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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Presidential Pooches

A Brief History of First Family Companions

Since the beginning of the American presidency, dogs have often shared a presence in both the first family and the White House. In fact, 30 out of the 44 presidents have had a dog at some point during their respective presidencies. These dogs were not only important in the lives of the presidents and their families, but also to the American public. They often gained fame for their presence in the White House, although this was for a variety of different reasons. Many presidents are simply lifelong dog lovers; some have used dogs to humanize themselves; and others have even used their beloved pets to distract from scandal or negative press.

The first notably famous dog in the White House was Laddie Boy, President Warren G. Harding’s dog. Laddie Boy, an Airedale Terrier, became a member of the first family the day after President Harding’s inauguration.1 While in office, the president was very vocal about his love for all animals, but especially dogs: “Whether the Creator planned it so, or environment and human companionship have made it so, men may learn richly through the love and fidelity of a brave and devoted dog.”2 President Harding and his wife First Lady Florence Harding had no children during their time in the White House, so Laddie Boy became their child in many ways. The dog was free to roam the Second Floor of the White House, and was spoiled as much as possible--he was given so many scraps that the president ordered the kitchen staff to keep his companion on a strict diet.3 Laddie Boy had a strong public presence in the presidency of Harding, as upon his arrival to the White House, the president sent out statues of his newly beloved dog to all of his supporters.4 Additionally, newspapers ran sensational and entertaining articles on Laddie Boy for months--sometimes Harding himself would write letters to the newspapers pretending to be his dog.5 In 1923, when President and First Lady Harding could not make it to the White House Easter Egg Roll due to a visit in Georgia, Laddie Boy “took over” their hosting duties and represented the first family.6 Laddie Boy is an exemplary example of a president having their pet during their presidency join the first family in the White House out of sheer love and affection.

The Hardings' Airedale Terrier, Laddie Boy, poses with his birthday cake at the White House.

Library of Congress

Another famous example of a president who was very fond of his presidential pooch was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His most famous dog, Fala, was given to Roosevelt in 1940, by his cousin Margaret "Daisy" Suckley.7 He quickly became one of the most famous Roosevelts, as it seemed he was always at the president’s side. Roosevelt had a bed placed next to his for Fala, and would eat almost every meal with his beloved dog.8 Fala also spent a great amount of time with the president in his car while they were staying at Hyde Park. It also was not unusual for many famous politicians and celebrities to meet Fala when they met the president himself, as Fala often accompanied Roosevelt on trips overseas and to meet with foreign dignitaries. During these trips, Fala perhaps got the most attention from the press. A prominent moment from Roosevelt’s presidency was the “Fala Speech,” where the president addressed gossip fueled by conservative writers and politicians. It was rumored that Roosevelt left his beloved dog on an island during a trip to the Aleutian Islands, and commanded a Navy ship to turn around and pick up his companion—supposedly wasting millions of taxpayer dollars in the process.9 Roosevelt decided to utilize a comedic moment within his speech to address this allegation and others, including ones critical of his family, saying, “Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them.”10 The audience and reporters found this comical, and it proved to be an effective way to dispel and disarm negative rumors about his dog. This only strengthened his public image and made Fala more popular.

President Franklin Roosevelt sits beside his Scottish Terrier, Fala, in his study on the Second Floor of the White House in December 1941.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA 

U.S. presidents have also been known to bring a dog into their family in order to humanize themselves more or for public relations purposes. Dogs often give these leaders a friendlier, more likable image. As such, man’s best friend has shaped the public perception and helped to generate support for the president. An exemplary example of this is President Herbert Hoover and his Belgian Shepherd, King Tut. Hoover had worked in engineering and later for the United States government prior to running for the presidency in 1928. Although he had a positive reputation for his government work in providing relief aid during World War I, the public found it difficult to relate to a man who seemed very formal and distant. In order to combat this, it was suggested that President Hoover put out an image of he and his companion, King Tut, to the public.11 Once the photograph was released to the public, thousands of copies were not only published but also purchased by citizens. This image showed a more relatable and endearing side of Hoover, so much so that the New York Times described it as “one of the happiest pictures ever made” of the president.12 This picture demonstrates the role in which dogs play in shaping perceptions of the president. Because of this photograph, Hoover’s public image was greatly improved upon, and ultimately it was instrumental in getting him elected to the presidency.

