In his homily for the state funeral of George H.W. Bush on December 5, Rev. Russell Levenson Jr. joked that Sully, Bush’s loyal service dog, had probably received more press attention in recent days than the former president himself. That sentiment echoed Fala, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Scottish terrier, who was so popular with the American public that he received more fan mail than the president himself.
Historically, First Canines have been a staple of life in the White House. Barack Obama had Bo and Sunny, two Portuguese water dogs. George W. Bush had Spot, a Springer spaniel, and Barney, a Scottish terrier. Bill Clinton had Buddy, a chocolate Labrador retriever. Before he needed the services of Sully, George H.W. Bush had Millie, a Springer spaniel (Spot’s mother). Ronald Reagan had Lucky, a fluffy black Bouvier des Flandres. John F. Kennedy had Charlie, a Welsh terrier. The list goes on and on, stretching all the way back to George Washington, who cared for no fewer than 36 hounds, and who, in addition to being a founding father of the United States, was the founding breeder of the American foxhound. So why doesn’t President Trump have a canine companion? And should he get one?
“Dogs have been used in so many ways by presidents,” says Roy Rowan, author of the book "First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Best Friends." For one thing, dogs have helped to deflect bad press: “We’ve seen Nixon use his dog Checkers to cover his $18,000 slush fund,” Rowan says of the famous “Checkers Speech.”
In more recent times, a dog may have been an unwitting pawn in a White House marketing campaign. Just a month before his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky became a national scandal, President Clinton adopted Buddy, a three-month-old chocolate brown Labrador puppy. At the time, he was criticized for getting a dog in an attempt to seem more sympathetic to the public. But according to then-White House spokesman Mike McCurry, Clinton got Buddy because, “It’s the president’s desire to have one loyal friend in Washington.”
“Presidential pets have actually changed presidential history,” says Ronnie Elmore, associate dean for admissions and diversity programs at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, whose hobby is learning about First Pets. “And they have changed U.S. history.”
There’s no doubt that being the president of the United States is an incredibly stressful job — perhaps the most stressful in the world. In a 2014 interview with HuffPost, then-President Barack Obama described the unique pressure that falls squarely on the shoulders of the commander in chief of the world’s largest economy and most important nation to global affairs. “Everything’s a crisis; everything is terrible; everything is doomsday; everything is — if it doesn’t get solved tomorrow, you know, your presidency is going off the rails,” he said. “There must have been what, 15, 20 things that over the last seven years folks have said, ‘This is it. It’s over.’”
Obama has credited his ability to remain calm in a ridiculously high-stress environment to a few things: morning exercise, his Hawaiian roots and time with his family. “I don’t get too high, don’t get too low,” he said. Though he didn’t mention his dog Bo, who joined the Obamas at the White House in 2009, chances are that the Portuguese water dog played a part in keeping the 44th president so even-keeled.
Research conducted by the University of Missouri-Columbia has shown that even just petting a dog can boost your level of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress, and decrease the body’s production of cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.” And there’s more.
“Dogs help normalize brain chemistry,” naturalist Sy Montgomery, co-author of "Tamed and Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind," told the Independent Media Institute. “Petting your dog causes a spike in serotonin, the neurotransmitter that antidepressants are designed to elevate. Being with a dog boosts levels of the natural painkillers responsible for ‘runner’s high’ and dopamine, known as the reward hormone.”
Neurochemistry aside, there’s a fundamental reason that dogs are known as “man’s best friend.” For Montgomery, the answer is simple: “Dogs make us happy.” People are craving this kind of connection in greater numbers, as the number of Americans with dogs is steadily increasing. In 2000, according to market research firm Statista, 68 million dogs lived as pets in US homes. Last year, that number reached nearly 90 million.
Dogs don’t just help reduce stress and improve our microbiome; they actually can help us live longer lives. A recent, expansive study of more than 3.4 million people published in the journal Scientific Reports found that having a dog is linked to a longer life. Specifically, the researchers found that dog guardians had a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than people without dogs, and a lower risk of dying from other causes — even after adjusting for other health-related factors, like socioeconomic status, body mass index and smoking.
While the study was not designed to identify the causal relationship between dog guardianship and longevity, senior author Tove Fall, a veterinarian and associate professor of epidemiology at Uppsala University in Sweden, says that it’s likely that taking care of a dog motivates people to lead healthier lifestyles. “I have met numerous owners [who] are convinced that their pet has been instrumental for them, often in terms of social support,” Fall told Time Magazine.
President Reagan gets some exercise with his dog Lucky and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the White House’s Rose Garden in 1985. (Photo credit: Reagan Library)
CNN anchor and correspondent Randi Kaye — who has a golden retriever named Gatsby, whom he has called “the best stress reliever” — has urged President Trump to get a canine companion:
All those nights you reportedly spend alone, pacing around the White House in that bathrobe would be in the past. A loyal companion would be at your side, and with just a few pats on the head your stress from the day would slip away. And no need to worry, a dog can’t wear a wire or be subpoenaed to testify (or bark, in this case) [for] special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
Lisa Vaught, a writer who lives near Knoxville, Tennessee, with Frax, her service dog trained to respond to seizures, wrote about the prospect of a dog moving into the White House. “It may be a while before the Trumps get a dog,” she writes. “Apparently allergies and their very busy lifestyle have kept the Trumps from getting a family pet.”
