Presidential Purebreds: Influencing America’s Penchant for Pedigreed Dogs

(Above) George Washington’s Virginia Hounds were the foundation stock  of the American Foxhound. ©Library of Congress.

From the February 2019 Issue of ShowSight. February 2019. Click to subscribe.

Presidential Purebreds: Influencing America’s Penchant for Pedigreed Dogs

American Presidents have typically brought animals with them to their home in the nation’s capital. The list of critters to take up residence in the White House includes the familiar cats, rabbits and birds as well as any number of opossums and raccoons—and even a badger and a hyena! Benjamin Harrison kept a pair of alligators in the conservatory at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Calvin Coolidge maintained a menagerie that included a wallaby, a bobcat and a pygmy hippopotamus. Despite the appearance of such exotic specimens at the Executive Mansion, the animal that has accompanied more Presidents to the Oval Office than any other is the purebred dog, and each choice of canine companion has helped to influence a generation of American dog lovers.

Noble Hounds

George Washington was a dedicated dog man with a notable pedigree of his own. His family’s patriarch, Lawrence Washington, Sr., Esq. of Sulgrave Manor, was a first cousin to the wife of Sir John Spencer whose descendants include Sir Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales. Though America’s Founding Father died in 1799 without an heir, the nation’s first President left a political legacy that helped to establish such American institutions as the authority of 
the Federal Government, executive privilege, and a nonpartisan Executive Branch. Washington also bestowed upon his countrymen a love for dogs and a devotion to the breeding of a uniquely American breed.

Washington enjoyed riding to hounds several times a week in pursuit of the red fox. His personal papers reveal that he wished to breed a particular type of hunting hound, “one that had speed, sense and brains.” A devoted farmer and splendid horseman, Washington understood basic principles of breeding as well as the value of good husbandry. His pack of black and tan “Virginia Hounds” was established at Mount Vernon from hounds originally brought to the Crown Colony by Robert Brooke in 1650. Through the years, Washington introduced Irish Foxhounds to his pack to increase stamina and speed. In 1785, the Marquis de Lafayette sent seven Grand Bleu de Gascogne to Washington in the care of John Quincy Adams. The introduction of such large and imposing French hounds allowed the retired President to establish his ideal pack, capable of hunting tirelessly throughout America’s open countryside.

Though Washington’s kennels burned to the ground in 1792, the breed that he helped to create still lives on. The modern-day American Foxhound is represented by several strains, including the Walker, Goodman and Trigg. Today’s show dogs descend primarily from the Walkers, perfected in the 1940’s by Dr. Braxton Sawyer at his Kentucky Lake Kennels. If given the chance, these hounds could very well hunt in packs again just as their ancestors did more than two 
centuries ago.

A Teddy Bear

No presidential family has had more pets than Theodore Roosevelt’s. The 26th president of the United States established a veritable zoo at the White House. From 1901 to 1909, Roosevelt’s menagerie reflected the country’s growing interest in keeping animals as household pets. His children’s ponies, “General Grant” and “Algonquin,” were press favorites, as was “Emily Spinach,” a garter snake named by Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice. Not so beloved was a Bull Terrier named “Pete.” The impressive white powerhouse had a penchant for biting ambassadors. This led to his exile at Sagamore Hill, the family home in Oyster Bay, Long Island. The family’s remaining dogs behaved much better. “Sailor Boy,” a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, would swim after the presidential yacht if left behind, and Manchester Terrier “Blackjack,” or “Jack” for short, was so beloved that his body was exhumed from the White House lawn and interred in perpetuity at Sagamore Hill at the end of Roosevelt’s second term.

