Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Politicians and Their Dogs: The Good, the Bad, and the Media

Politicians know that their dog may affect their public image.

I just recently returned from a trip to New York where I attended the awards banquet given by The Dog Writers Association of America. At that event I felt quite honored when I received the Maxwell Medal of Excellence for my book "Born to Bark." Since this event was timed to coincide with the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, I also took the opportunity to go to Madison Square Garden to see part of this important event.

I arrived at the dog show around lunchtime and encountered about a dozen demonstrators and dogs wearing signs protesting against one of the Republican candidates for president, Mitt Romney. At issue was an incident which took place back in 1983 when, on a family vacation, with a car full of kids, Romney placed his Irish Setter, Seamus, in a kennel crate and strapped it to the roof rack for a 12-hour drive from Boston to Canada. Although the event occurred nearly 30 years ago, and the dog (who was protected by a specially constructed wind screen) seems to have suffered no damage, Romney's political opponents have used the incident as a focus to attack him. Protestors held signs that said "Mitt is Mean" and "Dogs Aren't Luggage," while one cute Beagle wore a sign reading "I Ride Inside." They have even formed a Dogs Against Romney website and claim that they have about 25,000 members.

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This incident reminded me of how many other politicians have had their image tarnished by the actions of their dogs or alternatively have deliberately used their dogs to polish their image with the public.

Many people may remember an example involving President Lyndon Johnson and one of his much loved Beagles. One day he was trying to please some photographers by getting the Beagles to do a trick. Johnson was such a tall man that he really had to bend way over to if he even wanted to get near a small dog like a Beagle. Because of this, as the dog danced around, the president simply reached down and took hold of the dog by the most convenient handles, namely his large floppy ears. When, Johnson grabbed his ear flaps the dog yelped and the press corps saw a story. Before the day was out, pictures of the yelping dog suspended by its ears appeared in virtually every major news publication. The coverage was not favorable. Most of the articles were accompanied by comments of dog experts criticizing Johnson for hurting his dogs. The American Kennel Club, the National Beagle Club, the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and several state and national veterinary associations all went on record to condemn this kind of behavior. That year in the Rose Bowl Parade in California there was even a float with a giant Beagle whose ears would periodically raise up in the air as a speaker in its mouth howled "Ouch!"

While this was merely embarrassing, there have been situations involving White House dogs that have had major political impact and have received international attention. For example, Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Terrier, Pete, had a dominant personality, and if people annoyed him he had no hesitation about responding with his teeth. When he nipped at a naval officer and snapped at some cabinet ministers, Roosevelt waved the incidents off as "the nature of the breed" or "his attitudes toward their political stances." Unfortunately one day Pete chased the French Ambassador, Jules Jusserand, down a White House corridor, ultimately catching up with him and then tearing the bottom out of his pants. The press made a large fuss about this, the French government complained, and rather than jeopardize U.S. relations with France, Pete was exiled to the Roosevelt mansion at Sagamore Hill.

The misbehavior of dogs owned by politicians is often highlighted by the media. For example, before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his Scottish Terrier, Fala (who became the most well loved dog in the nation) he had another Scotty named Meggie. The press loved to report her episodes of mischief such as terrorizing the housemaids by chasing them down the halls and biting at their brooms, mops and dusters. At one point the famous newspaper reporter Bess Furman decided to explore the story a bit further. During an interview with the President (on more serious matters) she brought up the issue of Meggie's delinquency. Roosevelt laughed and said "I am not with her all of the time, perhaps you had best ask her about these reports."

Furman patted the seat beside her and Meggie responded to the invitation by jumping up on the sofa. Then, Furman looked directly into the terrier's eyes as she asked in a serious voice "Meggie, have you been a naughty dog? Come now and confess to the public what you have really done." The terrier's response was to give the reporter a sharp bite on her nose. Dogs apparently have no respect for the White House press corps.

Recognizing the affection that people have for dogs, politicians have often tried to use them to influence their public image. As an example consider how President Bill Clinton attempted to use a dog as a public relations tool. The events began to unfold prior to the breaking of the sex scandal involving Monica Lewinsky. At that time Clinton still had the image of a devoted father and husband. Clinton's advisors were concerned about the fact that his daughter, Chelsea, was going to leave Washington in order to start school at Stanford University in California. They felt that the President might lose his image as a family man since there would no longer be photographs of the presidential helicopter being met by both his wife Hillary and his daughter. It occurred to them that one way to solve this problem would be to have Hillary meet him on his returns to Washington in the company of a family dog.

Since Clinton did not have a dog at the time one had to be selected. His advisors reasoned that the dog chosen should have maximal appeal to the greatest number of voters. At that time the most popular dog in America (in fact in the world) was the Labrador Retriever, so obviously the dog would have to be a Lab. However, it could not be a black Labrador, since they don't photograph very well, and it could not be a yellow Lab, since they photograph so well that it might detract from the President. Thus it was decided that the presidential dog had to be a chocolate colored Labrador Retriever.

dog dogs canine canines pet pets Bill Clinton labrador retriever Buddy

Bill Clinton and Buddy

I got to personally experience how politicians and their advisers think about dogs a week or two after Barack Obama's inauguration as president. I was sitting in my office and received a phone call. The caller identified himself as a member of Obama's staff and said that he had been tasked to contact a number of dog experts about choosing a dog for the president. Obama had promised his daughters that he would get one if elected, however one of them, Melia, has allergies so they needed a hypoallergenic dog.

I reminded the caller that this was a dog for two little girls who had never had a pet before, so I suggested that a smaller dog might work best. I told him that in these circumstances most experts would probably suggest a Bichon Frise, however they can be excitable. Instead, I suggested, that there were two relatively new breeds, derived from the Maltese, that were pleasant and hypoallergenic and might work. The first was the Coton de Tulear, but perhaps even better would be the Havanese, since it had a bit less coat.

"Havanese?" he asked, "As in Havana, Cuba?"

"Yes," I answered.

"Well that certainly won't work," was his reply.

For politicians the nature of the media image conveyed is obviously more important than the nature of the puppy.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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