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Why Do We Expect Presidents To Own Dogs?

Trump is famously dog-averse. But as presidential pet owners have found, owning a dog makes you relatable like nothing else can.

What kind of dog would President Donald Trump get if his son Barron asked for one? A Xoloitzcuintli, those exotic looking Mexican hairless dogs? No, of course not, send that good boy back!

Or maybe a Pungsan because North Korea’s Kim Jong Un recently gifted South Korean President Moon Jae-in with two of the rare Korean hunting dogs as a gesture of goodwill between the two countries? Probably, actually, yes. Look at how hyped up Trump gets whenever Kim sends him a letter; imagine how over the moon he’d be if is favorite dictator sent a rare dog to the White House.

It’s a fun thing to consider, but ultimately, the debate is moot. The president is famously dog-averse. Breaking from a long tradition of presidents with pups, Trump is the first POTUS in about 150 years to have no known pets while occupying the White House.

“I wouldn’t mind having one, honestly, but I don’t have any time,’” he told supporters at an El Paso rally in February. “How would I look walking a dog on the White House lawn?”

What’s more, a dog really doesn’t fit his personal brand.

“Feels a little phony to me,” he said. Though he said many have told him a dog might be good for optics and his public image, he’s doesn’t see the need because “that’s not the relationship I have with my people.”

It doesn't matter how much support these dogs throw behind President Trump, he's not interested. 
It doesn't matter how much support these dogs throw behind President Trump, he's not interested. 

Hey, you can’t fault the guy for admitting he’s not a dog person. But in the minds of most Americans, dogs and presidents just seem to go together. So why is it that the public expects presidents to own a dog or two? Because, like many have told Trump, if you’re going for an everyman image, it’s great for optics.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 57% of households had a pet at the end of 2016. (Some surveys place the number even higher.) Owning a dog makes a candidate relatable in a way that not much else can.

Dog ownership is sort of like the nonalcoholic version of “you could have a beer with them” voter litmus test, Andrew Hager told HuffPost. He’s the historian in residence at the Presidential Pet Museum, which features a collection of presidential pet memorabilia outside of Baltimore.

A dog also suggests a sort of innate goodness in its owner.

“People believe that someone who has a good relationship with a dog must be a good person, because they believe animals can judge character,” Hager said. “You see this play out all the time in movies, where dogs growl at the bad guy. The opposite of that would be a dog lovingly romping with a president — that person must be good, right?”

“Dog ownership is sort of like the nonalcoholic version of “you could have a beer with him” voter litmus test.”

Plus, being a president is stressful. It’s reassuring to picture the president having a loyal dog by their side at the end of a hard time.

And in cut-throat D.C., that sort of companionship and unending loyalty is a rarity. As a saying often attributed to President Harry S. Truman goes, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

It’s not always a dog’s life at the White House. Every once in a while, a cat gets the chance to lord over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President Bill Clinton’s cat, Socks, is a notable example. (The White House went back to the dogs in 1997, when the Clintons took in a chocolate Labrador puppy named Buddy. Socks and Buddies became fast frenemies.)

While every presidential dog has done a doggone good job bolstering his human’s public image, some of their legacies loom a little larger than others. Here, a non-exhaustive look at some notable First Dogs.

A few good dogs

The first dog to really endear himself to the general public was Laddie Boy, an Airedale Terrier President Warren G. Harding and his wife, Florence, brought to the White House in 1921.

“The first family didn’t have kids but included their four-legged friend in all aspects of their lives,” said Julia Moberg, the author of “Presidential Pets: The Weird, Wacky, Little, Big, Scary, Strange Animals That Have Lived in the White House.” “Laddie Boy was written about daily in newspapers around the country. He became America’s first viral celebrity pet.”

Laddie Boy poses with his portrait. 
Laddie Boy poses with his portrait. 

As the Smithsonian reported, Laddie Boy did it all, participating in the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn, tagging along for golf outings with Harding and his cronies, and even sitting in on Cabinet meetings (sitting in his own chair, no less.)

Laddie Boy also did damage control for Harding, a good-natured but flawed president.

“When the Harding presidency was rocked by several scandals within his cabinet, Harding was still viewed as a decent and respectable politician due in part to his close and loving relationship with Laddie Boy,” Moberg said.

When Harding died of a heart attack in San Francisco in 1923 while on a tour that had taken him to Alaska, The Associated Press ran an absolutely heartbreaking story on the dog the next day:

“There was one member of the White House household today who could not quite comprehend the air of sadness which hung over the Executive Mansion. It was Laddie Boy, President Harding’s Airedale friend and companion. Of late he has been casting an expectant eye and cocking a watchful ear at the motor cars which roll up on the White House drive. For, in his dog sense way, he seems to reason that an automobile took [the Hardings] away, so an automobile must bring them back. White House attachés shook their heads and wondered how they were going to make Laddie Boy understand.”

