Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) was years ahead of the curve when it came to Take Your Dog to Work Day. The constant presence of his three Portuguese water dogs in his Russell building office helped humanize their owner and brought a sense of fun to a workplace known for rules and formalities.
Now, lobbyists, staffers and other Hill dwellers say they mourn not only the passing of Kennedy but also he end of a unique chapter in Capitol Hill’s canine history. With their black curly hair, floppy ears and bouncy gait, Kennedy’s dogs became a part of the lawmaker’s nearly 47-year Hill tenure.
Kennedy’s Senate office always had water bowls and tennis balls on hand. Major legislation was hammered out as White House officials patted fuzzy heads and threw balls during meetings. The dogs were known to snooze under committee room tables.
“It’s like the end of an era,” said Kennedy’s former judiciary committee general council David Sutphen. “I find it hard to believe you’ll have another senator with a dog who comes to meetings all over the Capitol. It’s kind of the closing of a chapter.”
With the exception of the Senate floor, there were few places Splash, Sunny and Cappy didn’t have access to, including committee hearings and, once, even the Oval Office. It was a rare day when the Massachusetts lawmaker wasn’t shadowed by at least one of the pooches, whether Kennedy’s schedule brought him an office full of visitors or a committee bill markup.
A powerful man with a booming voice and a formidable family legacy, Kennedy often used his dogs to break the ice with Republican lawmakers, to relax nervous visitors and to put political personalities to the sniff test.
“They were part of the landscape,” said former Bush senior education adviser Sandy Kress, who partnered with Kennedy’s office to develop the mammoth education bill No Child Left Behind.
“I had no problem patting the dog while talking about Section 10.32. ... It just created a pleasant environment,” said Kress, who often watched the senator toss tennis balls to the dogs in the office. “At one point, we got it into our heads that the dogs reacted poorly to committee members who weren’t No Child supporters. We always joked that the dogs knew best.”
Studies have shown that pets in the workplace can boost productivity and raise employee morale and Kennedy was walking proof, animal experts say.
“Our pets humanize us. Immediately, there’s something to talk about,” said ASPCA executive vice president Stephen Zawistowski. “A dog provides easy common contact. It’s a neutral contact.”
Kennedy is far from the only lawmaker known for bringing furry friends to the Hill — a hobby he used to make friends on both sides of the aisle.
The Senator bonded with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer over their canine affinity, according to the Congressman. Hoyer’s English Springer Spaniel had her own bed in Hoyer’s office before she passed away in 2007.
“God invented dogs for us, to give us the kind of uncompromising love that human beings need, and we in turn give them the same kind of love,” Hoyer noted at the Congressional Canine Champions awards ceremony earlier this year.
President George W. Bush’s National Institutes of Health appointee Elias Zerhouni reportedly earned Kennedy’s support after one of the dogs stayed by Zerhouni’s side during a meeting about the Senate confirmation process.
But Kennedy's dogs weren’t saints either. Like a parent of spoiled children, the senator was loving but a poor disciplinarian.
Splash has been known to bark impatiently during long meetings. The dog once sent White House staffers into a frenzy when the pooch began barking in the Oval Office. Kennedy and his pets were at the White House waiting for the start of a religious freedom bill signing ceremony with President Clinton.
“Kennedy was working the room, and Splash starts barking incessantly. The president was off in a side room having a meeting and the White House staffers start freaking out,” said Sutphen, a former staffer who attended the ceremony with Kennedy.
After Splash was excused, Clinton walked in, asking why he’d heard barking.
“No one fessed up,” said Sutphen. “But it showed the light-hearted, jovial, jokester side of [Kennedy].”
The dogs’ antics could turn Capitol Hill into a dysfunctional family scene.
While interning on Capitol Hill, then-Maryland University student Scott Shewfelt met Kennedy as he stumbled upon the Porties, unleashed and fresh from a haircut, digging in the shrubs outside the Russell Senate federal building where Kennedy kept his office.
“Teddy was yelling at them, but they weren’t listening at all,” Shewfelt said. “It was absolute chaos.”
Whether the dogs were a distraction or not, Capitol Hill regulars say rarely was a complaint heard.
Boston Globe political reporter Susan Milligan, who covered Kennedy for almost a decade, was once dragged away from an interview with another Senator as Kennedy insisted she come visit the dogs.
“I was interviewing Sen. [Olympia] Snowe when Kennedy came around the corner and asked if I would come ‘say hi to the dogs,'” Mulligan recalled. “At that point, what was I going to say? He had me come in the car and greet the dogs. He really wanted me to say hello.”
Today, the Kennedy offices are quiet and the dogs are residing with the late senator’s wife, Vicki, at the family compound on Cape Cod.
Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States, hopes the tradition of dog in Hill offices continues.
“He showed that animals are intimately involved in our lives, and there is an implicit reminder of our responsibility to them,” said Pacelle. “So many more people are treating their dogs like members of the family. You may see other members handle their dogs in a similar way.”