A dog has always been man’s best friend. But not, it appears, always a politician’s best friend, as Joe Biden has found out to his dismay.
The President’s two-year-old German shepherd, Commander, is in the doghouse after biting a Secret Service agent at the White House on Monday night. Commander has reportedly “broken protocol” – bureaucratese for bitten – more than 10 times in a five-month period, including one incident in November, where an officer was admitted to hospital after being bitten on the arm and thigh.
First Lady Jill Biden’s office released a statement saying: “The White House can be a stressful environment for family pets, and the First Family continues to work on ways to help Commander handle the often unpredictable nature of the White House grounds.”
But he is not the only First Dog to be caught behaving badly. Soon after Biden took office, another of his German shepherds, Major, was sent away to Delaware after a similar “biting incident” (and not long after he allegedly defecated on the White House carpet).
Biden’s decision to reappoint DOTUS (Dog of the United States) after Donald Trump’s pet-free presidency was a savvy one, even if it hasn’t quite gone to plan.
Every politician is aware of the power of some strategic “puppaganda” for a popularity boost, if not just how quickly it can backfire.
In Westminster, puppies have a lengthy history as a political prop. Churchill had brown miniature poodles, Rufus and Rufus II; Clement Attlee had an Airedale terrier, Ting.
Whatever your views of Boris Johnson, who could resist Carrie Johnson’s pride and joy – the couple’s rescue Jack Russell cross, Dilyn? But the mischievous Dilyn got into all sorts of trouble.
He landed the then-prime minister with a four-figure bill in February 2021 after he soiled carpets and chewed priceless books and furniture at Chequers; reportedly cocked his leg over an aide’s handbag; and struggled to contain his “romantic urges”, which led to him humping Dominic Cummings’s leg. While Biden defended Major until the very last, Johnson asked for someone to: “Someone please shoot that f------ dog!” after the damage caused by Dilyn.
Perhaps a trusty labrador – beloved of the British upper classes – would have been a safer bet. Although not necessarily. French president Emmanuel Macron’s rescue Labrador-griffon cross, Nemo, made a faux pas when he was caught on video urinating on a fireplace in the Élysée Palace during a meeting with junior ministers in 2017. “I wondered what that noise was,” one of them said.
Often dogs are a humanising touch; a reminder that, no matter how lofty they may seem, politicians are really just like us. But they can even be used as a diplomatic weapon.
When Putin called his enormous black labrador, Konni, into a 2007 meeting with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel after learning she has a profound fear of dogs, it was interpreted by many as an attempt to intimidate her. Putin, for his part, defended Konni and said he was just being friendly.
In America, presidential pets wield incredible power. Research has suggested that in the 2008 presidential campaign, dog-owning voters penalised Obama for not owning a pooch – by 2012, the family’s Portuguese water dog, Bo, was frequently photographed during his re-election campaign.
In 1952, a dog even saved Richard Nixon’s presidential bid. Nixon had been accused of accepting financial gifts for personal use. In a misty-eyed address to the nation on September 23 that year, he said there had been no financial impropriety, although his family would keep one gift no matter what – their beloved cocker spaniel, Checkers. He later swept to victory and September 23 is celebrated as National Dogs in Politics Day.
The latest pet reshuffle in British Parliament saw Rishi Sunak opt for a fox red Labrador named Nova. He too harnessed the political power of a puppy pic by introducing Nova on his Instagram page in 2021.
Nova made headlines in March this year after she was filmed breaking wildlife protection rules and wandering around the Serpentine in Hyde Park off the lead.
Yet when it comes down to it. Nova is no match for Larry, the famous Downing Street tabby cat, who has his own Twitter account. Sunak’s wife Akshata Murty recently said, “Nova has mixed emotions about [living here] because she sometimes doesn’t get on with Larry the cat… they’ve had some heated exchanges.”
In the Westminster turf wars, 16-year-old Larry, who has lived through five prime ministers – David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Sunak – is clearly top dog.