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New Book Tells Tales of Presidents' Dogs

New Book Tells Tales of Presidents' Dogs

New Book Tells Tales of Presidents' Dogs

President Harry Truman once said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." That could be why there has been a dog living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for much of American history. However, never before the election of Barack Obama had the selection of a First Dog been anticipated with such excitement.

Research ties U.S. presidents to canine pets

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It is neither new nor unusual for a dog to be living in the presidential mansion.

"I think Calvin Coolidge once said, 'Any man who doesn't like dogs, doesn't deserve to be in the White House,'" says Roy Rowan, co-author of First Dogs: American Presidents and their Best Friends.

"We did a lot of research and discovered that presidents, going back to George Washington, all seemed to have dogs," he adds. "There are only two or three presidents that we couldn't discover whether or not they had dogs," Rowan says.

Dogs were closely attached to the Presidents even before there was a White House. George Washington, he points out, had a number of dogs among other pets. His trusty dog Sweetlips accompanied him into battle during the Revolutionary War.

F.D.R.'s Fala

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Over the years, Rowan says, some first dogs became more popular than others.

One of the most famous, says Rowan, is Fala, a black Scotty that belonged to U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "Fala had been taken everywhere with Roosevelt, even was on the cruiser [USS] Savannah, when Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, Churchill brought his dog too, Rufus. I think the two dogs had a good time, just as the President and Prime minister did," Rowan says.

King Tut warmed up Hoover's image

One canine even helped swing an election. In 1928, Rowan says, the conservative Republican candidate Herbert Hoover, who had never run for any office, appeared too stiff and austere to get elected.

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"He didn't have much expression and his campaign managers were very worried," he says. "So they decided to pose him with this big police dog, King Tut, for his official campaign picture."

Rowan says King Tut gave his master a cuddlier image and Hoover won the White House.

Getting dogs to play politics

Some other first dogs had big political roles after elections.

"President [Warren] Harding, for instance, had his dog Laddie Boy, an Airedale," Rowan says. "And when the President wanted to criticize opposing politicians, he used Laddie Boy and had him interviewed by the Washington Star. Then the words came from Laddie Boy and not from the President, so the President wouldn't be held responsible for some of the nasty things they had to say about other people in politics. Take President Clinton, when he got caught up in the Lewinsky scandal, he suddenly got a dog, Buddy, a Chocolate Labrador to help defuse that situation. So dogs have been used also as weapons of 'mass distraction,'" Rowan quips.

Lincoln's Fido

One of the stories Rowan recounts in the book is about Fido, Abraham Lincoln's dog, who never actually lived in the White House.

"Lincoln decided when he was elected president he wouldn't take Fido to Washington," he says. "So he left him with a neighbor family and gave the neighbor special instructions to feed the dog. The Lincoln's gave the neighbor their couch which their dog was accustomed to sleeping on, so the dog would continue to have a good life. But, unfortunately, right after Lincoln was assassinated Fido escaped from the neighbor's house and went out in the street. And he put his paws, his muddy paws, on this drunk who was sitting on the curb. The drunk pulled out a knife and stabbed poor Fido to death. The neighbor family wrote Mrs. Lincoln a letter saying, 'Like his master, poor Fido was assassinated.'"

Other presidential pets

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Though dogs have been the favorite pet for more recent presidents, that wasn't always the case, says Claire McLean, founder of the Presidential Pet Museum.

"In the early days horses were very popular," she says. "Then birds were quite popular. In the early days dogs didn't seem to be in much favor with the early presidents. And gradually dogs became much more popular than they had been mostly because they are much more home oriented, people oriented and they were accepted by the American public," McLean adds.

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Visitors to the Presidential Pet Museum, she says, can see pictures and read stories of other interesting creatures that called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home.

"[John] Adams (1789-1891) had an alligator," she says. "[Martin] Van Buren (1837-1841) had two tiger cubs. He had a cage on the White House lawn area. He would love those tiger cubs, and his wife liked them. They were cute and little. They were getting bigger bigger, and Congress said that gifts to the president belong to the public and should be put in the National Zoo. Van Buren fought to keep them as his own but Congress sent those little tiger cubs to the zoo. President Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) had raccoons, which he made pets of. President [Howard] Taft (1909-1913) had a cow, and he let it graze on the White House lawn, and it was his pet cow. Every morning, someone from the White House would milk it and bring him the fresh milk. Eventually, he got so fat and after that, the cow went to the farm because his doctor told him he had to stop drinking so much fresh milk and getting so fat," the museum founder says.

Obama's Bo

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Perhaps no other dog received the attention Bo Obama got, even before arriving at the White House. Roy Rowan says the Portuguese water dog was a gift from the late Senator Edward Kennedy, a dog lover himself.

"Obama mentioned that he was going to give the girls a dog when he delivered his victory speech in Chicago the night of election," he says. "Then all dog lovers in the United States seemed to be excited about this. Many of them suggested different breeds. Breeders also offered dogs to the President. [But] the elder daughter [Malia] was allergic to certain kinds of dogs. So, they had to be careful and they ended up with this Portuguese water dog that was safe for her to have."

Rowan says dogs have become an important part of the public image of the first family and in many cases they become celebrities in their own right.