Perhaps the family’s most notable canine was a Saint Bernard the president did not want. At nearly 200-pounds, “Rollo” was a gift to the president from his friend and the dog’s namesake, Alfred S. Rollo. In a letter written shortly before the dog’s arrival in Washington, D.C., the President made his position clear about having such a massive mouth to feed. “I’m going to ask you not to think me churlish if I say we have three Collies already, one of them a puppy, and four other dogs in addition, and that I really do not [have] house room or stable room for any more,” the President implored. “I dare not tell your proposition to my children.” Needless to say, Rollo was welcomed into the family and proved a gentle—if giant—companion to both the Roosevelts and the Associated Press.

(below) The Associated Press once described Theodore Roosevelt’s dog, Rollo, as “a massive Saint Bernard with massive self-restraint.”
©Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library.

Faithful Friend Fala

Another Roosevelt brought his love of dogs to the White House when Teddy’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), was elected President in 1932. Roosevelt’s personal “kennel club” included a German Shepherd Dog named “Major,” a Bullmastiff named “Blaze,” and a Great Dane named, fittingly, “President.” Two Scottish Terriers were also members of the family. “Meggie” arrived first and was “possessed of plenty of nerve and fighting spirit.” The constant companion of First Lady Eleanor, Meggie would bark loudly at press conferences to announce the arrival of her mistress. By contrast, the First Couple’s second Scottie was clearly the President’s dog.

“Fala” was whelped in 1940 by Margaret Lynch “Daisy” Suckley, a sixth cousin and confidante to the President. Originally named, “Big Boy,” the black dog was registered as Murray the Outlaw of Falahill after a Scottish ancestor from Falahill in the Scottish Borders. Unlike Meggie that had arrived at the White House as an eight-year-old, Fala was given to the President as a puppy. Also, unlike his predecessor, Fala was given early obedience training and taught to sit, jump and roll over. His antics were frequently mentioned by the media and he quickly became the darling of the Washington press corps. Fala accompanied Roosevelt on many official visits and traveled with the President to Springwood, the family home in Hyde Park, New York, and to the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia, where Roosevelt received treatment for his paralytic illness.

On April 12, 1945, just three months into his fourth term, the President died while convalescing at Warm Springs. FDR biographer Jim Bishop wrote about Fala’s strange behavior when the President passed away. Bishop wrote that “…a snapping, snarling series of barks was heard. No one had paid attention to Fala. He had been dozing in a corner of the room. For a reason beyond understanding, he ran directly for 
the front screen door and bashed his black head against it. The screen broke and he crawled through and ran snapping and barking up into the hills. There, Secret Servicemen could see him, standing alone, unmoving, on an eminence. This led to the quiet question: ‘Do dogs really know?’” Fala survived the President by seven years and was buried near his master at Hyde Park. The two fast friends are immortalized by a pair of bronze sculptures that are a feature of Lawrence Halprin’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.

(below) ‘Fala,’ Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Scottish Terrier, accompanied the 32nd president virtually everywhere he went. ©UPI/Bettmann Archive.


A Camelot Lot

In 1961, a youthful and charismatic President moved his family to Washington, D.C., from Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), the nation’s 35th president, became known as “Camelot” when Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy referenced a line from her husband’s favorite musical in a 1963 Life magazine interview: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” Although the White House was not exactly transformed into a castle by the nation’s youngest elected president, it did become more of a family home when the couple’s children, Caroline and John Jr., moved into the house with an array of ponies, parakeets and Poodles. Not since Teddy Roosevelt had the White House accommodated so many pets.

President Kennedy was a genuine dog person. As an undergraduate on summer vacation in Europe, he picked up a stray dog in the Netherlands and named him “Dunker.” He’d wanted to bring the dog back home with him, but quarantine regulations made this impossible. The experience must have been well-known to those who knew Kennedy, for he and his family were gifted quite a few dogs. “Clipper,” a German Shepherd Dog, was given to Caroline by her paternal grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. So was Welsh Terrier “Charlie” that would swim with the President and was said to playfully bite the gardeners as they worked in the flower beds. A pair of dogs was also sent to the Kennedys from two admirers in Ireland. Prime Minister Eamonn de Valera gave the American President a Cocker Spaniel named “Shannon,” and “Wolf” was an Irish Wolfhound sent to Washington, D.C., by an Irish priest who shared the President’s surname.

