Ruth Graham, who writes for Slate, probably is a cat lover.
She throws a bucket of cold water on the sentimentality and reaction to this picture.
“Sully” is — was — President H.W. Bush’s service dog. He’s gotten plenty of attention because … well … if you don’t have a dog, there’s no point explaining it to you.
Graham will have none of it, bordering on “it’s just a dog” territory while revealing the awful truth about Sully and the former president.
There’s nothing wrong with applying sentimentality when it comes to family pets reacting to their owners’ deaths. There’s even some preliminary evidence from the small field of “comparative thanatology” that animals notice death, and that some may even experience an emotion we might compare to grief.
But Sully is not a longtime Bush family pet, letting go of the only master he has known. He is an employee who served for less than six months.
Graham suggests that Sully is already over the death of the former president, if he was bothered by it to begin with. It’s just a job, after all.
The reason Sully has a new job lined up already is that he is an ambassador for a New York–based nonprofit called America’s VetDogs. The agency trains guide and service dogs for military veterans and first responders with disabilities.
It has a savvy public relations team — see Sully’s Instagram account — and has placed a “puppy with a purpose” at NBC’s Today show, as well. (The group’s online press room caters to journalists seeking “an uplifting tale with a happy ending” or “an inspiring tale of a veteran with a disability.”)
It’s wonderful for Bush that he had a trained service animal like Sully available to him in his last months. It’s a good thing that the dog is moving on to another gig where he can be helpful to other people (rather than becoming another Bush family pet). But it’s a bit demented to project soul-wrenching grief onto a dog’s decision to lay down in front of a casket.
Is Sully “heroic” for learning to obey the human beings who taught him to perform certain tasks? Does the photo say anything special about this dog’s particular loyalty or judgment, or is he just … there? Also, if dogs are subject to praise for obeying their masters, what do we do about the pets who eat their owners’ dead (or even just passed-out) bodies?
She says the photo is “not proof that Sully is a good boy.”
“This is simply a photograph of a dog doing something dogs love to do: Lie down,” she writes.