Dogs in the White House

The Roosevelts with Skip. (Library of Congress)

Presidents and Their Canine Companions Through the Years

By Laurie Pellichero

When Joseph R. Biden Jr. moved into the White House in January as the 46th president of the United States, he not only brought his wife, Dr. Jill Biden — he also brought their two German shepherds, Champ and Major. This continues a long tradition of pets, especially dogs, in the home of the first family.

Champ is no stranger to the White House, having been a fixture at Biden’s side when he was vice president during the Obama administration. Major was adopted from the Delaware Humane Society in 2018. Biden has often posted about Champ and Major on social media.

Donald Trump was the first president to not have a pet while in office since Andrew Johnson in the 1860s. The New York Times reported that, at a February 2019 rally in El Paso, Texas, Trump said he didn’t have a dog because he didn’t have time and felt it would be “phony” to get one for political reasons.

White House historian Jennifer B. Pickens, author of Pets at the White House: 50 Years of Presidents and Their Pets, points out that pets have played an important role in the White House not only by providing companionship to the presidents and their families, but also by softening and humanizing their political images.

Presidents and their dogs go all the way back to the first, George Washington, who had several hounds with clever names such as Sweet Lips, Vulcan, Captain, Tipsy, Tipler, Taster, Drunkard, and Mopsey.

According to the White House Historical Society (whitehousehistory.org), top presidential dogs include one of Theodore Roosevelt’s favorites, Skip, a short legged black-and-tan mongrel terrier that was brought home from a Colorado bear hunt. The American Kennel Club recognized the breed as a Teddy Roosevelt terrier in 1999. The Roosevelt family also had a St. Bernard named Rollo; a bull terrier, Pete; and a Chesapeake Bay retriever, Sailor Boy; among many other pets including ponies, guinea pigs, lizards, snakes, a small bear, and even a one-legged rooster.

President Warren G. Harding and Laddie Boy.

The first White House dog to receive regular coverage in the news was President Warren G. Harding’s Airedale terrier, Laddie Boy. The pup, who was very photogenic, sat in on meetings and had his own cabinet chair. He also greeted official delegations and hosted the 1923 White House Easter Egg Roll when the Hardings were away.

President Calvin Coolidge owned many dogs, including two white collies named Prudence Prim and Rob Roy. In Howard Chandler Christy’s official 1924 portrait of first lady Grace Coolidge, Rob Roy is shown looking up adoringly at this mistress.

Herbert Hoover also had many dogs, but his Belgian shepherd, King Tut, helped soften his image during his 1928 presidential campaign after a photo of them together was circulated to thousands of voters and newspapers. The photo worked and Hoover was elected. King Tut went on to assist the White House police force as a patrol dog.

FDR and Fala, 1940.

The White House Historical Society notes that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s black Scottie, Fala, was his constant companion, accompanying him to secret meetings or publicized war conferences. Fala was the subject of two MGM films and helped promote a rubber collection drive during World War II by “giving up” his toys.

The Kennedys were certainly a pet-friendly family, with numerous pets in the White House including Welsh terrier Charlie, German shepherd Clipper, cocker spaniel Shannon, Irish wolfhound Wolf, and Pushinka, a gift from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Pushinka was the daughter of Strelka, the first Russian dog in space. According to the White House Historical Society, some Americans were suspicious of the gift and thought the dog might be wearing a listening device. But Pushinka eventually won everyone over, including Charlie, who became the father of her puppies.

President John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Caroline, and John Jr. with dogs Clipper (standing), Charlie (with Caroline), Wolf (reclining), Shannon (with John Jr.), and two of Pushinka’s puppies (with Mrs. Kennedy). (Cecil Stoughton White House Photographs)

President Lyndon B. Johnson had beagles named Him and Her, Blanco, Edgar, and Freckles, but his constant companion was Yuki, an abandoned stray found by his daughter Luci at a Texas gas station. Yuki became famous for singing “duets” with Johnson for White House guests.

While in the White House, President Richard Nixon had Irish setter King Timahoe, along with his daughters’ dogs — a yorkie named Pasha and a poodle, Vicki. They were all known for their festive Christmas portraits. Nixon’s most famous dog, Checkers, did not live at the White House. Checkers became associated with a famous speech Nixon made as a California senator six weeks before the 1952 presidential election, after he had been accused of improprieties relating to a fund established by his backers to reimburse him for his political expenses. During the speech, he said that he intended to keep one gift, regardless of the outcome, a black-and-white dog named Checkers.

When the Fords were in the White House, President Gerald Ford was given a golden retriever puppy named Liberty by David Hume Kennerly, his friend and official photographer. Liberty became especially popular after giving birth to eight puppies while living in the White House. The White House Historical Society points out that seven puppies were given to good homes and one was donated to the Leader Dogs for the Blind to become a seeing eye dog.

President Jimmy Carter had a springer spaniel puppy name Grits, that was given to his daughter Amy in 1977 by her elementary school teacher. But Grits was returned to her owner a few years later, and it was rumored that he did not get along with Misty Malarky Ying Yang, the Carters’ Siamese cat.

President Ronald Reagan was often photographed with Rex, his Cavalier King Charles spaniel, while in the White House. According to the Presidential Pet Museum (presidentialpetmuseum.com), conservative writer and commentator William F. Buckley gave the puppy to Reagan and his wife, Nancy, as a Christmas gift in 1985. At the time, the Reagans did not have a dog since Lucky, their rambunctious Bouvier des Flandres, had been sent to live at their California ranch.

Millie, owned by President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, was a best-selling author. The springer spaniel’s Millie’s Book, as “dictated” to Barbara Bush, earned almost $900,000 in royalties, all of which was donated to the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Millie also gave birth to six puppies while in the White House, and they were all featured with Barbara Bush on the cover of Life magazine in May 1989 with the headline “Puppy Love.” One of Millie’s pups, Ranger, stayed on in the White House.

The first pet in the Clinton White House was their black-and-white cat Socks, a favorite of photographers. Socks was joined by Buddy, a chocolate Labrador retriever, in 1997. As noted by the Presidential Pet Museum, President Bill Clinton’s spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters that Clinton got the dog because “it’s the president’s desire to have one loyal friend in Washington.” Buddy was often seen with Clinton in the Oval Office, on walks on the White House grounds, and on trips to Camp David. Socks and Buddy were both featured in a book, Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets, written by first lady Hillary Clinton, and appeared as cartoons in the kids’ section of the White House website.

English springer spaniel Spot and Scottish terrier Barney were residents of the White House during the presidency of George W. Bush. In December 2002, Barney became a media star after he wandered through the White House with a small camera attached to his collar and recorded a dog’s eye view of the White House Christmas decorations, which was posted on the White House website. His subsequent web cam adventures included Barney Cam, Barney Reloaded, and annual holiday installments. Miss Beazley, also a Scottish terrier, was given to first lady Laura Bush in 2005 as a birthday gift from her husband.

Obama family pets Bo, left, and Sunny.

When Barack Obama was running for president, it is said that he and his wife, Michelle, promised their daughters, Sasha and Malia, that they could get a puppy if he won. The Obama girls got their wish when Senator Ted Kennedy and his wife Victoria gave them Bo, a Portuguese water dog, in April of 2009. Bo was joined by Sunny, also a Portuguese water dog, in 2013. The breed is hypoallergenic and was chosen in consideration of Malia’s allergies. Both dogs became immensely popular and were often seen around the White House playing outside in the snow, greeting visitors, and even appearing at a state dinner.

Champ and Major are sure to be just as big a hit.

Joe and Jill Biden’s German shepherds Major and Champ. (Jill Biden’s Twitter)