In honor of Presidents’ Day, we’d like to take a moment and honor those most important members of the White House team: the presidents’ pets. Specifically, their dogs. Because if dog’s are man’s best friend, that means they’re probably presidents’ best best friend, and it’s about time our presidential pooches got some love.
While the recent trend of bark mitzvahs and rabbis blessing animals may suggest otherwise, Jews have long been believed to have a rocky relationship with domestic animals, and dogs in particular. According to Moment Magazine, “Literature is filled with references that underscore this ambivalent relationship.”
In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is anguished at being considered as lowly as a dog: “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,” cries the moneylender. Much later, S.Y. Agnon, the towering figure of 20th-century Hebrew literature, wrote about a stray dog in his 1945 novel Only Yesterday. By the end of the story, the animal turns into a monstrous creature, biting the book’s protagonist to death. And Yiddish sayings—one metric of popular sentiment—invoked a distaste for dogs, including an epithet for an immoral person: a hunt mit di oyern, or “a dog with ears.”
Fortunately, I think we’re pretty much over those Yiddish-inflected hangups by now, a theory confirmed by the amount of Jewish families I knew growing up who had dogs. If anything, we’ve swung to the complete opposite end of the spectrum, with dogs now being loved and treated as if they were human members of many Jewish families. (I speak from personal experience, with no shame whatsoever. Dogs are the new people.)
In that pet-loving spirit then, let us celebrate the First Dogs, those beloved, loyal creatures who play an understatedly important role in the White House ecosystem: they humanize, and make relatable, the most powerful man in America. And they look damn cute while doing it.
There are believed to be 32 presidents who had dogs. Here are some of the highlights:
Our nation’s first president, George Washington, had hounds named Drunkard, Tipler and Tipsy, followed by John Adam’s somewhat more intimidatingly named Juno and Satan.
James Buchanan had a Newfoundland named Lara, while Abraham Lincoln, who would have turned 204 last week, left his Fido back in Illinois when he moved into the White House. Ulysses S. Grant also had a Newfoundland, his named Faithful (perhaps named before that whole expelling the Jews thing).
James A. Garfield, the nation’s 20th president, went for something more akin to humor, naming his dog Veto.
Three presidents in a row had Airedale Terriers, that most noble king of the terriers, to which I am completely biased. Woodrow Wilson had an Airedale named Davie; Warren G. Harding’s was named Laddie Boy; and Calvin Coolidge’s was called Paul Pry.
FDR had several Scottish Terriers, as well as a German Shepherd and a Great Dane at one point. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a Weimaraner named Heidi; while John F. Kennedy requested that his dogs—two of them mutts, a presidential first—greet his helicopter when he returned to the White House. Here is Kennedy with Charlie, a Welsh Terrier.
In 2009, President Obama delighted the dog-loving public—though not animal rescue advocates—when it was announced that Bo, a Portuguese Water Dog, would become the First Dog of the United States. Obama himself called the dog, a gift from late Senator Ted Kennedy, “a star;” Malia deemed him “perfect;” while younger sister Sasha wasn’t as impressed: “Sasha pointed out that Bo didn’t yet know how to swim.”
The Obama family added another Portuguese Water Dog, this one named Sunny, to the mix in the summer of 2013.
Still, the presidential street cred wasn’t enough to get Matisse, a fellow Portuguese Water Dog and one of the favorites to win last week’s Westminster dog show, anointed Best in Show. That honor went to Sky, a Wire Fox Terrier—a breed that might just be a presidential contender in the future.
Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.