Diversionary Dogs

by Tracy R. Walsh

David Smith considers the political uses of the “first pet”:

There is little doubt that dogs are politically useful. A half-serious study in the political science journal PS suggests a “diversionary dog” theory. The authors find that presidents display their dogs more during wartime and scandals, though less during economic crises, when the public does not want to see the president frolicking with a spoiled pet.

According to that study (pdf), which tracked press coverage of presidential pets between 1961 and 2011:

[Presidents] use their pets as part of the White House communications strategy. To maximize good feeling, one might imagine that presidents would seek to choose the most adorable pets possible and make regular, public demonstrations of affection. But as one observer recently noted, “the political dogs for the ages are not necessarily the most loved, but the ones that have been used most effectively as makers of points or diffusers of scandal” (Davidson 2012). Presidents, it seems, may be strategic in how they publicly use their pets.