Tracking A Digital Dog(ma) - Bryan Blankfield
In recent years, President Harry S. Truman has often been credited as remarking, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” This political aphorism is an apocryphal quotation, however. Truman was not especially keen to have dogs around him. Upon receiving a cocker spaniel puppy named Feller for Christmas in 1947, he promptly gave the dog away. Despite this quotation’s misattribution to Truman, its endurance nicely illustrates a deeply seated U.S. belief that dogs are exceedingly loyal creatures or in the dated parlance, “Man’s best friend.” Its endurance is also partially owing to the tradition of presidents owning a dog during their tenure in the White House. Aside from President Donald Trump, the last president to not keep a dog at the White House was President William McKinley. As a result, dogs have become an important fixture in American political image-making.
Every presidential election season, candidates canvass the nation and target any demographic that can give them an edge. Since nearly 64 million American families own a dog, candidates often make appeals to those who own or simply like dogs. Seeing a candidate with a dog reassures voters that they share the values and experiences of a person they will never meet, but who will make policy changes that will impact their lives.
While previous presidential campaigns have famously relied on dogs, such as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s use of his Scottish terrier, Fala, in a 1944 radio address or Vice-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s use of his cocker spaniel, Checkers, in a 1952 televised address, this past primary season saw an important shift in how candidates used their dogs to mobilize digital publics. In this short piece, I would like to offer five preliminary insights into how dogs have been mobilized on social media in the current race for the White House. Consider this entry an effort at tracking a digital dog(ma).
Rule one. Political pets are useful for speaking to the character or authenticity of a candidate, but this can backfire on candidates who are overly earnest in their use of these animals. On January 28, 2020, Bloomberg’s unusual interaction with a dog went viral on Twitter. Instead of patting a potential voter’s dog on the head, the billionaire shook the dog’s snout as if giving it a handshake. Mindful of the ridicule that Bloomberg was receiving for his odd behavior, his campaign team went into overdrive to fix this potential faux pas. That afternoon, his team crafted a Snapchat Story showing Bloomberg giving his dogs treats, captioned: “Starting the day with my senior advisors, Cody & Libby.” By 8 AM the next day, Bloomberg’s campaign released a 30-second advertisement of New York City dogs expressing their support of him—one dog pronounced, “I like Mike, I lick Mike.” They also created the hashtag #DogsFurMike.
The speed at which Bloomberg’s campaign team worked to counteract this goofy photo op reveals a concern that it could have potentially harmed his political viability among dog lovers. This response was a bit overzealous, however, given the levity of the mistake. After watching the advertisement, Cody Johnston (@drmistercody) sarcastically tweeted, “Folks, we need a president who will spend a bunch of money to release a video about how normal he is with dogs twenty hours after we all saw him casually shake a dog’s nose as if he does it all the time.” The primary charm of interacting with pets is that it allows one to appear more relatable. Candidates who use animals on a digital medium, however, may self-sabotage their efforts if they are generating content that would clearly require a campaign team and/or extensive capital to produce.
Rule two. If you are going to narrowcast to voters who like dogs, make sure that dogs remain a central component of your messages to this audience. Bloomberg’s video was overly earnest in its deployment, but his campaign team gave viewers exactly what they wanted to see: dogs. Beto O’Rourke’s use of his black Labrador, Artemis, demonstrates what not to do when narrowcasting to this demographic.
On March 13, 2019, O’Rourke announced his 2020 presidential bid in a Vanity Fair cover story. Twitter users, however, fixated on the dour appearance of Artemis in the article’s photographs. To capitalize on Twitter’s interest in his dog, O’Rourke created a Twitter account (@First_Dog_USA) for Artemis on March 14. On the first day alone, he made a flurry of eleven (re)tweets. By the third tweet, he began speaking from Artemis’s perspective—and has done so ever since. While speaking for Artemis, O’Rourke adopted a friendly, yet partisan voice.
Of all the novelty Twitter accounts I analyzed for this essay, O’Rourke’s account for Artemis is simultaneously the most active, yet the least interesting. The persona he crafted for Artemis comes across as underdeveloped and uninspired. Her statements are routinely wordy sentences and although her tweets or replies regularly contain a dog pun or two, the puns are often forced or corny. Put simply, this persona sounds like a thinly veiled version of O’Rourke. Though O’Rourke frequently tweets pictures of Artemis, this account consistently draws attention to his electability or stances on issues. O’Rourke’s inspiration to create the account was premised on his dog’s popularity and he appears to have forgotten it. Instead, O’Rourke repeatedly tries to upstage his dog with fluff pieces about his own activities.
