Presidential Pups

John Quincy Adams had an alligator, Martin Van Buren had two tiger cubs and Teddy Roosevelt had a menagerie of animals that included a rat and a black bear. For the most part, though, man’s best friend has filled the White House companion role, with the First Fido slot currently occupied by “Bo,” a Portuguese Water Dog.

Recent studies (UCLA, State University of New York at Buffalo) show that dogs take a big bite out of stress – their unconditional support calms and clarifies the minds of their owners. Imagine a nightmare day at work, made worse by a computer crash and traffic snarls. You get home, kick off your shoes and curl up with your own furry friend. Stress begins to melt away.

Now imagine that “going home” after work means taking a break from fiscal cliffs, terrorist threats and tragic shootings. Presidential dogs have their work cut out for them, and Bo has big paw prints to fill.

Perhaps America’s most famous Presidential pup is Fala, the Scottie given to FDR in 1940 as a 6-month-old by the President’s cousin.

Like all good stress-relievers, dogs use humor. Warren Harding’s Airedale, “Laddie Boy,” took the critical limelight off his Commander in Chief, beset by the Teapot Dome scandal, by starring at cabinet meetings and providing mock interviews to journalists. Teddy Roosevelt’s pit bull changed the subject by pulling the French ambassador’s pants off at an official White House function.

Kennedy’s rakish Welsh terrier, Charlie, brought home four “pup-niks” after mating with Pushinka, daughter of Sputnik dog-in-space Laika.

But when the going got tough, Charlie was there. According to kennel keeper Traphes Bryant, when Cuban Missile crisis tensions reached their grimmest, JFK spent some time alone petting Charlie, then sighed, saying “I’d better make some decisions.”

Perhaps America’s most famous Presidential pup is Fala, the Scottie given to FDR in 1940 as a 6-month-old by the President’s cousin. Only Fala is immortalized in Washington, D.C. at a Presidential memorial, sitting at the President’s feet as he did in life.

In No Ordinary Time, biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin chronicles Fala’s invaluable role as an inseparable companion to the President. Fala was often a herald, traveling everywhere with FDR and lifting the spirits of those who saw him. He was an agile projection of FDR, who could not easily walk among those waiting for him.

In his own way, Fala went to war and is considered the most important dog of WWII. Although he was deemed unfit to serve in combat due to short legs and a long coat, he was named an honorary private.

Fala is again immortalized in Dogs of War, Kathleen Kinsolving’s book about the vital roles played by Fala, Patton’s “Willie” and Eisenhower’s “Telek,” another Scottie.

Ike himself said it best: “The friendship of a dog is precious. It becomes even more so when one is so far removed from home. …I have a Scottie. In him I find consolation and diversion…he is the ‘one person’ to whom I can talk without the conversation coming back to war.”

When FDR passed away, Fala supposedly received this letter:

Dear Fala,

You probably don’t remember me. But I knew you back in our kennel days when we were a couple of young pups – in fact we chewed our first bone together, remember? In writing you this letter, I’m speaking for dogs throughout the world. For we are all deeply grieved to hear of the death of your master. Your personal loss is felt by all of us. You know as well as I do that leading a dog’s life is no bed of roses. But a dog’s life is for dogs. Human beings shouldn’t horn in on our territory. But lately a lot of men and women and kids have been leading a dog’s life, and your master was one of the humans who didn’t like to see that sort of thing happening. That’s why we respected him – he wanted to keep human beings in their right place. And he did something about it. He made plans, and people had confidence in his plans because his integrity and sincerity were felt the world over. In other words, he made a lot of people see the light, or as we’d put it, he put them on the right scent. Let’s hope they can keep their noses to the ground and work it out for themselves, even though his personal guidance has been taken away from them.

With deepest sympathy,

Presidential pups say a lot about America. Fortunately they are mum on the subject of partisan politics (neither Bo nor his predecessors agreed to be interviewed for this piece).

Their very breed names through the years speak loudly of peaceful succession, of our melting-pot society: Italian Greyhound, Newfoundland, English Mastiff, German Shepherd, Japanese Poodle, Norwegian Elkhound, Irish Setter, Scottish Terrier, Belgian Sheepdog, Afghan Hound and Portuguese Water Dog.