Now that we’ve all ugly cried over Laddie, let’s move on: The next dog to capture the public’s imagination was Fala, a Scottish Terrier given as a puppy to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 as he geared up his quest for an unprecedented third term. Fala then came to figure prominently in the 1944 campaign, as Republicans attacked Roosevelt over a false story that the dog had been inadvertently left in the Aleutian Islands during the president’s stop there and that FDR dispatched a Navy destroyer to retrieve him.

In a September speech to union members in Washington nationally broadcast on radio, Roosevelt rose to his pet’s defense. GOP leaders, he said, “have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. ... They now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them.”

Fala’s “Scotch soul was furious,” he continued. “He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself ... But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt's dog Fala, listening to the President's speech on the radio.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's dog Fala, listening to the President's speech on the radio.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that Roosevelt’s audience “went wild, laughing and cheering. ... And the laughter carried beyond the banquet hall; it reverberated in living rooms and kitchens throughout the country.”

It came to be known as the “Fala speech.” And Roosevelt went on to easily win a historic fourth term.

The next well-known dog in presidential lore also was spotlighted in political oratory ― Checkers. Though the cocker spaniel never actually occupied the White House, then-Sen. Richard Nixon of California made him a household name in September 1952.

At the time, Nixon was Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate on the Republican presidential ticket. But Nixon was embroiled in scandal over accepting gifts from GOP donors, and Eisenhower was considering replacing him. But then came the famous “Checkers speech.”

“Nixon went on television and gave a speech explaining his actions,” Hager said. “Notably, he ended the speech by saying that the one gift he had accepted was a dog named Checkers, and that his family was going to keep that gift. The speech was well-received, and it saved his political career.”

Nixon served two terms as vice president and then won the top office in 1968.

"Thanks for saving my career, ol' boy." 
"Thanks for saving my career, ol' boy." 

First Dogs have figured in snafus, too. President Lyndon B. Johnson enraged animal lovers in 1964 when he lifted his pet beagle, Him, by the ears in front of the press. (Has there ever been a more impersonal name for a dog than ‘Him’?)

In more recent times, Hager said it could be argued that Barney Bush, George W. Bush’s Scottish Terrier, was more popular than the president in the waning years of his second term. (The Bushes welcomed a second Scottish Terrier, Miss Beazley, a little later on.)

The White House even set up a Barneycam that tracked the little guy’s activities during the holiday season. Of course, even the goodest of boys can get embroiled in political scandal.

“There was an incident where Barney bit the hand of a reporter, so he wasn’t without controversy,” Hager said.

Lesson learned? Next time, be sure you’re on a terrier’s good side before touching him.

Barack Obama and his family didn’t have a pup before arriving at the White House since his older daughter, Malia, was allergic to animal fur. That changed once he was elected in 2008.

“Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much … and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House,” Obama said in his Grant Park victory speech.

That presidential pooch? Bo, a hypoallergenic Portuguese Water Dog. A few years later, Bo got a sister named Sunny. The pups were so in-demand, they had their own official White House schedule.

Bo (L) and Sunny, the Obama family dogs.
Bo (L) and Sunny, the Obama family dogs.

A look at the good boys who could be the next first dog

If Trump takes the White House again, maybe he’ll relent and let Barron get a dog. If he loses, there are plenty of Democratic candidates who’d be all too happy to pack up the Kibbles And Bits and bring their dog along to the White House.

It’s very on-brand that Elizabeth Warren owns a golden retriever named Bailey (after the Jimmy Stewart character in “It’s a Wonderful Life”), Hager said.

“She is positioning herself as a champion of the little guy, and even her dog is taking up that mantle,” he said.

Other Democratic contenders have taken “adopt, don’t shop” to heart: Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg both have rescue dogs.

Mayor Pete’s dogs, Truman and Buddy, are Instagram famous.

O’Rourke’s dog, Artemis, has already had a viral moment, after posing with the Texas politician on the cover of Vanity Fair in March. Clearly, Artie wasn’t in the mood for an Annie Leibovitz photoshoot that day.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has a shelter dog, too: a German Shepherd named Major.

“The interesting distinction here is that Major was a foster dog that the Bidens chose to adopt,” Hager said. “Apparently, at one point the dog had been exposed to toxic chemicals before the Biden family fostered him. Say what you will about the former vice president as a candidate, but I believe fostering a dog with special needs is a great thing.”

Plenty more candidates have dogs, too, and others are smartly considering getting a pooch.

At a campaign event in Iowa, Cory Booker was asked by an 11-year-old if he had a dog. Booker, a bachelor, said he’s currently dog-less but he wants to get one if he makes it to the White House.

“There’s still time, he really should get a pooch,” Moberg said. “At this point in the race, I think it’s any dog’s game!”

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