Pete Buttigieg’s Twitter account (@firstdogsSB) for his rescue dogs, Buddy and Truman, has remained the most successful canine novelty account in the 2020 presidential campaign. Whereas Artemis’s Twitter account has yet to crack 5,000 followers, Buddy and Truman’s account boasts over 90,000. Instead of focusing on politics, Buddy and Truman’s posts are more whimsical and dog-centered. For instance, in a typically mischievous post, Buttigieg once tweeted as Buddy, writing, “ALEXA OPEN GARBAG CAN.” (As a simple shorthand, Buttigieg has adopted the use of uppercase letters to signal Buddy’s thoughts and lowercase letters for Truman.)
Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, rarely appear on Buddy and Truman’s novelty account. One exception occurred on January 31, 2020, when @firstdogsSB linked a fundraising appeal video that had been posted on Chasten’s Twitter account earlier that day. In the video, Chasten explained the urgent need to raise funds before that night’s deadline and playfully incorporated Buddy and Truman into his appeal. Despite addressing both dogs by name, neither responded to his voice; Buddy remained facing the opposite direction and Truman asleep in the background. Buttigieg’s campaign was able to play up the humor by counterbalancing the appeal with Buddy’s written response, “I CANOT WORK UNDR THESE COMDITONS.” Thus, if a politician intends to use a novelty dog account for political gain, they should spend most of their efforts cultivating an interesting voice for their animal(s), stay out of the limelight, and wait for strategic moments to make appeals.
Rule three. Dogs are often drawn into elections, whether on the parts of politicians or citizens, because it is fun. In his explanation of how PETA became the largest animal rights organization, Peter Simonson argued that they did so by deviating from the conflict-driven model popularly embraced by the news cycle and targeting entertainment media instead. According to Simonson, “Some who worship the gods of democracy have sufficient faith to hear controversy as the sacred noise of the poll-born anew. . . . [But for others] tone deaf to the melodies of protest and argument, news-based controversy may only sound an undifferentiated and vaguely irritating din” (406-407). Sometimes the best way to reach people is by attuning your political message to the melody of popular pleasures, such as dogs. Not everyone gravitates toward argumentation and debate.
Buttigieg’s approach to his novelty Twitter account is similar. On it, he creates a friendly, digital space organized around cute canine-diversions, such as polls about what flavor dog treats his pets should eat, pictures of their daily adventures, or the simplistic poems and doggerel they might write. Most of the responses he receives on this account are likewise playful. For instance, on August 27, 2019, @firstdogsSB posted a picture of Buddy captioned, “I JUST TOOK DNA TESTS TURNS OUT IM 100% CHIMKEN AND PENUT BUTER.” Most of the replies offered a few words or emojis signaling how much they appreciated the humor and cuteness in the post.
Several Twitter users uploaded a photograph of their own dog in their reply to Buddy’s tweet. Most of these captions playfully signaled their identification with Buttigieg’s relationship with his pet. MaryBethHitchcock (@mbsf10) continued the dietary theme in her reply, “This is Brady. He is 20% poodle 80% American cheese slices.” Meanwhile, Lori Post JoRay (@babysisof9) fixated on the similarity between Buddy with her partially blind rescue animal. She commented, “Love this pic!! Here’s one of our one eyed rescue sweetheart [three heart emojis].” A few followers signaled their identification with Buttigieg by captioning pictures of their dogs with a fitting impersonation. Doreen Gia DeNigris (@gia_doreen) wrote, “My DNA says I’m Poodle and Cairn Terrior, or a Cairnoodle. But [sic] I know I am pure happiness and love!” Zod the Floof (@FloofZod) wrote, “I’m 25% CHIMKIN, 25% HAMBERDER, and 50% FLOOF!!”
The playfulness of this canine Twitter banter helps draw a community of like-minded individuals together. Buttigieg’s comments in a 2018 promotional video for a new dog park in South Bend, Indiana, contains a kernel of insight into his views on the general usefulness of dogs. He explained that “the more things different kinds of people have in common, the better. And one thing that I’ve noticed about the dog park we already had in South Bend, is that it, uh, gives a lot of owners from different walks of life and even different neighborhoods a good reason to get to know each other better” (@sbvpa). In essence, dogs can serve to unite people who might not otherwise talk to each other. By cultivating a fun, digital space for his dog-loving followers, Buttigieg helped generate a canine-networked public sphere.
