth," he said. "Whether it's a sock or a tennis ball, or at the office, it's a stuffed elephant, when they say mouthy, it's just kind of a cute mouthy."
The mouthiness even comes into play when Porter exercises Indy with a game of fetch.
"She loves to play ball," he said. "She doesn't like to give it up."