Dog diplomacy


Major, President Joe Biden’s German Shepherd, looking out the window of the Oval Office. Source: White House.


Dog diplomacy

By Sam Ottewill-Soulsby

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Elephants are hard to compete with as presents. Their sheer scale and expense makes finding a return gift a bit of a problem. Add to this the strong possibility that the elephant has travelled a long way and even the wealthiest of recipients may struggle to reciprocate adequately. This was the challenge that Charlemagne (r.768-814) faced in 802. That year, the emperor received from the ʿAbbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809) an elephant named Abu al-ʿAbbas, which had travelled originally from India, before making its way through the Caliphate, across the Mediterranean and over the Alps. The pachyderm was the toast of Aachen and the crown jewel of the Frankish ruler’s court but finding an acceptable counter gift raised issues. In the account of the Gesta Karoli, written by Notker the Stammerer (d.912), a monk of the monastery of St Gall in modern Switzerland, Charlemagne’s solution was to send to the caliph hunting dogs ‘of unusual speed and ferocity’. Harun was impressed by the skill and courage of the dogs when he set them to hunt lions. It seemed to him, at least according to Notker, that the dogs demonstrated that Charlemagne had ‘acquired the habit of mastering everything under the heavens’. The caliph immediately sent more presents.

Notker wrote more than eighty years after these events took place, and never let the facts interrupt a good story. But the idea he conveys here, that the might of a leader could be measured by the dogs they kept, was common throughout the Middle Ages. The presence of a pack of baying hounds served as an identifying mark of status, ensuring that important people could be seen (and heard) from a distance. Royal courts were not infrequently compared to kennels. Dogs spoke to a ruler’s prowess at hunting and their ability to command loyalty and instill discipline. A constant and keen hunter, Charlemagne treasured his dogs, which had a shaved mark on their right foreleg to make them harder to steal.

This habit of judging a political figure by their dog may seem to be a distinctively medieval preoccupation. Yet it is by no means alien to modern political discourse. The dogs that occupy the White House attract special attention. The selection of a Portuguese Water Dog named Bo by the Obamas upon their arrival in 2009 underwent considerable inspection, the process being used by onlookers as a proxy for the new president’s style as a father and a leader. The behaviour of Major, the German Shepherd that belongs to President Biden, is closely scrutinized for evidence of his master’s health and ability to manage and discipline those around him, with Major’s nipping of a security guard in 2021 prompting headlines and discussion in the media. Nor is this purely an American phenomenon. The tendency of Boris Johnson’s dog, Dilyn, to attempt to mount visitors to Number 10 prompted widespread comparisons to the indiscretions of his owner.

Dogs as diplomatic gifts also remain a contemporary feature. Among the most famous from the twentieth century was Pushinka, given to John F. Kennedy in 1961 by Nikita Khrushchev. The offspring of Strelka, one of the dogs that had been on Sputnik 5, Pushinka spoke to the technological achievements of the Soviet Union at the height of the Space Race. More recently, Vladimir Putin’s known fondness for dogs has led to him receiving them as presents from the Prime Minister of Bulgaria and the Presidents of Turkmenistan and Serbia, as well as from Akita prefecture in Japan.

Putin’s employment of dogs in foreign affairs is not limited to gift giving. His black Labrador Retriever Konni was frequently present at meetings with world leaders. When being visited by George W. Bush, Putin introduced the American president to Konni, commenting that she was ‘bigger, stronger and faster than Barney’, Bush’s Scottish Terrier. The comparison between the type of dogs the two world leaders could command and the implications for the masculinity and power of their owners would not have gone unnoticed by Charlemagne. Konni was also used to intimidate Angela Merkel in 2007, with Putin playing on the German Chancellor’s aversion to dogs. Merkel commented on the Russian President’s behaviour later, tying it again to a performance of masculinity when she observed ‘I understand why he has to do this - to prove he’s a man.’ Much like his medieval forebears, Putin also has form in demonstrating his power and virility through hunting, most famously while riding bare-chested on horses.

Yet if the President of Russia sometimes resembles monarchs from the Middle Ages such as Charlemagne in his use of dogs to communicate messages of power and dominance to other leaders, there are also parallels in the satirical potential of such displays. Photos of Putin on his hunting expeditions tend to prompt mirth outside of Russia, with the leaders of the G7 swapping jokes about them at a summit in June 2022. The diplomatic incidents featuring Konni allowed foreign presses to depict Putin as a crude throwback, dependent upon empty shows of machismo in a modern world that is outstripping him and his regime. Putin’s big dogs threaten to reveal a small man.

The potential gap between a dog and its owner was something that Notker was very much aware of. Just before his account of Harun al-Rashid being convinced that Charlemagne was a great hunter on the basis of the dogs he was sent, the monk of St Gall told a different story. In this, Charlemagne took the caliph’s envoys on a hunting expedition in the forest. Spotting an aurochs, the emperor attempted to bring down the large animal, only to miss his stroke, be injured and have to be assisted by his retinue. Gazing upon the Frankish ruler’s magnificent dogs, Harun al-Rashid had no knowledge of this embarrassing failure, but Notker’s readers would have taken a lesson in the perils of judging a ruler by the behaviour of their dogs. Nonetheless, as our continued fascination with world leaders and their pets demonstrates, dogs remain an important means of political communication even in our own day.

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby is a senior researcher at the University of Oslo.