Rule four. Candidates do not need to create a Twitter account to benefit from their pets; citizen-run accounts can positively impact the campaign, too. The most successful instance of this during the 2020 presidential campaign was an unofficial Twitter account run for Elizabeth Warren’s golden retriever, Bailey (@FirstDogBailey). Created by Robert Abare, this account routinely tweets pictures and videos of Bailey that he finds online, which he pairs with his rendition of the dog’s voice. His persona for Bailey contains a routine mixture of canine cuteness, declarations of support for Warren’s campaign, and denouncements of the wealthy. A pinned tweet on @FirstDogBailey announces, “Hi! I’m Bailey Warren. I like long walks, belly rubs, and financial regulations that hold billionaires and corporations accountable.” This account was the second most popular canine Twitter account in the 2020 presidential race with nearly 40k followers.
Though @FirstDogBailey is an unofficial account, it has benefited directly from some of Warren’s campaign choices. Warren brought Bailey on the campaign trail, which provided ample opportunities for him to be covered in the news and photographed by supporters. Warren, who often reveled in the number of selfies that she took with supporters while campaigning, also enlisted him in this activity. In a popular Instagram post made on January 16, 2019, Warren noted that Bailey would be available for pictures in a separate line at one of her meet-and-greets. Creating a separate line was prudent on her campaign’s part in that she could appeal to potential voters who like dogs while preventing Bailey’s sometimes unpredictable behavior from interrupting or upstaging her. More generally, Warren frequently uploads pictures of Bailey on her Instagram account (@elizabethwarren). Altogether her choices make it easier for individuals like Abare to generate content in support of her campaign.
Rule five. If a politician’s campaign ends in failure (as most do), these novelty accounts may still serve as a useful means to communicate with the supporters they amassed in the canine-networked public sphere. While these accounts generally tweet less frequently, they have yet to be deactivated or abandoned completely. To what end they are used differs in each instance, though they generally maintain similar types of posts as before.
When Buttigieg suspended his presidential campaign on March 1, 2020, he continued to tweet regularly on his official account (@PeteButtigieg). His use of @firstdogsSB, however, was curtailed significantly. Whereas he regularly tweeted several times a month on his novelty account during the campaign, he has averaged only one tweet per subsequent month. This shift in activity reveals the extent to which this novelty account became part of his presidential campaign’s apparatus. Aside from tweeting less frequently, his novelty account has maintained a similar emphasis on apolitical tweets. When he tweets about a political issue, his remarks are kept brief or oblique. For instance, during Pride Month Truman simply remarked, “gay rights,” and in late October, Buddy exclaimed, “DAD SAYZ VOTE I SAYZ MORE TREETS LOL.” What exactly Buttigieg may do with his novelty account in the future remains unclear, though it seems likely that he will generate the same type of content.
Despite a flurry of tweets in January, @FirstDogBailey went inexplicably silent after the Iowa caucus. After fifty days of silence, this account tweeted on March 24, “I would like to steal another burrito. And I hope everyone is doing OK.” Since then, Abare has regularly tweeted the same type of material of before—namely, pictures and videos of Bailey interspersed with political remarks—with one notable exception: he has begun to capitalize on his novelty account. On July 26, 2020, he announced the publication of Bailey the Golden Reformer. This short picture book can be purchased for $12.99 and simply lists its author as Bailey, which may inadvertently obfuscate the extent to which he is working independently of Warren. Abare announced in September that a percentage of the profits will benefit the progressive Working Families Party, but he has not disclosed what this percentage amounts to.
Unlike the Twitter accounts for Buttigieg and Warren’s pets, O’Rourke remained quite active on his Artemis account after suspending his campaign on November 1, 2019. For the first few weeks, his tweets thanked his supporters and pledged to fight on. Gradually his tweets mostly contained family photos (sometimes without Artemis), general support for democratic candidates running in local elections, and a few attempts to support front-runner Joe Biden. He stopped tweeting in late May, however, and, apart from a September tweet honoring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, did not resume using @First_Dog_USA until two days before the election. Since then, O’Rourke has continued to (re)tweet multiple times daily. Much of these tweets have centered on Biden’s dogs, Champ and Major, new cat, Winston, as well as an attempt to unban an unofficial Twitter account created for these animals. More than any of the other novelty account creators, O’Rourke has used the excitement of the election results to further engage his canine-networked public sphere.
