A History of Pets in the White House

“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Whether or not President Truman ever actually said that statement is debatable. But most people would agree that presidential pets in and around the White House over the years have served as cherished companions and added charm to the public perceptions of their owners-in-chief.

Many kinds of pets have graced the halls or lawns of the White House, including cats, snakes, birds, ponies, and President Coolidge’s raccoon named Rebecca. But probably the most popular and well-known First Pets have been dogs. Canines of all shapes, sizes and breeds have lived in the White House, from terriers to Newfoundlands. In fact, James Buchanan’s Newfoundland, Lara, was 170 pounds!

Richard Nixon’s family had a black and white cocker spaniel named Checkers. In 1952, Nixon delivered the first American political speech to be televised live for a national audience, in which he referenced Checkers and subsequently turned around his political career. That speech was watched or heard by 60 million people and is considered one of the most important speeches in 20th century American politics.

Daily life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been chronicled multiple times through the perspective of presidential pets. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush’s dog Millie “dictated” a book to First Lady Barbara Bush. The book became a bestseller and the proceeds were donated to the Foundation for Family Literacy.

President and Mrs. Clinton brought their cat Socks with them to the White House, and added a puppy named Buddy to the family in 1997. Socks and Buddy made an impact as “authors” when First Lady Hillary Clinton published a book of children’s letters to the two pets. The book’s proceeds were donated to the National Park Foundation.

Some other top facts about the nation’s top dogs and other impressive pets include:

  • Abraham Lincoln named his dog “Fido,” which comes from the Latin meaning “to trust or confide in.” Lincoln and Fido were often seen together before he became president, and the name became one of the most cliched dog names in our nation’s history
  • The wife of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, kept silkworms
  • During World War I, Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president, kept a herd of sheep on the White House lawn. The sheep helped to support the war effort by eating the grass since the regular lawn crew was fighting overseas
  • Young Caroline Kennedy was given a puppy by the Soviet Prime Minister. The puppy was named Pushinka (“fluffy” in Russian) and was checked for listening devices when she arrived at the White House

President-elect Joe Biden has two German shepherds, Champ and Major, who will presumably accompany the family to the executive residence when he takes office. Champ joined the family in 2008 as a puppy, and Major was a foster pet before being adopted by the Bidens in 2018.

As presidential pets continue their valuable role in first families, Americans from both sides of the aisle can celebrate their rich legacy of loyalty and love in the White House.