News & Politics

Bo: A Dog’s Life in the Obama White House

Bo is one lucky pooch—he has the run of the White House, has vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard, and has Michelle wrapped around his little paw. But he earns his keep, too, and helped his owner win a second term.

Photograph of President Obama and Bo by Pete Souza/White House.

Living in the White House has downsides for nearly every member of the First Family. The President’s daughters are entering adolescence with the added pressure of being in the public eye. For the First Lady, a trip to Target is a national-security concern. And of course, President Obama has the most stressful job in the world.

But for Bo, the Obamas’ Portuguese water dog, life in the executive mansion has been just about perfect. He spent his first term playing with visitors and staff, meeting foreign dignitaries, and looking adorable for White House photographer Pete Souza.

It seems Bo was destined for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He was born in Texas on October 9, 2008, during the final weeks of Obama’s bid for the presidency. Bo’s breeders, Art and Martha Stern—ardent Obama supporters—gave the litter names inspired by the newly elected President. They called the puppy that would become Bo “New Hope.”

A family in Washington bought New Hope, but their older dog didn’t like him. Meanwhile, Obama proclaimed during his victory speech that daughters Sasha and Malia had “earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.”

Senator Ted Kennedy and his wife, Vicki—who had purchased their Portuguese water dogs from the Sterns—heard that New Hope needed a home. With the Obamas’ consent, Vicki Kennedy bought him as a gift for the First Family. The fluffy black-and-white puppy arrived at the White House on April 14, 2009, instantly becoming the nation’s luckiest dog.

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Bo touched off a media frenzy. Breeder Art Stern, who now lives in Gordonsville, Virginia, says he and his late wife were overwhelmed with interview requests. “We even had two gentlemen from a newspaper in Germany come all the way to our house in Texas,” he recalls.

Children’s author Kate Feiffer got a call from her editor the morning after Obama’s victory speech. “She said, ‘What do you think about the puppy? Do you think there’s a book there?’ ” recalls Feiffer. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

Feiffer set to work writing Which Puppy?, a picture book about the President’s search for a dog. Because it hit shelves before they even got Bo, the puppy at the end of the story is brown. “We had a slight misfire there,” Feiffer says.

When Bo arrived at the White House, the New Yorker hired Bob Staake to do an illustration of the First Dog for a cover. Soon after, Staake had eight offers from publishers interested in a children’s book. He wrote The First Pup, which the President has since read aloud to schoolchildren.

Breeders of Portuguese water dogs—who sell the dogs for $1,500 to $3,000—were alarmed by the fanfare. They carefully screen potential owners so the animals rarely end up with rescue groups—as only ten did in 2011. When Bo came on the scene, breeders worried that demand for the dogs would make them targets for dog-nappers and puppy mills. But while there have been a few known instances of puppy-mill breeding since Bo’s arrival, humane, responsible breeders still largely have a handle on the animals.

Because the supply of “Porties” in the United States has remained relatively steady, the breed hasn’t risen much in popularity. In 2008, Porties were the 64th-most popular breed, according to the American Kennel Club, and in 2011 they were 56th.

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Bo likely doesn’t care about his popularity, but he surely knows he’s loved. After all, Michelle Obama has said she considers Bo like a son and allows him to sleep in bed with her when the President is away.

Though Bo was meant for Sasha and Malia, he’s a mama’s boy. Michelle has said she wakes up every morning at 5:15 to walk him, and Bo likes to cuddle in her lap. If it’s occupied by Sasha or Malia, he tries to push the girl out of the way.

Bo has tagged along with Michelle on visits to Walter Reed and Children’s National Medical Center in DC. The pair sometimes surprises White House tour groups, and Bo has met celebrities and dignitaries, including actress and animal lover Betty White, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and many members of Congress.

The Obamas send Bo to the exclusive pet salon at Alexandria’s Olde Towne School for Dogs, accompanied by the White House groundskeeper. When Bo goes to Petco or PetSmart, he travels in a motorcade. He flies on Air Force One and Marine One, too. He has taken vacations to Hawaii, Camp David, Maine, Chicago, and Martha’s Vineyard—where 200 locals and their dogs held a parade in his honor. Not surprisingly, Bo was a no-show—the Obamas like to keep a low profile when they vacation on the Vineyard.

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When Bo turned four in October, the campaign posted a YouTube video of the President and First Lady talking about their dog. Michelle Obama says Bo knows to wait for the President’s permission to sit on the sofa, whereas he doesn’t hesitate to jump up with her. At the end, viewers could click to volunteer with the campaign or donate—a smart strategy, says Republican political consultant and advertising executive Patrick Griffin.

“Kids and animals are the oldest lines in advertising—they sell,” says Griffin, chairman of the consulting firm Griffin York & Krause, who also owns a Portie. “The President’s got a beautiful wife, he’s got two daughters, and they’re perfectly rounded out by this cute dog.”

Bo’s birthday video was one of a string of YouTube fundraising spots that featured the pup. The campaign even created a group called Pet Lovers for Obama for fans of the First Dog and sold souvenirs with the slogan “Bark for Barack.”

Mitt Romney got considerable attention from dog lovers, too, but for a different reason. The story of how Romney strapped the family dog, Seamus, to the roof of his station wagon during a 12-hour road trip in the 1980s followed Romney throughout his campaign and sparked outrage among animal advocates. A grassroots group of pet enthusiasts, Dogs Against Romney, formed in protest.

Obama isn’t the first chief executive to score popularity points through a four-legged surrogate. George W. Bush’s Scottish terrier Barney starred in a video at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Bill Clinton’s cat, Socks, was so beloved that his 2008 cancer battle and eventual death in 2009 made national news.

Claire McLean, founder of the Presidential Pets Museum near Richmond and once dog groomer to Ronald Reagan’s Bouvier des Flandres, Lucky, says there have been more than 400 presidential pets in US history. She has a simple explanation for our fascination with them: “They make the President more like the people.”

Indeed, President Obama has said he takes late-night walks with Bo around the White House grounds and, like any responsible dog owner, picks up Bo’s poop. If that’s not humanizing, nothing is.

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After George W. Bush won a second term, he added another Scottish terrier, Miss Beazley, to the family. Could a sibling be in Bo’s future?

During his 2012 election-night victory speech, the President quipped that one dog was enough. But Portie breeders aren’t convinced.

“Very few people have one Portie,” says Rockville breeder Cheryl Hoofnagle.

Bo’s breeder, Art Stern, agrees: “Portuguese water dogs are like potato chips—you can’t have just one.”

Perhaps Bo’s second-term agenda will include learning to share Michelle’s lap.

This article appears in the January 2013 issue of Washingtonian.

Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.