While I have tracked an implicit digital dog(ma) from the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary, it is not exclusive to contenders for the White House. Many political candidates benefit from using their pets at some point or another. A notable instance occurred earlier during the 2020 race for Iowa’s Senate seat. While riffing on a similar argument made by Donald Trump’s campaign team that Joe Biden has been hiding in his basement, Republican Senator Joni Ernst suggested that her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, was “hiding in her basement.” Ernst took this attack one step further by adding that she was “taking selfies with her dog, Ringo.” This attack on Greenfield’s character backfired and became a costly mistake, however. Greenfield’s campaign immediately went on the offensive and circulated audio of Ernst’s remarks. Moreover, they framed it as an attack on her rescue dog by promoting the hashtag #IStandWithRingo. In turn, many Twitter users created playful responses like those identified in the presidential primaries. Within a day, Greenfield’s campaign raised $132,000 dollars through this appeal.
Over the last one hundred years or so, dogs have served as a useful resource for politicians seeking to fashion their image and appeal to potential voters. Today, they are an especially useful resource for networked publics organized through platforms like Twitter. Dogs are best suited for conveying a positive affect, drawing together disparate strands of followers who may be otherwise uninterested in politics, and/or having fun with potential voters. Campaigning is long, hard work and an occasional reprieve is often welcome for candidates and potential voters alike. Lastly, candidates who wish to use dogs for political gain would be wise to not compete with their political props. Every dog should have its day. Candidates who forget this and compete with their own dog for attention are liable to lessen their pet’s political sway—or even their own.
@babysisof9. “Love this pic!! Here’s one of our one eyed rescue sweetheart.” Twitter, 27 Aug. 2019, 3:28 p.m., twitter.com/babysisof9/status/1166432424961748994.
@chrisjollyhale. “#DogsFurMike on SnapChat.” Twitter, 29 Jan. 2020, 12:11 a.m., twitter.com/chrisjollyhale/status/1222386667341991936.
@drmistercody. “Folks, we need a president who will spend a bunch of money to release a video about how normal he is with dogs twenty hours after we all saw him casually shake a dog’s nose as if he does it all the time.” Twitter, 29 Jan. 2020, 12:16 p.m., https://twitter.com/drmistercody/status/1222614590439096320
@FirstDogBailey. “Hi! I’m Bailey Warren. I like long walks, belly rubs, and financial regulations that hold billionaires and corporations accountable.” Twitter, 7 Jan. 2019, 2:01 p.m., twitter.com/FirstDogBailey/status/1082351591179591680.
@FirstDogBailey. “I would like to steal another burrito. And I hope everyone is doing OK.” Twitter, 24 Mar. 2020, 1:05 p.m., twitter.com/FirstDogBailey/status/1242497840108240898.
@firstdogsSB. “ALEXA OPEN GARBAG CAN.” Twitter, 14 Jul. 2019, 4:13 p.m., twitter.com/firstdogsSB/status/1150498564017205249.
@firstdogsSB. “DAD SAYZ VOTE I SAYZ MORE TREETS LOL.” Twitter, 31 Oct. 2020, 6:18 p.m., https://twitter.com/firstdogsSB/status/1322709490823794688.
@firstdogsSB. “gay rights.” Twitter, 15 Jun. 2020, 3:46 p.m., twitter.com/firstdogsSB/status/1272616412092280833.
@firstdogsSB. “I CANOT WORK UNDR THESE COMDITONS.” Twitter, 31 Jan. 2020, 7:55 p.m., twitter.com/firstdogsSB/status/1223409420882845697.
@firstdogsSB. “I JUST TOOK DNA TESTS TURNS OUT IM 100% CHIMKEN AND PENUT BUTER.” Twitter, 27 Aug. 2019, 1:43 p.m., twitter.com/firstdogsSB/status/1166405987328303104.
@FloofZod. “I’m 25% CHIMKIN, 25% HAMBERDER, and 50% FLOOF!!” Twitter, 28 Aug. 2019, 6:55 a.m., twitter.com/FloofZod/status/1166665720924659712.
@gia_doreen. “My DNA says I’m Poodle and Cairn Terrior, or a Cairnoodle.But I know I am pure happiness and love!” Twitter, 28 Aug. 2019, 1:14 p.m., twitter.com/gia_doreen/status/1166761071798972416.
@mbsf10. “This is Brady. He is 20% poodle 80% American cheese slices.” Twitter, 27 Aug. 2019, 7:41 p.m., twitter.com/mbsf10/status/1166495975369670656.
