Like most Americans who bring home dogs, recent U.S. presidents have turned renowned hunting breeds into lapdogs and lovable rug-sloths while living in the White House.
Talk about a bipartisan effort. Whether it’s Gerald Ford’s golden retriever, Bill Clinton’s chocolate Labrador, or George W. Bush’s springer spaniel, most presidential dogs of hunting stock serve merely as pets and photo props while lodged at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Though not by the dogs’ choice, these descendants of long-proud hunting canines seldom express their ancestral genes by hunting with their masters. Heck, even Barack Obama’s Portuguese water dogs never celebrated their bloodlines by retrieving lost fishing tackle or herding fish into gillnets for the first family.
But gundogs aren’t the only hunting breeds forsaken on Capitol Hill and the White House lawn. During the past 250 years, visitors and residents of the nation’s capital often heard more howling than barking as presidents, senators and congressmen brought beagles, bassets, blueticks, and sundry other hound breeds to town to bury their ancestry. Jimmy Carter’s Afghan hound, Herbert Hoover’s Norwegian elkhound, and John F. Kennedy’s Irish wolfhound are but a few examples of D.C.’s hollowed-out hounds.
But in fairness to all presidents and Washington dignitaries, it’s hard to lead the world’s largest democracy and still find time to feed, tend, train, and hunt your dog(s), whether it’s a prized pointer or a pack of trailing hounds. Just ask Calvin Coolidge, whose White House “zoo” included nine dogs, two alligators, a pygmy hippo, a black bear, and two lion cubs he named “Tax Reduction” and “Budget Bureau.”
Even though President Coolidge liked hunting and fishing, he seldom found time to hunt during his two terms. He even said the White House was no place for a hunting dog. Therefore, after being presented an English setter in 1928, Coolidge sent the puppy to live in Kentucky with the brother of his Secret Service chief, Colonel E.W. Starling.
A century later, Washington, D.C., remains dismal for hunting dogs, says former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin. Ryan was elected to Congress seven decades after Coolidge’s presidency. He served on Capitol Hill from 1999 to 2019, including the final four years as speaker. Ryan doesn’t golf and prefers fundraising events that feature pheasant hunting. That made him a natural fit as the four-year chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, Capitol Hill’s largest bipartisan caucus, with 216 House and Senate members.
“A lot of our caucus members hunt, but I don’t recall anyone besides me who owned hunting dogs,” Ryan told MeatEater. “The problem in Congress is that you don’t have time to work your dogs. I’ve had a buddy since childhood who still trains my dogs and exercises them for me. You need someone like that if you’re in Congress and own hunting dogs.”
Ryan, 53, is a lifelong hunter, and he owned a German shorthair during his early years in Congress. After learning one of his daughters was allergic to the dog during her childhood, Ryan bought a pair of pudelpointers—a hypoallergenic breed created in the 1880s by crossing English pointers with German poodles. Ryan credits his wife, Janna, with finding and choosing a hunting breed that can point, retrieve, and handle water, given Ryan’s love for hunting everything from quail in Texas to ducks in Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.
Ryan said his family’s pudelpointers—named Boomer and Sooner to honor Janna’s Oklahoma roots—hunted hard during their 13 years, and moved seamlessly between field and home.
“They look like Irish wolfhounds, and they’re taller and leaner than a Lab, so they’re great hunting dogs,” Ryan said. “They’re great with kids. When my daughters were young, they even put dresses on them.”
Though Ryan’s hunting-dog legacy made him unique among lawmakers, he could have talked endlessly about hunting and dog breeds with famous hunters from America’s past, including the country’s “father,” George Washington. The American Kennel Club credits the first president as the “father” of the American foxhound.
Washington loved hunting fox with hounds, but wanted to breed more speed into his “lighter-built Virginia pack.” To help, Marquis de Lafayette sent Washington some French hounds, which Washington crossed with his own dogs to improve on the British foxhound. The resulting American foxhound was more aggressive, and worked more independently within the pack, with each hound willing to lead.
Washington’s keen ear for each hound’s unique howls during the chase often inspired their names, including Music, Singer, Droner, Hearkwell, and Sweet Lips. His inspiration for other hound names seems less certain, but include Venus, Taster, Tipsy, Tipler, Trulove, Captain, Vulcan, Searcher, Drunkard, Mopsey, Lady Rover, and Madame Moose.
Whatever their names, Washington’s dogs handled Virginia’s large countryside and “freewheeling environs” better than the hounds preceding them. The AKC believes Washington’s success with the American foxhound led to new coonhound strains as settlers pushed into even wilder landscapes in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. These new hounds included the bluetick, treeing walker, and American-English breeds.
Another famous houndsman came to the nation’s capital 30 years after George Washington left office in 1797. This Tennessean, David Crockett, served three two-year terms in Congress from 1827 to 1835, but left Washington, D.C., for good after losing his House seat in 1835, possibly because he voted his conscience rather than the party line. Crockett explained his voting loyalties this way: “I know nothing…of party discipline. I would rather be a raccoon-dog…than belong to any party.”
