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Decision 2012

Going to the dogs: When do presidents trot out the first pooch?

Going to the dogs: When do presidents trot out the first pooch?

POSTED: Friday, June 15, 2012 - 9:00am

UPDATED: Friday, June 15, 2012 - 9:14am

Does the first dog, Bo, get his biggest headlines during wartime?

A new study, "The Politics of Pets in the White House," suggests that presidents carefully calculate when best to showcase their furry friends--and periods of military conflict ten to be primetime for presidential pets.

"In times of crisis, the American people want a steady hand at the helm," the study notes. "How else to establish that a president is in charge than seeing the commander-in-chief confidently playing fetch with a four-legged companion in the middle of the afternoon?"

The report, primarily conducted by researchers at George Washington University, appears in the July issue of the publication "Political Science and Politics." While presidents have long had a tradition of pet-keeping, the study finds a few trends in the way the occupier of the Oval Office capitalizes on Man's Best Friend.

President Barack Obama's dog, Bo, has certainly been no stranger to the media. According to the study's analysis of newspapers between 1961 and 2011, the black-and-white Portuguese Water dog has received for more coverage than any other presidential pooch.

The study notes that dogs can make a president or political candidate seem more relatable. Obama, for example, on Thursday drew laughs at a celebrity-studded Manhattan fund-raiser when he joked that he falls fifth in the "hierarchy" at the White House.

"There's Michelle, my mother-in-law, the two girls and Bo," he said. "So that actually makes it six."

Along with periods marred by war, the study concludes that pets also tend to appear more often when a White House is plagued by scandal or controversy.

"What better way to get back in our good graces than for the president to be seen, alone, with only one loyal friend?" the study states. "Who are we to judge the president when the one who knows his soul can forgive him?"

It cites a famous 1998 photograph taken of President Bill Clinton walking his dog, Buddy, alongside his wife and daughter--just one day after the president admitted to having an affair with Monica Lewinsky. The report posits that the photo helped invoke an "image of family unity."

"In time of war, (presidents and their pets) tell the country that they and the rest of the nation are in good hands," the study says. "In times of personal scandal, they convince us that the president is 'only human'."

But when are the pets muzzled, so to speak?

Apparently when the stock market plunges, it's time to bring out the dog cage. The study finds that White House animals tend to take a more low-key profile during economic downturns.

Pets become a "political liability when their frolicking on the White House lawn in hard times might cue the public that not everyone in the country is suffering equally and that being president is not a full-time job," the study says.

In its data analysis, the report finds that during times of high unemployment and high inflation rates, pets made fewer appearances in news reports and photos of their owners.

The study, presented somewhat tongue-in-cheek, is laced with a steady stream of pet clichés ("Throwing a bone to the diversionary war literature...") and concedes some potential flaws in the analysis.

These include the notion that reporters may actually be inclined to increase pet reporting during good economic times or when presidents have high approval ratings. The reports also admits it did not observe similar trends for cats, as it found with dogs.

"In future research, we hope to disentangle these causal linkages by obtaining pet-appearance schedules (through Freedom of Information Act requests)," the report cheekily states.

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By Ashley Killough
 

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