Presidential pooches

Above, an etching of the first President of the United States of America, George Washington, with one of his Virginia hounds. Image courtesy of mountvernon.org

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

Almost all our presidents have had a pet – usually a dog.

For nearly 200 years, American presidents have been reflecting the love affair that Americans have always had with their dogs.

Until President Donald Trump took office, only two presidents had not had pets during their terms in office – James Polk and Andrew Jackson. 

This dog-loving presidential tradition started at the very beginning of our country’s history.

The “Father of our Nation,” George Washington, is also known as the father of the American Foxhound. 

George Washington was noted for “Virginia Hounds,” a breed created by crossing English and French Foxhounds, and for his love of dogs, in general.

One of the many famous Revolutionary War stories about General Washington takes place during the Battle of Germantown.

Revolutionary troops engaged British General William Howe’s Redcoats who were occupying Philadelphia. 

During the battle, a terrier appeared, wandering in fear between the troop lines. 

The Americans apparently recognized the dog as belonging to General Howe and brought him back to their camp.

They presented him to Washington, as a humiliating trophy which might help to weaken British morale. 

But Washington took pity on the frightened dog, took him to his tent, fed him, and bathed and brushed him.

He then ordered a cease-fire so that the little terrier could be returned to his English master. 

I believe this story not only reflects Washington’s love of dogs, but also his character as a gentleman. 

And Washington’s fine sense of humor comes down to us through the ages too, through the funny names he gave his dogs. 

Two of his hounds were named Drunkard and Sweetlips.

He named one of his Dalmatian coach dogs “Madame Moose.”

Washington owned many French hounds – some named Tipsy, Mopsey, Truelove and Ragman.

He raised Greyhounds, Newfoundlands, Briards and many types of spaniels, terriers and toy breeds who also called Mount Vernon home.

Washington was a lifelong fox hunter. His pack of hunting hounds had well-appointed accommodations.  Their water came from a spring which ran through their kennel.

Whenever he was at Mount Vernon, Washington was known to personally inspect the kennel each morning and evening, and took time to visit with all of his dogs.

As happens in our own homes, dogs often provided fond amusement to the Washington family.

There is a famous tale about one of Washington’s beloved French hounds, Vulcan.

He apparently ambled into the Mount Vernon kitchen one evening when President and Mrs. Washington were having guests to dinner and the centerpiece of the meal was to be one of Mt. Vernon’s prize-winning hams. 

Unfortunately, before the ham could be served, Vulcan snuck into the kitchen, grabbed the ham off of the carving table and made a clean getaway with his prize.  

After having been informed by the butler that there would be no ham, the first lady was, understandably, not amused.

Their guests chuckled politely, but Washington laugh-ed most heartily, saying that, no doubt, Vulcan had enjoyed the finest meal to be had in all of Virginia that evening.

ABRAHAM Lincoln’s faithful mixed-breed dog, Fido, in his famous portrait from F.W. Ingmire’s Photographic Studio. 

Abraham Lincoln was also a dog lover.

Before Lincoln was elected to office, he had a floppy-eared, rough-coated dog of unknown parentage named “Fido,” who accompanied him nearly everywhere.

Citizens of Springfield, Illinois, reported seeing Lincoln and Fido walking together on a regular basis.

The tall man would stride down the street with Fido faithfully padding along behind, carrying his master’s parcel by the string tied around it. 

When Lincoln was elected president, it was time to move to Washington D.C. 

Unlike her husband, Mary Todd Lincoln had no fondness for dogs.

She had long complained that her husband spoiled Fido, letting him into the house even when he had muddy paws, and letting him pester guests at the dinner table.

Mrs. Lincoln insisted that Fido not be allowed to move into the White House with the Lincoln family.

She argued that: “The public will not tolerate a dog, even the president’s dog, if that animal soils the White House carpets, or damages the heritage furniture in that mansion. Those items are public property and are held in trust by the president and should not be despoiled by any animal.”

Lincoln sadly agreed to leave Fido in Springfield with a friend.

So Fido was left in the care of a carpenter named John Eddy Roll and his family.

The president left a long list of instructions as to Fido’s care.

He was never to be punished or left alone.

Fido was to be allowed to enter the house whenever he scratched at the door.

The Rolls were never to scold Fido for entering the house with dirty feet.

He was not to be tied up in the backyard. 

Fido was to be allowed tidbits, as he was used to being fed from the table by the president and the children.  

Lincoln even gave the Roll family his horsehair sofa for the dog, as it was Fido’s favorite piece of furniture. 

Not only was the president sad to part with his little companion, Lincoln’s sons, Tad and Willy, were also very upset about leaving Fido in Springfield.

Lincoln took his sons and Fido to the F. W. Ingmire’s Photographic Studio, where the photographer staged a portrait for them.

He draped a piece of heavy material over a washstand and placed Fido on top. 

Each of the boys was given a copy of the portrait to take with them as they moved to the White House.

Fido was the first presidential dog ever to be photographed.

In 1863, no one in America was more famous than the president.

The story and picture of Fido made its way into newspapers around the country.

After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, people from all over the country came to Springfield for his funeral. 

The mourners gathered around the Lincoln home to pay their respects to his family. 

John Roll brought Fido back to his master’s home, where Fido was greeted affectionately by the broken-hearted members of the public. 

One man said,  “Touching the President’s dog gave me the feeling that I had touched the man himself and seen his humanity. It brought me comfort in this time of grief, as touching this dog must have brought the President comfort during his life.”

Still, as a beloved member of John Roll’s family, old Fido died, oddly enough, also by assassination.

He had always been a trusting and friendly dog.

One day, when Fido saw a man who appeared to be sleeping on the sidewalk, he walked up, put his paws on the man and licked his face. 

The man was drunk, and startled awake, he fatally stabbed Fido.

But, Lincoln’s faithful companion did leave a lasting American legacy – Fido’s name lives on – a popular name for “common” dogs everywhere.  

For anyone interested in a fascinating photographic look at American presidents and their pets, I recommend First Pet, a book complied from the AP’s photo archive.

In her introduction to First Pet by Claire McLean, the founder of the Presidential Pet Museum, McLean says:

“While pets are certainly not into politics, it is certain that presidents are into pets. It is one interest that crosses all party lines – the public’s fascination with pets and the presidency.”

And if you are wondering if the choice of dogs our presidents preferred has had an influence on the American people, the answer is “yes.”

The American Kennel Club reports increases in particular breed registration correlate to the breed of dog in the White House.

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