Dogs have been fixtures in the lives of the American Presidents since the days before there was even a White House lawn for them to wander. Whenever my dog, Baby, starts acting up, I remind myself that her Bluetick Coonhound lineage dates back to the Bleu de Gascogne hounds gifted to George Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1785. Only one First Dog has ever had the distinction of sharing space at their owner’s memorial: FDR’s dog, Fala.
FDR, also known as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was one of the true titans of the American presidency. Among his greatest achievements, the 32nd President saw the United States through the Great Depression and World War II. From 1940 until FDR’s death in office in April of 1945, Fala was his constant companion. Let’s pay tribute to the first White House dog to reach truly international fame, his brief moment of political controversy, and the dog’s enduring legacy, both at home and abroad! Among our focal points:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not the first president of that surname. His fifth cousin, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the 26th President, had what we might consider a practical menagerie of domesticated animals. Teddy Roosevelt and his family owned a range of pets, from your typical dogs, horses, and rats, to guinea pigs and snakes. Between 1901 and 1909, the White House was more like a zoo, being home also to a blue macaw and even a small bear!
For his own part, FDR was exclusively a dog person. He and his family owned 6 dogs aside from Fala. These included:
It doesn’t take a keen eye to notice that the majority of the Roosevelt dogs are among the sturdiest and most imposing breeds. They seem to be exactly the hearty, enduring dogs you’d expect a president to own as he guided the country through one of its most trying and difficult periods. The Roosevelt’s first pair of White House dogs, however, didn’t quite have the diplomatic attitude down.
Major the German Shepherd, a retired police dog, and Meggie, the Scottish Terrier, accompanied FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt to the White House in 1933. Neither lasted too long, though. Little Meggie nipped at an Associate Press reporter, while Major bit no less than four dignitaries, including Ramsay MacDonald, the sitting Prime Minister! In short order, both were sent to the family home in New York. Some dogs never quite adapt to the pressures being Washington insiders!
Tiny the Sheepdog didn’t stick around for the first term, either, and was gifted to a family friend in 1934. Winks, the Roosevelts’ Setter, passed away after an unfortunate run-in with a White House fence later that same year. In 1940, as the United States deliberated how best to intervene in World War II, a new dog had his day. Enter Fala, a Scottish Terrier, who would quickly become the world’s most famous dog.
It had been nearly 6 years since Major and Meggie’s banishment, Tiny’s departure, and Winks’s untimely end, so President Roosevelt really wanted a new dog. Whelped on April 7, 1940, Fala began life as “Big Boy.” FDR renamed the creature “Murray the Outlaw of Falahill,” after a Scots chieftain who defied and bested King James IV. Like most dog owners who bestow elaborate names, President Roosevelt soon shortened it to Fala. Their life together began in earnest in early November of 1940, shortly after FDR’s third election to office.
From that moment until Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, the dog Fala was never far from his owner’s side. Spoiled rotten by absolutely everyone — from people who worked at the White House to an assortment of the world’s most powerful leaders — the Scottie naturally developed digestive problems. FDR insisted upon feeding the dog dinner himself from that point on. Fala was an instant celebrity: having movies and comics made about him, traveling the world, supporting the troops, and rubbing elbows with the likes of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
With increased visibility and importance, Fala eventually found himself at the center of controversy, both at home and abroad. During his fourth presidential campaign in the summer of 1944, Roosevelt visited the Aleutian islands, part of a three-week trip to the then-territories of Alaska and Hawai’i. Proving that there is nothing new about “fake news,” his political opponents claimed that Fala had been left behind on an island off the coast of Alaska. What’s worse, they said FDR sent a destroyer to fetch the dog at an astronomical cost to the taxpayers.
In a campaign speech delivered on September 23, 1944, Roosevelt ridiculed his opposition’s attempts to drum up controversy, and made his dog an even greater star in the process. Among the lesser-known FDR quotes, we must include:
I don’t resent attacks, and my family don’t resent attacks … but Fala does resent them … his Scotch soul was furious! He has not been the same dog since!
During FDR’s last term, his “little dog” Fala was a supporter of the American and British war efforts, received so much fan mail that he had to have his own secretary, and was practically an ambassador as the president’s paralysis from polio became more physically limiting. After Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, Fala continued his good works. He often appeared when world leaders visited his master’s grave in Hyde Park, New York. Fala outlived his owner by seven years, passing away in early April of 1952.
Though Fala was buried near FDR, in New York, the Scottie also occupies a place of honor at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC. Opened in 1997, new statues of FDR and Fala, created by Neil Estern, were dedicated on the site in 2001. Fala’s legacy is not remembered here only; there is another statue commemorating the First Dog, right by Roosevelt’s side, along the Paseo de los Presidentes in San Juan, Puerto Rico!
Many presidential pups have become celebrities in their own right: Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Weimaraner, Heidi, was famously banned after marking White House carpets one too many times; John F. Kennedy’s dog Pushinka was the offspring of Stelka, the first Russian space dog to return safely to Earth; and who can forget Richard M. Nixon’s canine companion, Checkers?
From 1798-2020, only 8 presidents have not featured at least one dog, and only one, the 11th President, James K. Polk, owned no pets whatsoever. FDR’s dog was famous for being playful and welcoming with foreign dignitaries. Along with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Fala the dog took on a role that was nearly ambassadorial as President Roosevelt’s physical condition deteriorated in his final years. It is fair to say that no dog had as large an impact, both in office and afterward, than Fala the Scottie.