This article originally appeared on the Boston Globe’s Opinion page.
In a recent issue of National Geographic, celebrity dog “whisperer” Cesar Millan disparaged the White House’s treatment of its resident dogs. “When you see the president of the United States coming out of Air Force One, you always see the dog in front. When the president goes inside the White House, you see the dog going in first,” he said, referencing his assertion that, in the wild, leader wolves never let subordinates go before them, and that humans must do the same in order to control domesticated canines.
One wonders what Millan will say if America elects a president who has a history of strapping his Irish setter to a car roof. That certainly sounds like a way to exert authority.
On family trips in the early 1980s, Mitt Romney routinely put his dog Seamus in an enclosed, vented crate strapped to the roof of the family car. Once, the dog got sick — but dogs get sick inside cars, too.
A recent Public Policy Polling found that more than a third of respondents said the incident made them less likely to vote for Romney. But I find the whole thing trivial, and certainly more forgivable than some widely condoned forms of animal cruelty, like dog racing, which was legal in Massachusetts during Romney’s gubernatorial term.
The Romneys at least had their hearts in the right place: They’ve argued that Seamus liked his crate and was happier traveling on vacation with his family than he would’ve been alone at a kennel. When it comes to transporting dogs in cars, few of the methods used in the 20th century would be considered humane by today’s standards. The car seat barriers, restraints, and booster seats for dogs that are sold today were not widely available in the 1980s. At that time, Massachusetts didn’t yet require seat belts for humans.
Animal welfare is subjective. When I questioned Scott Crider, founder of the Dogs Against Romney Facebook group, he admitted he’d never spent much time considering the widespread use of things I consider unnecessarily cruel, like electric shock collars or keeping dogs chained outside.
I believe that for all of our best intentions as dog owners, America is home to a lot of unhappy dogs.
As an animal trainer who uses non-aversive, science-based methods to manipulate dog behavior, I am dismayed by the number of people I see using force, pushing, and yelling in attempts to control dogs; I’m saddened that more people use the harsh methods of an unschooled television personality than follow the animal training advice of revered scientists like B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov. Are they misinformed? Maybe. Do they have different ideas than I do about what constitutes animal cruelty? Sure. But I’d still classify most of them as loving dog owners. And I’d put the Romneys in that category.
Were he to take the highest office, Romney would be joining a long line of presidents who’ve made arguably questionable decisions regarding the First Dogs.
For example, the White House released an Easter video of President Obama’s dog, Bo, wearing bunny ears. Bo doesn’t look too bothered by the get-up he was forced to wear, but one could argue that the stunt was Obama implicitly encouraging the current fad of putting dogs in clothing and elaborate costumes. Each Halloween, I watch parades of pups who often look terrified about the massive bumblebees and tutus that have suddenly enveloped them. For all they know, they’re doomed to wear Princess Leia buns for eternity. A tortuous fate, indeed.
One of the more famous dog-lovers-in-chief was Lyndon B. Johnson, who tried to sneak one of his five dogs into his daughter’s wedding. But he also was widely lambasted for lifting his beagles, Her and Him, off the ground by their ears.
Bill Clinton’s chocolate Lab, Buddy, was acquired just before Lewinsky-gate; the dog worked hard to boost his owner’s approval ratings and was often present during photo opportunities. However, the Clintons proved neglectful dog owners: in 2002 Buddy was run over by a car outside his family’s Chappaqua home, a tragedy that could have been averted by a humane dog management device: a fence. He was the second family dog to have been killed by a car.
Then there are those past presidents whose treatment of dogs seemed to trump their ethical treatment of humans.
According to psychologist Stanley Coren in his book “The Pawprints of History,” John F. Kennedy’s groundskeepers feared they’d lose their jobs if they reported bites incurred by his beloved Welsh terrier, Charlie. Herbert Hoover punished his staff for being too nice to his German shepherd — he worried that the dog liked them more than him. And Franklin D. Roosevelt was several times accused of using Treasury money to transport his dogs on planes.
Exactly how winding is the road that leads from the exemplary treatment of pets to the proper treatment of other humans? It’s crooked enough that one hopes we never end up with anyone emulating the 20th-century leader who may have been most concerned with animal rights — one who didn’t eat meat, discouraged tail docking, wanted fish anesthetized before slaughter, and outlawed the poor treatment of animals in movies. That famous dog lover? Adolf Hitler.