Unlike George Washington, who seldom tolerated mixed-breed dogs—and even drowned puppies that weren’t “true”—Crockett judged hounds mostly on how they trailed deer, wolves, squirrels, raccoons, panthers, and black bears. Some Crockett historians, however, claim he was partial to black-and-tan coonhounds and Tennessee redbones. Crockett considered redbones a versatile, hardworking breed. He owned up to 12 redbones at one time, and was known for skillfully training them to hunt.
Still others said Crockett flat-out preferred mixed-breed hounds over purebreds. They said he most admired fearless hounds, no matter their bloodlines, especially when hunting bears. In his autobiography, Crockett wrote: “I asked a bear no favors, no way, for I now had eight large dogs, and as fierce as panthers; so that a bear stood no chance at all to get away from them. I encouraged my dogs, and they knowed me so well, that I could have made them seize the old serpent himself, with all his horns and heads, and cloven foot and ugliness into the bargain.”
As Americans pushed farther west in the decades after Crockett’s 1836 death at the Alamo, hounds of sundry breeds took their place alongside men such as Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Though Custer never served in the nation’s capital, historians like Stephen Ambrose believe he had designs on the presidency when leading 210 soldiers to their deaths June 25, 1876, at the Little Bighorn in eastern Montana. Custer knew Americans often turn war heroes into presidents, and reportedly told Indian scouts he would take care of them if he became the “Great White Father.”
Either way, Custer loved hunting dogs and kept several during the Civil War, according to the book “General Custer, Libbie Custer and Their Dogs: A Passion for Hounds from the Civil War to Little Bighorn,” by Brian Patrick Duggan. Custer’s early dogs included foxhounds, “a big retriever,” and a black-and-tan coonhound.
After the Civil War, Custer owned 80 dogs or more while stationed on Western outposts during his final decade. Among his throng were sighthounds, or “gazehounds,” which were ideal for hunting the West’s vast prairies. Custer’s sighthounds included English greyhounds, Scottish staghounds (deerhounds), Russian wolfhounds, and Irish wolfhounds.
Ronnie Boehme, host of the “Hunting Dog Podcast,” notes that these breeds have deep chests, large hearts, efficient lungs, long legs, flexible backs, strong hindquarters, and lean heads and bodies. “Out on the prairie, they wanted dogs that could give chase, and Custer’s sighthounds gave chase,” Boehme told MeatEater. “Whether it was deer, antelope, wolves, coyotes, or jackrabbits, Custer let his hounds loose. Their eyes, speed, and endurance were beyond comprehension.”
While stationed in 1870 at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, Custer assigned a private named John Burkman to care for his dogs. As Burkman told author Glendolin Damon Wagner for her book “Old Neutriment,” he often linked Custer’s dogs together in pairs, mounted his horse, and took them running for exercise: “They was a purty sight, so slick and slim, eighty of ’em canterin’ along,” Burkman said.
Burkman held that assignment until Custer’s death and likely would have died at Little Bighorn if Custer hadn’t ordered him to stay in camp to keep the dogs from following the 7th Cavalry’s ride into history. After Custer’s death, his widow found homes for all their dogs, including their scores of foxhounds and staghounds.
Duggan wrote: “The country-wide effort to help Libbie place the dogs she and her husband so loved was America’s first national dog rescue effort. Libbie never had dogs again, although she continued to write about them with great feeling.”
Many of Custer’s hounds remained in the West, apparently claimed by ranchmen or fellow Army officers. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, said he “hunted with many of the descendants of Custer’s hounds” on the “grassy plains lying near the Little Missouri, and the Knife and Heart rivers” in North Dakota. Writing in his 1893 book “The Wilderness Hunter,” Roosevelt admired how “the greyhound, whether the smooth-haired, or the rough-coated Scotch deerhound…firmly established itself in the field of American sport.”
Roosevelt wrote that many Army officers posted in the West from 1840 through 1900 were “devoted to the sport” and used greyhounds to “course jackrabbit, coyote, and sometimes deer, antelope, and gray wolf.” Ranchmen of the 1870s also kept greyhounds for coursing, much as their predecessors had done in California for Pacific Coast jackrabbits. “The sport speedily assumed large proportions and a permanent form,” Roosevelt wrote.
The ranchmen especially liked chasing the whitetail, and strove “to surprise it in the early morning when feeding on the prairie.” TR, however, disdained using the East’s hound-hunting strategies on the Great Plains, writing: “Killing driven game by lying in wait for it to pass is the very poorest kind of sport that can be called legitimate. This is the way the deer is usually killed with hounds in the East. In the North the red fox is often killed in somewhat the same manner, being followed by a slow hound and shot as he circles before the dog.”
