Is there a better way to boost a politician's fortunes than a puppy? Everyone knows that dogs buy a certain degree of political capital. Boris knew this when he acquired not simply a puppy, but a rescue cross from across the Union in Wales. Joe Biden was well aware of their political potency when he brought dogs back to the White House after Trump’s four paw-less years. And Chancellor Rishi Sunak must also have bargained on their public appeal when he posted a picture of his new Fox Red Labrador puppy Nova sitting on his lap in his No.11 office last Wednesday. Twitter barked back but not necessarily in approval, with many commenting that the Chancellor should concentrate on the aftermath of the pandemic rather than massaging his image with dog pictures. Woof.
Like them or loathe them, dogs not only catch our attention but also convey substantive messages. Dogs remind the electorate of their elected representatives' humanity and, their humility (think dog poo bags and abject disobedience). You may not like Boris but how can you possibly object to little Dilyn, the argument usually goes. And there you have it: personality and policies blurred with just one shake of a dog’s tail.
In America, as with most things Stateside, this phenomenon is big. So big that it even has a term: 'puppaganda'. We all know about the Obamas’ Portuguese Water Dogs Bo (recently departed) and Sunny, but long before their appearance, Hillary Clinton even went so far in 1998 as to publish a book of 'notes' to their dog Buddy from US schoolchildren. Never underestimate canine power to cover up the scent of something slightly off. Accordingly, Presidential campaigns are heavily influenced by the accompaniment of a dog by a politician’s side. Dogs might not necessarily win the race for you – candidate Pete Buttigeig went so far as to create dedicated Twitter accounts for his dogs Truman and Buddy – but they will guarantee you a devoted base ready to bark for you when the caucus comes. In terms of your morals, Woodrow Wilson famously made the connection between dogs and principles claiming that 'if a dog will not come to you after he has looked you in the face, you ought to go home and examine your conscience'. Upon which basis, would that all politicians owned a dog.
When it comes to breeds, this side of the Atlantic Labradors occupy a peculiar soft spot in the British Tory imagination. Beloved of the Establishment, Labradors are status dogs due to the lingering (and often not dispelled) assumption that you might shoot with yours. Picture a Labrador and the images conjured are of muddy brocade sofas, Agas and Norfolk beaches. Hardcore Lab owners may say that black is the only colour worth having but Rishi’s choice of a Fox red nods to classic with a twist, a bit like him, one might say. Like most accessories in this country, your choice of dog is inflected by class. Pugs and Whippets recall the Victorian drawing rooms and clubs of old, while Corgis will eternally represent Her Majesty. When politicians play around with this formula, things become more interesting. Boris and Carrie could easily have chosen a black Lab for their canine companion but that would have been too prescriptive. Far better to choose a rescue cross for broad appeal, chiming in with the 'Levelling Up' message. The mind boggles to think of the breed Tony Blair would have had to choose as the world’s poshest socialist: a Staffordshire Bull Terrier cross?
Could it be that politicians are drawn to dogs because of the extraordinary, non-partisan loyalty they display toward their owners? By showing us their dogs, politicians hint at the kind of steadfast devotion they can only dream of when it comes to the electorate. Matt Hancock’s next moves must involve some serious dog pictures; his rehabilitation depends on it. As for puppy Nova, fame beckons.