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Our first president, George Washington, and our current commander in chief, Barack Obama, are just two of our 30 presidents who have owned dogs. Over the last 200-plus years, canines have often been in the spotlight as much as their famous “pack leaders.”
The First Presidential Dogs
Everyone knows George Washington was our first president, but did you know he was also an avid foxhunter and sportsman? He owned several hunting hounds, including seven Staghounds given to him by the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat and American Revolutionary War general. Staghounds find prey with their keen eyesight, but Washington also owned Black and Tan Coonhounds, which rely on their noses to find quarry. Although today we think of Poodles as pampered, well-groomed house pets, in Washington’s day, they were valued as agile hunting dogs. The president’s diary includes references to Pilot, a Poodle that was Washington’s waterfowl hunting partner.
The First Celebrity Presidential Dog
Warren Harding’s Airedale Terrier was possibly the first “first dog” to be in the public eye. “Laddie Boy was the president’s constant companion and had his own chair to sit in during cabinet meetings,” says Kate Kelly, a historian who has written numerous stories about American dogs. People found the relationship between Harding and his dog captivating, says Kelly, and media coverage demonstrates that by the 20th century, dogs were family members. Indeed, Harding left a cabinet meeting the day after his inauguration in 1921 to greet his new puppy upon the dog’s arrival at the White House. “The papers reported on everything Laddie Boy did, from fetching the morning newspaper to enjoying his dog biscuit birthday cake,” says Kelly.
Kelly considers Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fala, a Scottish Terrier, the most famous presidential dog. “He was beloved by FDR, who would sometimes delay state dinners to go into the kitchen to feed Fala himself,” she says. Fala became an integral part of FDR’s politics, as evidenced by this excerpt from a 1944 campaign speech. “Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. As soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress had concocted a story [about it costing millions of taxpayer dollars to rescue the dog from an Aleutian Islands presidential visit] his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since.” Kelly says Americans loved the speech.
Bo, the Hypoallergenic Presidential Dog
The Obamas chose to add a Portuguese Water Dog to their family because first daughters Sasha and Malia have allergies. The breed was not as well-known as Beagles, Labrador Retrievers or Springer Spaniels (Presidents Johnson, Clinton and Bush, respectively), but media coverage thrust Bo and PWDs into the mainstream. “They needed a hypoallergenic dog, and the relationship between Ted Kennedy — who owned Portuguese Water Dogs — and the Obamas allowed for the family to meet Bo. And the rest is history,” says Julie Parker, who bred Bo’s sire. “I think this new popularity is good for the breed because now more people are familiar with them. They’re smart and high-energy, but for the experienced dog owner who leads an active lifestyle, these are great companion dogs.” Parker says this breed expects to be part of the family and that’s where it’s happiest.
The United States From a Dog’s-eye View
Presidential dogs give us a glimpse into our country’s history from a cultural perspective. Their residency in the White House provides insights about our changing lifestyles and politics. From hunter to companion to media darling, they’ve shared our presidents’ lives and confirm we are a nation of dog lovers.