Notes on...

The political power of America’s First Dogs

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

From the moment Donald Trump’s presidency began, he was lacking something. But Joe Biden is about to make up for it — twice over.

Trump was the first president in more than a century not to have a dog in the White House. Biden’s German shepherds Champ, 12, and two-year-old Major will be filling the vacancy left by Barack Obama’s Portuguese water dogs, Bo and Sunny, and continuing a tradition of First Dogs that can trace its pedigree back to George Washington.

Far from being mere political poodles, many First Dogs have made history in their own right. Calvin Coolidge’s collie Rob Roy was the first dog to feature in an official First Family portrait, which still hangs in the China Room, while George W. Bush’s Scottie, Barney, gave a dog’s-eye view of Washington life with ‘Barneycam’, a series of videos so popular they crashed the White House website.

Barney wasn’t the only First Dog with a taste for the media (sometimes too literally — he had a reputation for biting reporters). George H.W. Bush’s springer spaniel reached the bestseller lists with Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush, outselling the president’s own autobiography. She also became a magazine cover star, posing for Life with the puppies she gave birth to in the White House — including Spot, who later returned to live there with George W. Bush.


But some presidential dogs become a little too high-profile for their own good. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Scottie, Fala, who had a secretary to manage his fan mail, earned the Secret Service code name ‘Informer’ because he drew so much attention that officials feared he’d put the president’s life in danger.

And First Dogs have no diplomatic immunity from the doghouse. Another of FDR’s dogs, Major, reportedly tore the seat from Ramsay MacDonald’s trousers during a state visit. The irony of a German shepherd attacking a British prime minister amid the tensions of 1933 was not lost on reporters.

Other presidential pets have helped boost international relations, though. At the height of the Cold War, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent John F. Kennedy a gift — Pushinka (‘fluffy’), the puppy of the Russian space dog Strelka. After a CIA inspection for listening devices, Pushinka settled in so well that she had puppies of her own with another of JFK’s dogs, Charlie the Welsh terrier. More than 5,000 letters arrived requesting one of the four resulting ‘pupniks’.

But perhaps the most useful trick First Dogs have pulled off is fetching votes. In 1928, Herbert Hoover’s Belgian shepherd King Tut appeared in a campaign photo that was credited with softening Hoover’s stiff image and getting him elected. In 1944, FDR defended Fala against a Republican political attack in a speech that many believed turned the election in his favour.

Last year, meanwhile, Biden’s dogs found themselves starring in a campaign video by a group called ‘Dog Lovers For Joe Biden’. It showed past presidents with their dogs and then cut to Trump making anti-dog remarks, concluding: ‘Choose your humans wisely.’

So maybe we’ll never know for sure whether Biden brought two dogs to the White House, or they brought him. But as Calvin Coolidge said: ‘Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House.’

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