Perhaps the Kennedy clan’s most notable dog was “Pushinka,” a gift to Caroline from Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The mongrel female’s sire, “Pushok,” and dam, “Strelka,” were part of their country’s space program. It was hoped that the gift of one of their puppies would help to reduce growing tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The scheme worked out particularly well for Caroline’s dog, Charlie, who sired four puppies out of Pushinka that the president referred to as “pupniks.” The Kennedy children named the puppies. “Blackie” and “White Tips” were given to family friends at eight-weeks-old, leaving “Butterfly” and “Streaker” in need of homes of their own. Nearly 5,000 letters arrived at the White House with requests for the puppies and it was the job of staff members to make the placements. Butterfly was sent to a young girl in Illinois and Streaker was eventually placed with a boy in Missouri. Both puppies were delivered with their very own puppy packets prepared by the First Lady.

(below) The Kennedy White House welcomed dogs of several breeds, gifts from family and foreign dignitaries. ©John F. Kennedy Library.

A Cavalier Comforter

The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as America’s 40th president brought the glitz and glamour of Hollywood to the White House. It also returned a kind of pomp and circumstance—as well as style—that had been missing from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. An attempted assassination nearly ended Reagan’s life as well, but he managed to survive. However, the many challenges he faced during his first term in office prevented the animal-loving Reagan from welcoming a dog back into the White House. This situation was rectified with his landslide reelection.

In 1985, First Lady Nancy Reagan was given a gift of a nine-week-old Bouvier des Flandres puppy by Kristen Ellis, the March of Dimes poster child. “Lucky” was named after Mrs. Reagan’s mother, Edith Luckett Davis, and spent her puppyhood shuttled from the Oval Office to Marine One (the presidential helicopter) and Camp David. Lucky became known for herding the press around the White House and for pulling both the President and the First Lady across the property’s well-manicured lawn. When the Bouvier’s weight approached that of her mistress, it was determined that Lucky should be sent to the Reagan’s 688-acre ranch outside Santa Barbara to live with the couple’s Scottish Deerhounds, “Scotch” and “Soda” and their Golden Retriever, “Victory.”

Alas, the White House was once again without a dog. In December 1985, conservative commentator William F. Buckley arranged for the President to give the First Lady a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel with the registered name Martlet-Or Worcester. Bred by Irene Murphy of Greenwich, Connecticut, “Rex” was an immediate hit with both the First Family and the press corps. His first “official” duty was to help light the White House Christmas Tree. As befits his breed’s royal legacy, Rex the “Comforter Spaniel” was pampered by both his mistress and the public. The Washington Children’s Museum built a lavish dog house for him designed by interior decorator Theo Hayes (great-great-grandson of President Rutherford B. Hayes). The miniature replica of the White House was replete with custom red draperies, an area rug fashioned out of Camp David carpeting, and framed photos of the President and First Lady. Surely no Cavalier since the reign of King Charles II has been so publicly and privately pampered.

(Below) ‘Rex,’ Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, enjoyed his own lavishly appointed white clapboard dog house red drapery. ©Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

America’s relationship with the purebred dog has always been influenced by the canines that reside in the White House. Washington’s hounds were a precursor to America’s fondness for hunting that has flourished ever since. Theodore Roosevelt’s menagerie reflected a fascination with animal diversity and exhibition that flourished at the turn of the last century. FDR’s partnership with his Scottish Terrier mirrored the 20th century view that dogs are “man’s best friend.” JFK demonstrated that any dog—pedigreed or not—could become a member of the family. And Reagan’s dogs proved that some breeds are better suited than others for a particular lifestyle. And today, with no dog to call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home, what will become of America’s penchant for pedigreed dogs? 








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