President Herbert Hoover with King Tut, a Belgian Shepard mix.

Library of Congress

Roosevelt and Hoover were not the only examples of a president (and a presidential nominee) using their pet for public relations purposes. President Jimmy Carter used his Border Collie mix, Grits, to win the public’s hearts as well as to get the message of an animal health-centered campaign out to all pet owners in across the country. Carter, originally from Plains, Georgia, highlighted his southern roots frequently during his campaign--he even had buttons with “Grits & Fritz in ‘76” made to win over southern voters.13 Once he entered the presidency in 1977, many noticed that he had no dog to keep his daughter Amy company during their stay in the White House. This led to her elementary school teacher giving the Carter family Grits, who was one of the puppies of her pet dog.14 The Carters’ dog proved to be a big attraction with the public, especially because the dog was born on the day of Carter’s election win. The dog was often photographed by reporters, often with Amy or her father. While it was rumored that Grits wasn’t the best-behaved boy and had issues getting along with the Carters’ cat, Misty Malarky Ying Yang, the president participated in Heartworm Awareness Week. Grits refused to swallow the pill, causing a debacle of sorts while amusing members of the press and public.15 This is one example of how a presidential dog, gifted to the first family, became part of a larger public relations campaign to raise more awareness for the issue of heartworm in dogs.

Amy Carter, daughter of President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, sits beside her dog Grits on the South Portico steps.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Finally, presidential dogs have on occasion served as distractions from scandal or negative press coverage. One of the most famous instances was that of vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon, who was accused of spending supporter funds for personal instead of political use. In his now famous “Checkers speech,” candidate Nixon said that all of the accusations made against him were both illegal and “immoral”, but he ultimately stated that none of the funds were used in the accused ways; that he had always been transparent with where the money was coming from and going to; and that no donors received any special privileges.16 Although he firmly denied the misuse of any political gifts, Nixon reached a section within his speech where he admitted that his Cocker Spaniel, Checkers, was originally a political gift that he should not have kept. A man in Texas heard Patricia Nixon on the radio discussing how much their children wanted a dog, and he consequently sent them one.17 Needless to say, the Nixon girls fell in love with the dog and the candidate stoutly proclaimed that he wasn’t going to take something that brought such joy to his kids away.18 The speech became memorable for this very statement, as many parents around the country could relate to their children loving a pet so much that the idea of taking it away from them was simply unfathomable. By highlighting how much his family cherished Checkers, as well as admitting that he had made a mistake, candidate Nixon distracted from the other accusations that enveloped the political gift scandal.

Vice President Richard Nixon and Second Lady Patricia Nixon, along with daughters Tricia and Julie, play with Checkers at the beach in Mantoloking, New Jersey, in August 1953.

Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

President Bill Clinton’s chocolate Labrador-Retriever, Buddy, was brought to the White House in December 1997. Clinton brought Buddy into his family, saying “It’s the president’s desire to have one loyal friend in Washington.”19 Like most new first family pets, Buddy caught the eye of the public who were eager to see his feud with the Clinton’s cat, Socks. Not long after Buddy entered the Clinton family, the Monica Lewinsky scandal became public, and President Clinton was under heavy scrutiny by the press, as well as from politicians, journalists, and commentators. Although his family stood by him, President Clinton relied on his trusty four-legged friend for companionship and to help soften his public image. In the fall of 1998, First Lady Hillary Clinton published the book, Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets, as a way to bring attention to their beloved family pets while encouraging the youth of America to continue writing letters.20 While no amount of distraction completely took the scandal out of the public eye, Buddy played a large part in the first family coping with it and its fallout. However, there was one strange incident where Buddy was criticized by the Black Dog franchise.21 They claimed that their image looked too similar to that of Clinton’s dog, and that Buddy was ruining business for them because of the president's unpopularity.22

President Bill Clinton with Buddy, a chocolate-colored Labrador Retriever.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

There is no doubt that presidential pooches play a major role representing the first family and White House throughout the years, and that they will continue to do so in the years to come. While not every president will have a dog as their most trusted companion, the ones who do will undoubtedly bring some public consideration to their pet. This attention can come from pure love for their dog, be used as a way to enhance public relations, or distract from scandal, but regardless of what the public does, the first family will always appear more relatable with the addition of a presidential pet.