Ruth Graham, You’re Wrong: President George H.W. Bush Was More Than Simply a “Boss,” and His Service Dog, Sully, Was More Than Simply an “Employee”
By Ken K. Gourdin
Reader Advisory: Here be a bit of strong language. I don’t mince words here: I call it as I see it. Let this be a warning to those of tender eyes, tender ears, and tender years.
Writing in Slate magazine, Ruth Graham ridicules the idea that any sort of attachment, any sort of a bond, was formed between Sully, a Golden Retriever and service dog, and his owner, just-deceased 41st U.S. President George H.W. Bush. The commentary is headlined, “Don’t spend your emotional energy on Sully H.W. Bush.” For the photo of Sully lying next to President Bush’s U.S.-flag-draped coffin, see here (this and all other links last accessed December 4, 2018):
Begging your humble pardon, Ma’am, but who the hell do you think you are to tell me how to spend my emotional energy? I’ll spend it any damn way I like, even if you think such an expenditure unwise or unnecessary. Personally, I found the photograph of Sully lying by President Bush’s coffin very moving. If you didn’t, perhaps that says more about you, about your (mis?-)understanding of dogs and humans, and about your (mis?-)understanding of the relationship between canine companions and their human masters, than it says about Sully or about the elder President Bush.
See Ms. Graham’s commentary here: https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/12/sully-hw-bush-service-dog-george-hw-bush-funeral.html. Ms. Graham writes that Sully and Mr. Bush were companions for a mere six months, surely not long enough for any kind of an emotional attachment to form between them.
Which is more, Ms. Graham asserts that Sully was nothing more than Mr. Bush’s employee. Mr. Bush has died, so Sully will simply do what anyone else in the job market who loses a boss will do: Get another job, answering to a different boss. Yes, I know service animals take their jobs seriously, and I know that there’s a possibility that Sully will get a new master whom he can help, but a big part of the reason why they are so helpful is because of the special bond that forms between them and those they serve. Even if Sully forms a bond with someone else who needs his help, in no way does that diminish the special bond he had with President Bush.
I have to wonder how many dogs Ms. Graham has owned in her lifetime, and what kind of an attachment she has formed, if any, with them. Yes, many people are prone to make the mistake of anthoropomorphizing pets and other animals, of humanizing them. Some even make the mistake of equating all forms of life, such that they see no difference between, e.g., their dogs, as canine companions, and themselves, as human beings.
Between the polar extremes, one of which sees no difference between dogs and human beings, on the one hand, and the other of which sees dogs solely as utilitarian creatures who exist solely to meet human needs as reflected in the commands of their masters (without forming any sort of attachment with them), on the other hand, lie a great number of adjectives which may be used to describe the relationships between dogs and people, terms such as companion, protector, helper, playmate, sounding board, and therapeutic asset. I doubt that dogs could fulfill so many critical roles in the lives of humans if it were true that any single dog is interchangeable with any other single owner.
Will Sully find a new home and a new person to serve as he was trained to do? Ultimately, as regards Sully’s relationship with President George H.W. Bush, perhaps the answer to that question lies in whatever provision for Sully the elder Bush made in his will. If not, perhaps the answer to that question lies with other members of the Bush family who are closest to the duo.
Certainly, it would be a noble and selfless gesture on the part of the Bushes to allow Sully to serve someone else the way he served President Bush, and it would be a blessing to whomever else was given that opportunity. I share Ms. Graham’s hope that Sully will get another “job.” But to say that dogs and their owners are interchangeable—that, without an adjustment on the part of both, any dog is capable of being paired with any master (and vice-versa) is to misunderstand (and to gravely discount the depth of) the relationship between dogs and their owners.
I can’t find it right off, but if-and-when I do, I’ll certainly update this post with a link to it, but a few months ago, I read an article which concludes that when it comes to the level of emotion and attachment dogs display for their owners and for the other people in their lives, dogs aren’t “faking it” (my term, but, if memory serves, that’s how the article put it, as well): When dogs seem sad at their owners’ absence, it’s because they are sad; and when they seem so irrepressibly, so exuberantly happy at their owners’ return, it’s because they are happy.
Other than my own experience with dogs, I have no hard evidence (no research, or no empirical data) to buttress my disagreement with your claim that since Sully was simply President Bush’s “employee,” and that, since Sully “worked for” President Bush only a mere six months, no special bond was formed between them (or that whatever bond might have been formed between them in that six months certainly was different that if Sully had “worked for” President Bush for several years as opposed to six months).
I suspect that dogs reckon time differently than we humans do, and that whatever time we spend apart from them after having bonded with them seems much different to them than it does to us. To understand that, one need only to witness a dog’s reaction at being reunited after having spent some time away—any time away, really—from its owner. Though it seems that your understanding of dogs and of their relationships to the humans who are important to them is lacking, Ms. Graham, you wouldn’t be the first person to be bewildered at a dog’s reaction after having spent time away from those with whom the dog has bonded: “Why, I was only away, for a day, or for a week,” an owner might exclaim in puzzlement upon seeing a dog’s reaction at such a reunion.
Perhaps there is little correspondence between the example I am about to cite and Sully’s seemingly-warm-though-brief relationship with President Bush. I’ll let my readers decide. While I was away on a two-year assignment performing religiously-oriented volunteer service, my parents’ household acquired a new member. Pipsqueak—Pip, for short, since even such a short name as that was ill-befitting such a small dog—was a year-old toy poodle.
The list of people she trusted was very short—limited to close family—and we hadn’t become acquainted before I left. It would have been completely understandable for her to take her time (months, at least, if not years) forming a bond with this new stranger. Perhaps she was unique in that regard, but, whatever the case and whatever the reason, the bond we formed on my return (despite the fact that I should have been a stranger to her) was virtually instantaneous. If dogs can form such instantaneous bonds as Pip did with me, it seems wrong to suggest that Sully’s bond with President Bush—after only a mere six months—was different, somehow.
Several of the stages in the model of grief proposed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross are unique to human experience—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—so I wouldn’t go so far as to posit that pets, for the most part, go through a similar process, but certainly, it’s undeniable that they go through some sort of an adjustment, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it includes three of Kubler-Ross’s stages. The process likely includes something akin to denial—A sense that, “My person isn’t here; something’s wrong. When is he coming back?” Depression (they seem to have a sixth-sense for what their owners are feeling as evidenced by animals who are specifically trained to offer comfort to those who have been through traumatic events); and, finally, acceptance.
Pitfalls of humanizing pets aside, I think the reason Sully seems sad in that photo is because he is sad. I think the reason it seems that he misses the elder Bush is because he does miss him. Rest in peace, President George Herbert Walker Bush—husband, father, grandfather, public servant, and patriot. And congratulations, Sully, on a job well done, and condolences on your loss. If you find someone else who needs your special talents as much as President Bush did, more power to you: If not, I understand. Whatever the case, notwithstanding your loss, I wish you many happy, fulfilling years ahead.