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All the presidents’ dogs

Dogs rely on the compassion of humans

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/ISTOCKPHOTO; HEATHER HOPP-BRUCE/ GLOBE STAFF

No matter what one thinks of his politics, Governor Mitt Romney is one classy guy. Romney remains committed to the greater good, even if that does not always include man’s best friend. Indeed, how is it possible that the architect of a sophisticated state health care system, who has been so willing to lend a hand to the infirm and disadvantaged, could have treated his own dog with such cavalier disregard?

That is why Romney’s famous adventure with his Irish setter, Seamus, some 30 years ago remains so troubling.

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Romney’s canine quandary surrounds a road trip from Boston to Canada in 1983. While his children found welcome refuge in the back seat, Seamus was confined to a crate perched precariously on the roof. Six hours into their 12-hour voyage, Romney’s son, Tagg, recoiled as an expulsion of liquid excrement blanketed the windows. That ruddy redhead Seamus had suffered a severe bout of gastrointestinal distress.

Not one to be muzzled, the yet-to-be governor pulled over into a gas station and hosed down the car, and then Seamus, before continuing his journey, thus exposing his already diarrheic dog to even greater peril.

Today, Romney dismisses the event with all the cozy candor of a summertime ice cream vendor. Unfazed that transporting a dog in this manner would likely be greeted now with a hefty fine or a citation for cruelty, Romney shook it off during an interview at Fox News: “This is a completely airtight kennel,” he bristled. “He climbed up there regularly. He enjoyed himself. He was in a kennel at home a great deal of time … We loved the dog. It was where he was comfortable. And we had five kids inside the car. My guess is, he liked it a whole lot better in his kennel than he would have liked it inside!”

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Romney’s avuncular defense is less than persuasive. What does he mean, for example, by “airtight”? According to scientists, the wind alone would have enveloped Seamus in nearly 10 pounds per square foot of air pressure, leading to dehydration, fatigue, and corneal abrasion.

He likewise boasts that Seamus spent “a great deal of time” in his kennel at home. But confining a dog as high-strung as an Irish setter to a small, enclosed space for long periods suggests that Romney’s love did not extend to making Seamus’s life calmer through training and daily exercise. Could it be that Seamus’s frenetic behavior, so common to gun dogs to whom exercise is denied, challenged Mr. Romney’s assertive authoritarianism and, in effect, drove him crazy?

Romney then informs us that Seamus was “most comfortable” in his vehicular crate. If that was so, then where was he uncomfortable? In a park? On a walk? Stranger still is his assertion that Seamus was better off incarcerated than in the company of his children, thus raising the question: What on earth were they doing that would have made Seamus — a splendid representative of a gentle breed that loves kids — feel so unwelcome?

More puzzling than Romney’s poor judgment is the indifferent explanation he now offers to legitimize it. While Romney’s opponents chide him as cruel and neglectful, his supporters view the matter as dated and irrelevant. While the former claim he deliberately put his dog in harm’s way, the latter protest that Seamus’s canine status is proof enough that the incident was inconsequential, as if dogs have neither feelings nor rights.

Perhaps Romney deserves more credit than many are willing to give him. If he valued Seamus as a pet, but not as a family member, it would be a stretch to presume that he set out to harm him. His intention, if we take him at his word, was to protect him.

Even so, the argument some have made in his defense — that the incident predates the widespread availability of positive reinforcement training and contemporary concerns with animal welfare — is all bark. Of all people, Romney, an exceptionally intelligent man, should have known better, and should also know better than to make indefensible excuses in retrospect.

Indeed, a simple admission of his indiscretion would not only go a long way to rehabilitating his political fortunes, but also discourage others from treating dogs so irresponsibly. Coming from someone of his stature, a mea culpa would endear him to animal lovers everywhere.

From those of us who are owned by dogs, a word of advice: Dogs are sentient, emotional, and highly reactive beings who rely on the compassion, guidance, and good will of the humans they know as family. They are not immune to anxiety, which leads to pain and illness, and they get frightened when they find themselves deprived of companionship in a stressful environment.

As for my own Irish setter, Justice, he is a buoyant, cheerful, and free-spirited soul who, together with my black Lab, Ben, enjoys his rides — inside the car. I need only open a window, as nothing gives him greater pleasure, apart from roast beef or a swim, than the fragrant emanations of the countryside where we live, and where Seamus himself once roamed. Thus, I would be delighted to extend an invitation to candidate Romney, who I would absolutely trust to take my setter for a drive, so long as he’s allowed to assume his favorite spot in the back seat. That’s because, in my neck of the woods, Justice prevails.

John Bell Young is a concert pianist and a recording artist. He is writing a book about dogs and their celebrity owners.
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