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George Washington: President, General and Dog Breeder

One factor in George Washington's becoming president was dogs.

George Washington, the Commanding General of the Continental Army and later the first President of the United States, had a life-long association with dogs. His major concern with them had to do with fox hunting, which was one of his great delights and passions. During his years in Virginia he would ride out with his dogs to hunt foxes every week and sometimes two or three times a week. However what is not well known to most people is that his dogs would make it easier for him to become the leader of the new nation that emerged from the American Revolution. Nor do most people know that he would ultimately bring a new breed of dog into the world.

As an educated and devoted farmer, Washington knew the basics of animal breeding and husbandry. With his usual painstaking care he began to build a pack of hunting hounds. They became his hobby, and his passion. Washington's diaries are filled with his accounts of his dog breeding and eventually he created a unique breed of foxhound that he called "Virginia Hounds."

Washington's feelings about these dogs can be detected in the names that he gave them. There was Sweet Lips, Venus, and Truelove. These shared a kennel with dogs named Taster, Tippler and Drunkard, but we don't have time for a psychological analysis of another love that is perhaps indicated by these names.

With the rise of discontent against British rule, the Continental Congress was formed to discuss the relationship between the American colonies and King George III. Washington was appointed as one of the representatives from the colony of Virginia. Congress met in Philadelphia, and Washington found the conditions quite difficult since he obviously could not, simply at a whim, mount his horse and assemble his dogs to hunt foxes through the streets of the city. However, Samuel Powel, the wealthy Mayor of Philadelphia, and his lovely wife Elizabeth Willing Powel, rescued him.

Image from SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: Image from SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

Elizabeth Powel had originally taken notice of Washington, when she had been struck by his handsome elegance. She described her first encounter with him saying, "His movements and gestures are graceful, his walk majestic, and he was walking with a tall, exceedingly graceful dog of the hound type as he strode down Walnut Street." The dog was one of Washington's favorites, Sweet Lips, who he kept as a companion while he stayed in the city. Elizabeth, from her comments, was obviously attracted to both the look of the man and the look of the dog. However, she stopped the Virginia gentleman to comment specifically on the dog. Washington was seldom modest about his dogs and he proudly informed her that it was a "perfect foxhound" that he himself had bred. It was Elizabeth who brought Washington to her husband's attention. Samuel recognized that this was a man with political as well as military talents and that it might be in his own political interests to foster an association with him.

When Elizabeth had met Washington and Sweet Lips, he mentioned his disappointment at not being able to hunt while Congress was in session. Elizabeth suggested that her husband might be able to help solve that problem and invited Washington to join them for dinner at their home. It was through the Powels that Washington was offered a chance to ride to the hounds at the Gloucester Hunting Club, across the river in New Jersey. It is usually claimed that the Gloucester club was the first foxhunting club in the New World. Washington impressed everyone in the club as being a "splendid horseman" and his dogs were also deemed as being impressive because of their "stamina and sagacity."

Mayor Powel was very well connected in both the political and financial worlds, and many of his powerful friends were also members of the club. The men that Washington met through his visits to hunt with the club were the men who had the ability to sway the current government. They liked this man from Virginia. He was intelligent, organized, had a commanding presence. It also appeared that he was honest and moral, and, not to be ignored, he had a love of dogs and hunting. When Washington made a gift of some of his Virginia Hounds to these men they were pleased and appreciative. Their appreciation would turn itself into a lobbying effort that would help to win Washington the command of the Continental Army.

Washington's affection for dogs is vividly illustrated in an incident that occurred during the Revolutionary War. It was when American forces were trying to contain British General William Howe's troops, who had occupied Philadelphia. During the Battle of Germantown, which was not going well for the Americans, Washington was encamped was encamped at Pennibecker's Mill. On October 6, 1777, a little terrier was seen wandering the area between the American and British lines. It turns out that General Howe's little terrier had somehow gotten loose and had become lost on the battlefield. The dog was identified from its collar, and brought to Washington. His officers suggested that he might want to keep the dog as a sort of trophy which might weaken the morale of the British general. Instead he took the dog into his tent, fed him and had him brushed and cleaned. Then, to the surprise of everyone, Washington ordered a cease fire. The shooting stopped and soldiers on both sides watched as one of Washington's aides formally returned a little dog to the British commander under a flag of truce.

At the close of the war, Washington retired to Mount Vernon to continue his agricultural work, to engage in Virginia politics and to fulfill his dream of creating "a superior dog, one that had speed, scent and brains." He had decided that his Virginia Hounds were too lightly built and were lacking in the strength for a long sustained hunt. In addition they were too easily distracted from the trail of the fox by other things. During the war Washington had developed a warm personal relationship with the Marquis de La Fayette, the French general and political leader whose assistance was vital to the success of the revolution. In their many private conversations Lafayette had praised the French King's staghounds for their stamina and focus when on the trail of a quarry. So Washington began a long correspondence with his old comrade-in-arms to try to obtain a few of these dogs as breeding stock. The hounds that Washington wanted had originally been bred in the French royal kennels and were not easily obtained, however Lafayette continued searching and he eventually managed to find seven large French hounds that he promptly sent off to America.

Washington quickly set about breeding the larger French staghounds to his smaller Virginia Hounds. He was very selective in his breeding, carefully breeding dogs with desirable attributes to others that had different qualities that he also desired. He was looking for a hound whose size was a bit bigger than his Virginia hounds but considerably smaller than the French hounds, while still retaining the speed and strength of the French imports. The dog needed to have better running speed than the English foxhound since the hunt was generally much swifter given the broader expanses of open ground in the Americas. His experiments were successful and Washington is credited as being the main developer of the American Foxhound.

Washington's experiments with dog breeding would be cut short by political pressures. In 1787, he headed the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and was unanimously elected presiding officer. During his long stay in Philadelphia he again spent time with the Powels and he also visited the Gloucester club to hunt with a few of his newer dogs and to renew acquaintances. Washington's foxhunting friends used their influence to buy him support from members of the Electoral College, which had been established to elect the President of the United States of America. After the new Constitution was ratified and became legally operative, Washington was unanimously elected president. How much of this honor was due to the political support that he gained as a result of events set in motion because the wife of the Mayor of Philadelphia stopped to comment on a handsome dog, we will never know.

Washington would never have time to return to continue to shape his "perfect hounds." However, there would be a few additional changes made to the breed in the early 1800's, when Washington's friends at the Gloucester Foxhunting Club would take his basic foxhounds and cross them with some English foxhounds to make them look a bit more like the Old World version of the breed. Nonetheless, it is certain that George Washington--the first U.S. president, the heroic general and the Virginia farmer--had clearly defined the model of what the American Foxhound should be.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events, How Dogs Think : Understanding the Canine Mind, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome.

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

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