On the Dogs

Presidential pets have long enjoyed enthusiastic followings throughout the years. When it came to the Coolidge collies, however, so much affection and fascination came to them that kennel master Harry Waters once remarked, “Sightseers were sometimes more interested in the dogs than they were in the White House.” Ishbel Ross, in her book Grace Coolidge and Her Era, makes it plain, “Rob Roy and Prudence Prim…were king and queen of the kennels” (183). It is Rob Roy who was featured not only in Christy’s famous portrait of Grace but also the official family picture and in the President’s bookplate. The White House staff knew, despite Coolidge’s jokes to the contrary, how much he loved his dogs.

Neither collie had sea legs, however, and when it came to boarding the The Mayflower, not even an executive order could move them. They would sit firmly on their haunches until time to depart would necessitate their return to the White House. While Rob Roy was clearly the king, he still had a princely rival in Paul Pry, the half-brother of Harding’s Airedale, Laddie Boy. When he somehow “escaped” from upstairs and raided one of Mrs. Coolidge’s teas, she speculated how the dog got away. The President explained, without cracking a smile, “I don’t think that little dogs like to be shut upstairs when there is a party going on.” Unruly in temperament, Paul Pry was first conscripted to stay on The Mayflower and eventually found a new home with a Navy family.

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The White House was an intimidating place for Rob Roy, at first, after leaving the wide and open spaces of Wisconsin. The elevator was especially daunting for him. Beans, the Coolidge’s female Boston terrier, would bark if Rob Roy tried to leave prematurely, keeping all she considered in her charge safely inside until it was time to leave. Beans went home to Northampton, keeping Grace’s mother, Mrs. Goodhue, company. Rob Roy quickly acclimated and boldly strode the White House grounds, accompanying the President to press conferences, staying at his feet in the Oval Office, and introducing himself to guests at all occasions. On one such occasion, during a breakfast with members of Congress, Senator James Watson recalled that the President let his collies freely roam even after the food was served. Rob Roy came up, received a healthy dose of attention and as soon as the man’s back was turned, “lapped” up all of his sausages and stood, tail wagging, for anything more. It remained almost a running joke that Coolidge often paid far more attention to his dogs than the people in the room. Humor always contains a measure of truth.

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Prudence Prim was Grace’s companion. Mrs. Coolidge loved to leave calling cards claiming to be from the sweet-tempered collie during her visits around Washington. The morning routine for the Coolidges included Prudence bounding in the room, finding her chair and sharing the President’s cereal while most of a roll and bacon strip went to Rob Roy. Both Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge regularly smuggled food off the table for their furry children.

For one of the White House garden parties, Grace dressed Prudence in straw bonnet with ferns and green ribbons; a hat Prudence patiently wore to the delight of everyone. The Coolidges regarded their dogs as persons with whom they conversed and frequently saw human qualities in their behaviors, as many a dog owner can attest. They unwittingly teach lessons of human nature, a fact not lost on the Coolidges. Coolidge would enjoy watching movies with Rob Roy beside him, jabbing the dog in the ribs whenever a funny line came across the screen. He only regretted that the dog could not hear thereby depriving him of the full satisfaction that the President’s conversations were heard.

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Prudence began to wear down in 1927 and she died in South Dakota that summer. “Rob and I shared a common sorrow,” Mrs. Coolidge noted later. Rob, the President’s constant companion, would join her the following year. Dogs would continue to follow wherever the Coolidges went, from Tiny Tim, Diana of Wildwood/Calamity Jane to Beauty and Blackberry. But the favorites were Rob Roy and Prudence Prim.

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Grace in South Dakota with Prudence Prim, 1927

In 1929, Coolidge wrote,

We always had more dogs than we could take care of. My favorites were the white collies, which became so much associated with me that they are enshrined in my bookplate, where they will live as long as our country endures. One of them, Prudence Prim, was especially attached to Mrs. Coolidge. We lost her in the Black Hills. She lies out there in the shadow of Bear Butte where the Indians told me the Great Spirit came to commune with his children. One was my companion, Rob Roy. He was a stately gentleman of great courage and fidelity. He loved to bark from the second-story windows and around the South Grounds. Nights he remained in my room and afternoons went with me to the office. His especial delight was to ride with me in the boats when I went fishing. So although I know he would bark for joy as the grim boatman ferried him across the dark waters of the Styx, yet his going left me lonely on the hither shore…”

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President Coolidge and Rob Roy at the temporary White House on Dupont Circle in 1927.

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