George Washington is widely known as the first U.S. president and Revolutionary War hero who supposedly cut down a cherry tree and wore wooden teeth. But few may know the founding father was also a dog lover who even bred his own unique breed.
Andrew Hager, historian-in-residence of the Presidential Pet Museum, says Washington’s love of dogs likely developed from his love of fox hunting. In colonial America, Hager explains, dogs were valued for their ability to work and aid their human companions. "This doesn’t mean that Washington did not appreciate his dogs," he says, "but that it was a very different appreciation than a modern pet-lover might have. Dogs kept at Mount Vernon would have been used for specific purposes. We do know, however, that he visited the kennel on a daily basis to see his dogs, so there was some affection there.”
Washington Bred Hunting Dogs for Speed
Washington, Hager adds, wanted a speedier hunting dog, and hoped to breed that speed into the hounds he already owned.
“When his good friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, heard about this, he sent General Washington a group of French hound dogs in the care of young John Quincy Adams,” he says. “These dogs were much more aggressive than Washington’s usual hounds, and were eventually bred with them. This created the new breed, although it’s important to note that Washington wasn’t thinking about the breed in any sort of legacy way. He just wanted to improve his personal collection of hunting dogs.”
According to Mary Thompson, research historian at Mount Vernon, many dog breeds were developed through selective breeding over many years.
“The fact that American foxhounds have a lighter build and longer legs than English Foxhounds suggests that Washington and others who were developing this new breed wanted a good hunting dog that was faster than the English dogs,” she says. Thompson added that American foxhounds also work more individually than as a pack, with each dog being willing to take the lead.
The American Kennel Club recognizes Washington as the father of the American foxhound, noting the breeds of Bluetick Coonhound, American English Coonhound and Treeing Walker Coonhound were also “likely influenced by his quest for a superior dog.”
Thompson adds that Washington kept many dog breeds, each with their own speciality. There were herding dogs, hounds, non-sporting dogs, terriers, toys and working dogs at Mount Vernon.
“In fact, we can document the presence and/or knowledge of breeds in every group currently recognized by the American Kennel Club among the dogs in Virginia in the 18th century,” she says. Breeds at Mount Vernon included Briards, Dalmatians, English foxhounds, French hounds, Greyhounds, Italian Greyhounds, mastiffs, Newfoundlands, pointers, spaniels and terriers.
Washington often gave his dogs names, too. Some of note: Sweet Lips, Venus, Trulove, Taster, Tippler, Drunkard and Madame Moose.
According to Thompson, many of the dog names seem to relate to singing or music: Droner, Hearkwell, Music and Singer, for example.
“Each foxhound had a distinctive voice, which was important as a way to tell one dog from another when hunters were following behind them after prey animals,” she says. “Sweet Lips may have gotten her name because Washington liked the sound of her voice as she was hunting.”
Birds & Deer Also Kept at Mount Vernon
And it wasn’t just dogs taking up pet residence at Mount Vernon. Thompson says the Washington family also kept several varieties of pet birds over the years, including canaries, green parrots and a cockatoo. There is evidence they may have had goldfish, as well.
“For a number of years, George Washington had a deer park in front of the mansion, with varieties of both American and English deer,” she adds. “Some of them were said to be so tame that they would eat out of people’s hands.”
Thompson and Hagar both relay a story of Washington’s dog, Sweet Lips, influencing his political career. When the future president was sent to Philadelphia as a Virginia representative to the Continental Congress, he took the dog with him.
“While walking the dog through the streets of Philadelphia, he was spotted by Mayor Samuel Powel’s wife, Elizabeth,” Hagar says. “She inquired about Sweet Lips, and the conversation led her to invite Washington to dinner. Through the mayor and his wife, Washington met several influential Philadelphians, men who later promoted him as a candidate for general of the Continental Army. Years later, in 1787, these same men promoted the idea of Washington as president.”
But, Hager notes, Washington’s attitude toward dogs (and their owners) could also be dark. Pups that didn't meet his breeding standards were not kept. “As someone who worked hard to breed dogs for specific characteristics, he had little use for mixed breed dogs,” he says. “Puppies that were not ‘true’ were often drowned on his orders. While not uncommon for the time, this is obviously disturbing to modern sensibilities.”
And when Washington worried at one point that his slaves’ dogs were killing his sheep, he ordered that most of their dogs be hanged. "The barbarous, insidious nature of American chattel slavery really did infect everything in Colonial life," says Hager, "even dog ownership.”