@MikeBloomberg. “Dog people get me. Dogs too. #DogsFurMike.” Twitter, 29 Jan. 2020, 11:08 a.m., twitter.com/MikeBloomberg/status/1222552068231176192.
@sbvpa. “Are you ready for the newest #SouthBend dog park at Rum Village? Mayor @PeteButtigiegand his pup Truman are!” Twitter, 21 Jun. 2018, 3:03 p.m., twitter.com/sbvpa/status/1009874501448978432.
Blankfield, Bryan. “‘A Symbol of His Warmth and Humanity’: Fala, Roosevelt, and the Personable Presidency.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol. 19, no. 2, 2016, pp. 209-44.
Blankfield, Bryan. "Political Animals: Prosopopoeia in the 1944 Presidential Election." Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 4, 2017, pp. 335-58.
Budryk, Zack. “Iowa Senate Candidate Raises $132K After Dog Goes Viral.” The Hill, 3 Aug. 2020, thehill.com/homenews/senate/510318-iowa-senate-candidate-raise-132k-after-dog-goes-viral.
elizabethwarren. “Bailey snoozed all the way home from New Hampshire -- campaigning is tiring work for a dog! Check out his view from Saturday’s event in Manchester.” Instagram, 16 Jan. 2019, www.instagram.com/p/BstPVkdHD0y/.
Keyes, Ralph. “Dog Quotes: Who Said That?” The Bark, Nov. 2008, Updated Feb. 2015, thebark.com/content/dog-quotes.
Lyall, Sarah. “When Your Best Surrogate Can’t Talk.” New York Times, 28 Jan. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/01/28/us/politics/democratic-candidates-dogs-bloomberg.html?fbclid=IwAR3e52Rv1z_pUxOMM-reONpOabLRhWczZkMBDg-ruejyXcZL7MPax3vTcQI.
Mason, Jessica. “Joni Ernst Came for Her Opponent’s Pet and Now the Iowa Senate Race Has Gone to the Dogs: And Ringo is his Name-o!” The Mary Sue, 31 July 2020, www.themarysue.com/joni-ernst-came-for-her-opponents-pet/.
“Pet Industry Market Size & Ownership Statistics.” American Pet Products Association, www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp. Accessed 20 Aug. 2020.
Pycior, Helena. “The Making of the ‘First Dog’: President Warren G. Harding and Laddie Boy.” Society & Animals, vol. 13, no. 2, 2005, pp. 109-38.
Pycior, Helena. “The Public and Private Lives of ‘First Dogs’.” Beastly Natures: Animals, Humans, and the Study of History, edited by Dorothee Brantz, University of Virginia Press, 2010, pp. 176-203.
Simonson, Peter. "Social Noise and Segmented Rhythms: News, Entertainment, and Celebrity in the Crusade for Animal Rights." The Communication Review, vol. 4, no. 3, 2001, pp. 399-420.
 To the best of my knowledge, this quote is a slight rephrasing of a line in Samuel Gallu’s 1975 play, Give ‘em Hell, Harry. https://thebark.com/content/dog-quotes.  Yet, this statement is somewhat misleading in a few respects. First, not every president who has had a dog during his stay in the White House has kept one permanently (some, as was the case with Truman, quickly send away any dog(s) that they do not like, want, or deem unsafe). Second, not every White House dog belongs to the president. Very frequently, they belong to either the First Lady or their children. Third, presidents who serve two consecutive terms might not have a dog for both terms. President William Clinton, for instance, adopted the chocolate Labrador retriever, Buddy, during his second term. Thus, if Clinton had only served his first term, he also would have kept no dogs in the White House. Frankly, I appreciate that President Trump did not adopt or a buy a dog that he did not want simply for the purpose of maintaining a tradition.  For a few examples of scholarship detailing the political usefulness of presidential pets, see Blankfield 2015, Pycior 2005, and Pycior 2010.  See Blankfield 2017.  A retweet made by Christopher J. Hale (@chrisjollyhale), which captured Bloomberg’s interactions was retweeted 23.4K times and received 146.6K likes, and 5.4 million views.  This is as of September 23, 2020.  I would like to thank Damien Pfister for suggesting this phrase.  Befitting her economic platform, Warren named her dog after the character George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life, who repeatedly prevails over the town’s unscrupulous banker.  For an interview with Abare, see Sarah Lyall’s New York Times article, “When Your Best Surrogate Can’t Talk.”  This is as of September 23, 2020.