J.D.M. Stewart teaches Canadian history at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto and is the author of Being Prime Minister.
There was more than a new president moving into the White House when Joe Biden took the oath of office on Wednesday. The new chief executive brought two German Shepherd dogs with him. Major and Champ have already earned celebrity status with their holiday videos and mock press releases as well as Major’s past as a shelter dog.
Dogs and presidents have been inextricably linked over the past 100 years of American history, so it is not unexpected that Major and Champ captured the media’s attention. They are perhaps even more noteworthy than usual since the previous occupant of the Oval Office was the first president in more than a century not to have a canine friend. Combine that with scores of people getting their own dogs in 2020 during the pandemic, and you have a population with pets on its mind.
While the history of presidents and dogs is well established – there is a book devoted to it, First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Best Friends (2009) – one might reasonably wonder about Canadian prime ministers. Have they, like the president, enjoyed the pleasures provided by pooches?
Very much so.
Any conversation about prime ministers and their dogs must begin with Mackenzie King. The country’s longest-serving prime minister was the owner of a famous (in a Canadian way) Irish terrier named Pat, who lived for 17 years. “The truest friend I ever had,” King once noted, echoing U.S. president Harry Truman, who quipped: “You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.”
To be more precise, King owned not one Irish terrier, but three – and he gave them all the same name. When Pat I was gravely ill during the Second World War and in the last of his 17 years, the prime minister postponed a War Cabinet meeting while he tended to the pet’s final days, such was his devotion. He recorded all of his deep emotions about his cherished pets in his legendary diary.
“I sang more hymns, held him to me,” he wrote. “[H]is little body warm, legs not cold, his little heart got very weak, almost imperceptible.”
Pats II and III were similarly loved and appropriately remembered in the prime minister’s journal.
While King’s dogs have earned the most notoriety – essentially owing to the prime minister’s extensive diary entries about them – he was not the only PM to have owned these pets. Sir Wilfrid Laurier had a King Charles spaniel named King Charles and a Pomeranian named Madame Topsey.
John Diefenbaker received a yellow Labrador retriever for Christmas in 1961 and named it Happy. He was the first dog to live at 24 Sussex Dr., but after biting Olive Diefenbaker, the prime minister’s wife in 1963, the dog was euthanized.
Another Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, owned two dogs, standard poodles named Oscar and Clover. During Mr. Mulroney’s first months in office, in 1984, Oscar got into a scrap with a porcupine while at Harrington Lake. “It was a short encounter,” Mr. Mulroney recalled in his memoir, noting that he and his family spent the night taking the quills out of the poor animal.
Perhaps the most surprising story about dogs and prime ministers, however, is the one involving Pierre Trudeau. With his reputation of being somewhat cold and aloof (more like a cat), Mr. Trudeau is one of the last prime ministers you would expect to have had a dog. Yet, he did. Two, in fact, both gifts from legendary author Farley Mowat and his wife, Claire.
In the summer of 1971, with Margaret Trudeau pregnant with Justin, the prime minister and his wife dropped in to see the Mowats at their Magdalen Islands summer place. They had a glorious beach picnic together.
“Farley suggested that if the T’s were going to have a baby, they should also have a puppy,” Claire Mowat wrote to me in a 2017 letter. The Mowats had a pregnant dog. “We would happily save one for them. We did.”
The Trudeaus received a black Labrador/St. John’s waterdog cross, which Ms. Trudeau named Farley. They liked him so much they asked for another. The following summer the Mowats were invited to the PM’s country retreat at Harrington Lake and brought Fiona with them.
“Pierre T. was very good with his dog, Farley,” Ms. Mowat recalled. “[He] patiently taught him many things.”
There was an unfortunate end to the story of Farley and Fiona. They were caught chasing deer on National Capital Commission property. Not good. The dogs were a lot to handle.
As a result, the pair were sent to live with Ms. Trudeau’s parents in Vancouver, where Farley was hit by a car and died.
There is a universal appeal to dogs (sorry, cat people) and these animals have served to humanize political leaders who have them. Interestingly, though, this aspect of dog ownership has not been seized upon by Canadian prime ministers. While most PMs of the past 100 years have been dog owners, the link is not well-established in the minds of Canadians. For example, few Canadians realize that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family have a Portuguese Water Dog (the same breed Barack Obama had) named Kenzie.
But in these trying times, both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau are no different from any other dog owners, enjoying the companionship of the “truest friends.”
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