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2018-07-04 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Fourth of July brings an annual appreciation for the Founding Fathers, particularly Washington and Jefferson. It appears Washington was more of a dog lover than Jefferson. Judge for yourself.

Washington, father of our country, is also father of the American Foxhound. The first mention of hounds in America appears in the journal of one of the explorer Desoto’s men . Additional hunting hounds sailed from Britain to the colonies as far back as 1650. These became the foundation for several strains including Black and Tan Coonhounds. Washington was a huge fox hunting enthusiast who tried to develop his pack to work the rough American terrain. According to his diaries at the Library of Congress (available online), Washington wanted to breed a “superior dog, one that had speed, sense and brains.”

With his farming background, Washington knew the basics of animal breeding and husbandry. His diaries are filled with passionate accounts of breeding the variety of Foxhound he referred to as “Virginia hounds.” His devotion to his dogs resounds in names he gave them like “True Love” and “Sweet Lips” plus silly ones like “Tipster” and “Drunkard.” At least 30 Foxhounds are named in Washington’s writings.


Painting of Washington with his beloved Virginia hounds. Painting of Washington with his beloved Virginia hounds. After the war when he returned to Mount Vernon, Washington decided his Virginia hounds were too lightly built for sustained hunts and too distracted from the trail of the fox. When he heard his friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, praise French staghounds belonging to the King, he asked the Marquis to get him some.

Lafayette took time locating these hounds because the breed had fallen out of favor with French royalty. Finally he sent seven massive staghounds overseas, escorted by the young John Quincy Adams whose dad was then minister to England. John Quincy abandoned the dogs in a warehouse near NYC harbor.

Washington was upset. According to Stanley Coren’s book The Pawprints of History, Washington wrote: “It would have been civil of the young gentleman to have penned me at least a note.” He was also worried about a rabies scare in NYC at the time. Unattended dogs were being shot on sight.

Eventually the French hounds, known as “Grand Bleu de Gascogne” were found and shipped overland to Mount Vernon. These dogs turned out to be so food aggressive a huntsman had to supervise their mealtimes so they wouldn’t tear each other to shreds during dinner.

A story was told by Washington’s step-grandson about Vulcan, one of the French hounds: “It happened that upon a large company sitting down to dinner at Mount Vernon one day, the lady of the mansion (my grandmother) discovered that the ham, the pride of every Virginia housewife’s table, was missing from its accustomed post of honor.

Upon questioning Frank, the butler, this portly, and at the same time the most polite and accomplished of all butlers, observed that a ham, yes, a very fine ham, had been prepared, agreeably to the Madam’s orders, but lo and behold, who should come into the kitchen, while the savory ham was smoking in its dish, but old Vulcan, the hound. And without more ado, he fastened his fangs into it. Although they of the kitchen had stood to such arms as they could get, and had fought the old spoiler desperately, Vulcan had finally triumphed, and bore off the prize. The lady by no means relished the loss of a dish which formed the pride of her table, and uttered some remarks by no means favorable to old Vulcan, or indeed to dogs in general, while the chief [Washington], having heard the story, communicated it to his guests, and, with them, laughed heartily at the exploit of the staghound.” Martha had good reason to be miffed.

With selective breeding, Washington succeeded in bringing out desired traits in the earliest American Foxhounds. They had the speed and stamina of the French staghounds, in a smaller frame, yet slightly larger than his Virginia black and tan hounds. Some believe Lafayette also gave Washington a French Basset Hound, which would be the first one in America, but there is no historical proof.

Jefferson was fascinated with the natural world. He owned unusual pets including his companion mockingbird and several grizzly bear cubs, gifts from Lewis and Clark.

Our third President had a love/ hate relationship with his dogs, specifically his sheepdogs. They were part of his desire to “colonize” the US with certain Old World species. His wish list included the nightingale. The chien de berger or “shepherd’s dog” intrigued him because the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) a prominent naturalist and Darwin predecessor, considered this breed closest to wolves, the origin of all dogs. Buffon felt shepherd’s dogs were the only dogs born fully trained.

During a trip to France in 1789, Jefferson paid six dollars for a pregnant shepherd’s dog named “Bergere” who whelped two pups on the return ship sailing to Virginia. “Bergere” and her family successfully rounded the chickens each night at Monticello No one knows what “Bergere” progeny looked like. Some say they resembled today’s Briards, but Buffon’s engraving shows a shaggy dog with a pointy face.

In 1809 when Spanish merino sheep were brought to America, wool became big business. Jefferson started herding sheep. There was a bounty on wolves as marauders of livestock. Somehow this generalized to dogs, often poorly fed, even sheepdogs who were supposed to be gathering the flock away from predators. Jefferson told his overseer that his slaves’ dogs would be killed if found near the herd. In 1815, a sheepdog Jefferson promised to his brother was caught eating a sheep and supposedly “hung.”

At times Jefferson’s professed canine dislike was a contradiction. He kept working dogs on his estate, continued to breed them and imported more. In 1809, one French sheepdog pair was selected for him by Lafayette. The female, reared on cornbread, was perfectly trained and herded in the Monticello fields where there were no interior fences, only rows of peach trees. The dog kept sheep out of the rows of grain. The fine reputation of the Monticello dogs spread. Jefferson delighted in taking applications for his pups from plantation owners and government officials. Nevertheless, it would be hard to claim that Jefferson’s dogs enjoyed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Available at Babylon Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: Lovely Katara 8-229 raised her kittens at the shelter. Now it’s her time for a home. Aldo 18-267 is a unique mix. He looks like the pup product of a Chihuahua and German Shepherd.

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