Many politicians rely on the companionship of a dog to provide them with social and psychological support. Most people know about Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his Scottish Terrier, Fala; George Bush Senior and his Springer Spaniel, Millie: Lyndon Johnson and his Beagles, Him and Her; George W. Bush and his Scottish Terriers, Barney and Ms Beasly, and many others. In addition to the part that pet dogs can play in the personal life of politicians, sometimes they become symbols of a political regime, and sometimes they are deliberately used by their masters to create an impression or to achieve a political goal.
Consider, as an example, the case of Vladimir Putin and his dog Koni. Putin served as the elected president of Russia for eight years and is now his nation's Prime Minister. Koni is a black Labrador Retriever. She was given to Putin by General of the Army Sergey Shoigu. Koni actually has a hereditary association with politics since she was born in a government center in Noginsk which breeds dogs for search and rescue work but more importantly her line of Labrador Retrievers can be traced back to dogs owned by Leonid Brezhnev, the one-time General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Her full name is Connie Paulgrave and there are unconfirmed rumors that Koni was named after the former U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.
Although Putin is very popular with the Russian people, his policies have raised tensions between Russian and the West on a number of issues. Many of his harshest statements and actions have been addressed toward the U.S. and Britain. He also has a reputation for suppressing and dealing harshly with his internal political opponents, and some have claimed that a number of Russia's newly won democratic rights, such as freedom of the press, free speech and freedom of assembly have been threatened by Putin's actions. This has drawn sharp criticism from the international community and from certain groups and individuals inside Russia. Many who know Putin personally claim that he has strong negative reactions to criticism, and it often triggers outbursts of anger or bouts of depression.
At one press conference in Moscow, Putin was asked about his moodiness in response to criticism. He replied "As far as bad moods go, of course I have them like any other person, but in those cases I try to consult with my dog Koni-she gives me good advice."
Putin clearly is quite fond of Koni and is often seen in public with her beside him. She often attends staff meetings with him and is frequently present when he greets world leaders that are visiting Russia. Sometimes, when she is not permitted to be with him, Koni gets quite annoyed. The officially sponsored newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported an incident in 2003, when TV and press reporters travelled to Sochi to attend a discussion of current issues with the President. Koni was present, but when it came time to start the meeting, Putin's security guards tried to stop Koni from following him. She refused to cooperate and as Putin and a group of journalists and Putin started down the staircase, Koni rushed towards them. Some were startled and backed away, however Koni was only interested in Putin, and stopped in front of him and started to bark loudly. This caused the president of REN TV, Irena Lesnevsky, to loudly ask everyone else present, "So who else here can so bark at the President?"
A year later Koni again escaped from her keepers, this time at a children's New Year party at the State Kremlin Palace. Dodging security guards and hundreds of children she dashed through the crowd and managed to join Putin on stage while he was in the middle of giving a speech to the media, politicians and the public. Koni's escapes often appear to be motivated by a desire to be around Putin however the Russian press has suggested that it might also be the case that Koni has learned that when representatives of the media are around there is often also an abundance of food present. She probably has also learned that under such conditions people are often willing to give her some of that food as a treat. This situation has bothered Putin to the point that he commented on his website "Sometimes, Koni leaves a room full of journalists with a very pleased expression on her face and biscuit crumbs around her mouth...Please don't feed my dog!"
However sometimes Koni does not need the assistance of journalists to get her treats. Recently Putin hosted a gathering at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. The purpose was to discuss with leaders of his United Russia party some ways to help the local food industry. A special tea service had been prepared to close the meeting. Since Koni was not invited into the meeting room she made her way into the room where the food was on the table and began to snack on the collection of pastries, biscuits and jellied desserts that had been prepared for the dignitaries. One of Putin's astonished bodyguards summarized the situation simply, "Koni ate everything!"
The problem of keeping track of Koni's whereabouts seemed to be on Putin's mind when he attended a presentation describing the development of the Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS). This was developed by the Russian army in response to the American GPS system that allows accurate location of anything carrying a special transmitter. Putin's first question to the technical personnel was "Can I use it on my dog?" Some months later a satellite-tracking collar able to detect the canine's every step was presented to him. This was the first such collar ever produced in Russia, and it allows 21 satellites in stationary orbit to track Koni. Whether this will keep her out of trouble is unknown.
Putin has used Koni's presence politically, although his motivations are sometimes obscure. Thus when U.S. President George W. Bush visited Putin's residence, Koni was there to greet him. Putin was reported to have remarked to the visiting President that Koni is "bigger, tougher, stronger, faster, meaner, than Barney [Bush's Scottish Terrier]." There is no record of what Bush said in response although he was observed smiling.
Putin has apparently also used Koni to attempt to intimidate one diplomat during difficult negotiations over energy supplies. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, apparently has a fear of dogs because she was severely bitten by one when she was young. Vladimir Putin was aware of this fact since he had already met Merkel several times when she was in opposition and leader of the conservative Christian Democrats. Some people suspect that Putin wanted to gain some form of psychological edge over Merkel during the complex discussions. When they met at the presidential residence Putin invited Koni to join them. Koni entered in her usual active and dominant manner and immediately went over to Merkel. The German Chancellor flinched back uncomfortably at her approach. Merkel then nervously, or perhaps wishfully, commented in Russian, "Now the dog is going to eat the journalists." However it seemed to some of those who knew Merkel well that she actually meant "I hope that the dog is not going to eat me."
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: 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.
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