Roosevelt liked riding a horse behind the sighthounds and letting the big dogs take down whatever they chased. “We generally had at least one very fast and savage dog—a strike dog—in each pack, and the others were of assistance in turning the game, sometimes in tiring it, and usually in helping to finish it. The bucks (whitetails) sometimes made a good fight, but generally, they were seized while running, some dogs catching by the throat, others by the shoulders, and others again by the flank just in front of the hind leg. Wherever the hold was obtained, if the dog made his spring cleverly, the buck was sure to come down with a crash, and if the other dogs were anywhere near, he was probably killed before he could rise, although not infrequently the dogs themselves were more or less scratched in the contests.”
Roosevelt praised such dogs for their “gallantry,” and considered “coursing on the prairie, especially after big game, an exceedingly manly and attractive sport.” He devoted several pages in “The Wilderness Hunter” to Colonel Roger D. Williams, a native Kentuckian who bred “thoroughbred hounds for many years.” Roosevelt described Williams’ hounds as “literally seamed all over with the scars of innumerable battles.” When these hounds worked together, “they would stop a bull elk, and fearlessly assail a bear or cougar,” but also “scored many a triumph over (mule deer), whitetail, and prong-buck.”
Although several sighthound breeds live on today as household pets, the big-game chases Roosevelt enjoyed from horseback vanished by the early 1900s. Meanwhile, gundogs and bird hunting grew popular, even fashionable, across America and among Washingtonians. In December 1938, for example, a 4-year-old black Labrador graced the cover of Life magazine after winning the Long Island Retriever Club’s celebrated annual field trials, which included a challenging blind retrieve.
Life’s cover dog, “Blind of Arden,” was owned by renowned statesman W. Averell Harriman, an eventual New York governor who also served as a U.S. diplomat from the early 1940s to late 1960s for presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The accompanying article in Life—a weekly magazine that reached 25% of Americans during its golden era of 1936 to 1972—described Blind of Arden’s winning performance: “Quickly finding the duck, Blind picked it up with a firm mouth and swam back to his handler. Then, after delivering the bird, he sat stylishly on his haunches. This, however, was pure showmanship, and the judges were instructed to pay no attention to it.”
Another popular hunting breed of that era, the Weimaraner, briefly lived in the White House during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s term (1952-1960). Eisenhower liked fishing and bird hunting, but apparently didn’t see his female Weimaraner, Heidi, as a hunter. She often jumped on guests and interfered with photo shoots. Ike tolerated those indiscretions and frequent “accidents” inside the White House, but banished Heidi to the family’s Gettysburg farm in 1959 after she soiled a $20,000 rug in the diplomatic reception room.
A more infamous hunting-dog scandal occurred five years later when President Johnson showed off his beloved beagles, named Him and Her, to the press corps. (Johnson apparently lacked any knack for creative dog names. Him and Her’s father was named Beagle.) With news cameras clicking and rolling in 1964, LBJ lifted Him off the ground by his long ears. When onlookers expressed concern, the president claimed beagles enjoy a good ear pull. The nation’s dog lovers weren’t having it. They howled at the photos and footage, causing a former president to defend Johnson. “What the hell are the critics complaining about; that's how you handle hounds,” Truman hollered.
Unfortunately for Him and Her, greater tragedies befell them. Soon after Him’s ear-pulling controversy, Her died after swallowing a stone. Two years later, Him died when the presidential limousine ran him over as he chased a squirrel across the White House driveway.
Their deaths left unchallenged LBJ and Truman’s claims that beagles and other hounds enjoy being lifted by their ears onto their rear paws. One man who disagrees is Brent Reaves, host of the “This Country Life” podcast on the MeatEater network. Reaves is a lifelong houndsman whose family roots weave 150 years deep into rural Arkansas’ river bottoms.
“LBJ was an idiot,” Reaves told MeatEater. “The biggest, baddest coon dog on the planet lets go of a coon with the slightest twist on his ear because it hurts. I’d say most hunters back then were heavy-handed when training hounds.”
Either way, it appears LBJ also neglected to take Him and Her rabbit hunting during their brief lives. Instead, when LBJ played host on his Texas ranch, he usually roused his guests at dawn to hunt deer from his vehicle or box blinds.
Presidents ignoring their dogs’ hunting genes apparently became the norm after Coolidge left office in 1929. As Speaker Ryan said, most Washington lawmakers simply lack the time to train a dog, whether it hunts or not. But of the nation’s 46 presidents, 34 owned at least one dog, while nine made do with critters ranging from silkworms (John Quincy Adams) to tiger cubs (Martin Van Buren). Only three presidents never owned pets: James K. Polk (1845-1849), Andrew Johnson (1865-1869 ), and Donald Trump (2017-2021).
Even so, historians have documented over 100 presidential pooches, which means the nation’s 34 dog-owning presidents averaged at least three each. Leading that pack are George Washington and Coolidge with 12 dogs each. But Washington’s dogs never lived in the White House. The nation’s first president oversaw the White House’s construction starting in October 1792, but never occupied it.
He masterminded bigger feats: He remains the only president to create an AKC-registered breed of hunting dogs.
And just think: He was too modest to name the American foxhound after himself. He didn’t want a legacy dog. He simply wanted to hunt with the greatest hounds possible.