In fact, studies suggest that growing up with a dog can actually decrease allergies and asthma in children. It may be too late for Barron Trump, the president’s youngest son, now 12 years old, to take advantage of the positive impact a dog can have on allergy reduction, as the protective impact was found among children who grew up with dogs starting in the first year of life. The researchers believe that babies and young children can “train” their developing immune systems by being exposed to harmless bacteria, what they have dubbed “dog-associated house-dust.”
Barron was apparently excited by the prospect of a family dog — and there are several hypoallergenic breeds to choose from. But that excitement was before the Trumps moved into the White House, when Palm Beach philanthropist Lois Pope planned to give the First Family a 9-week-old goldendoodle — a hypoallergenic golden retriever-poodle mix named Patton after the World War II general. When presented with the furry brown puppy, Barron had an immediate connection. “This big smile came over his face, and it just brought a tear to his eyes,” Pope said. Sadly for Barron, it never came to pass.
In addition to boosting happy hormones and reducing stress hormones, a dog could help Trump with his weight problem through dog-walking. “Trump is overweight and he doesn’t get enough exercise,” said Trump’s doctor Ronny Jackson. Based on his height (6 feet, 3 inches) and his weight (239 pounds), Trump is just one pound shy of being considered obese, according to the National Institutes of Health’s online body mass index calculator. Perhaps having a First Fido could inspire him to take regular walks around the White House grounds, or even use the quarter-mile jogging track that President Clinton installed around the south drive in 1993.
But Trump simply doesn’t believe in exercise. In their book "Trump Revealed," the Washington Post’s Mike Kranisch and Marc Fisher wrote about Trump’s strange “battery” theory of energy:
After college, after Trump mostly gave up his personal athletic interests, he came to view time spent playing sports as time wasted. Trump believed the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted. So he didn’t work out. When he learned that John O’Donnell, one of his top casino executives, was training for an Ironman triathlon, he admonished him, “You are going to die young because of this.”
Maybe the reason that Trump doesn’t have a dog might be that he just doesn’t like them. After all — to the great consternation of dog lovers everywhere — he uses the term “dog” as an insult. In one tweet meant to undermine the credibility of Glenn Beck, Trump gloated about how the former Fox News host was once “fired like a dog.” He also conjured a dog to insult Arianna Huffington, saying that the HuffPost co-founder “is a dog who wrongfully comments on me.” Trump also insulted actress Kristen Stewart, calling her a dog.
Considering his negativity toward man’s best friend, it’s not clear that Trump would necessarily reap the benefits of being around a dog. “In order for this to work, you have to love the dog,” says Montgomery. “That’s where Trump might well run into trouble.”
On the flip-side, it could be cruel and unusual punishment for a dog to become a member of the Trump family. The dog may not get enough exercise, or might be fed unhealthy scraps from one of Trump’s favorite McDonald’s meals. The poor pup may also end up on the receiving end of one of Trump’s famous tirades. Perhaps, for the sake of the dog, Trump should remain dog-free.
“Trump’s supporters might offer many fine attributes of the president’s personality,” says Montgomery. “But everyone agrees that Trump is not patient. He is not affectionate. He is not loyal. He is not consistent. He has anger issues. He has exactly none of the attributes that make a good pet owner.”
But Lynn Hamilton, publisher of AnimalRightsChannel.com, doesn’t necessarily see that as a non-starter. “I feel so strongly about the psychological and physical health benefits of pet ownership that I would not deprive anyone of them,” she told the Independent Media Institute. Maybe it could be a perfect match. As she points out: “Dogs need to exercise every day and eat a low-fat, high-vegetable diet — and so does Trump — but if he can’t summon the self-discipline it takes to walk a dog and shop for the right food, I’m sure the White House could afford a dog minder . . . and there are excellent behaviorists out there who could train both Trump and his dog to behave appropriately.”
She also suggests that having a dog could help Trump be less self-centered, which would likely have a positive knock-on effect on his family, his staff and probably the public at large. “No one can maintain a dog and an inflated ego simultaneously. Dogs are constantly mirroring us the way comedians do. A dog would help Trump achieve a more realistic measure of his importance in the universe.”
Perhaps. But chances remain slim that we’ll see a dog in the Trump White House, probably because Trump prefers to fly solo. “It seems that Trump is basically a loner who does not seek connection with others,” said Montgomery. “He seems unlikely to seek out the kind of companionship that a dog — naturally a pack animal — provides and needs.”
President Harry Truman famously said, perhaps apocryphally, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” But for President Trump, known for his vanity, there may be a more superficial reason for avoiding a First Canine. As Hamilton points out, “Dogs inevitably mess up your hair.”