Who can lift up Congress? Maybe dogs
Pets are everywhere on Capitol Hill, boosting morale and watching history unfold
Rep. Tony Cárdenas was unusually alone in his Rayburn office that day, hiding from a mob as he watched the violence unfold on television.
His office felt especially empty without Teddy, the Cavapoo mix who accompanies communications director Clarissa Rojas to work. Teddy is almost always there, but not on Jan. 6, 2021. Rojas had left him with a friend because of a weird gut feeling, and she wonders if he would have been able to handle it.
Cárdenas missed him. “Believe me, if Teddy would have been there that day, or one of my staff had their dog or the rabbit there that day, it would have helped me. I think it would have just helped the energy overall, because it was a very tense and a very heartbreaking moment,” the California Democrat said.
Teddy, who has earned the title “senior pawlicy adviser,” isn’t the only dog on Capitol Hill that has helped staffers and lawmakers get through a chaotic couple of years, including the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack and stress from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each office has its own policy: Some have a full-time pet, some have pets that come in regularly, some don’t allow pets at all, and some limit their presence to quiet times during recess weeks.
Historically, it’s not new for dogs or other pets to have a second home in the otherwise buttoned-up Capitol. Former House Speaker Tom Foley’s Belgian shepherd, Alice, made her mark in the 1980s and is even featured in an official portrait.
What ends up happening is these dogs have a front-row seat to history, whether they realize it or not.
During the vote-a-rama this summer, Sen. Patty Murray’s most valuable office member had four paws and shed all over the floor. Georgia, a 3-year-old fluffy Samoyed, is another dog with a big title, in this case “chief pawlicy officer.”
She kept Murray staffers company as they worked around the clock, while lawmakers debated the Democrats’ climate, tax and health care package. Members of the office would take her for walks, have her do tricks, pose with her for goofy pictures or just snuggle on the floor.
“She was the best companion and so nice to have for a time when you had to be at work overnight,” said her owner, Amanda Wyma-Bradley.
Bringing Georgia into meetings can help lighten the mood, especially with constituents or executives, Wyma-Bradley said. A big, fluffy dog can serve as an icebreaker. She recently snoozed through a meeting with Boeing.
But the benefits go both ways. Before the pandemic, Georgia spent most days in a crate by herself. Now, she gets excited for office days and struts through Capitol Hill security like she owns the place.
“Dogs are this weird equalizer. Even really powerful people who probably would never stop to talk to a random staffer they’ve never met are like, ‘I have to know something about this dog,’” Wyma-Bradley said.
Not many dogs have played an intimate role in impeachment hearings, but Bode is one. The 5-year-old rescue mutt supported the minority staff of the House Judiciary Committee as they braced for a political storm.
He was a calming force in 2019 when Attorney General Bill Barr announced the Mueller report was coming. While committee staffers strategized what they would do once that report on Russian election interference became public, Bode trotted from person to person, offering up his furry head for pets.
The Sunday before the panel held its first hearing on the report, Bode lazed on a couch in the Judiciary hearing room, watching staffers at work.
“I remember walking with him through Rayburn thinking, wow, this is a historic moment,” said Bode’s owner, Amy Hasenberg, who joked that Bode has his honorary “Juris Dogtorate.”
Bode was there as the Republican staff pushed back against the impeachment charges aimed at President Donald Trump. These days, Bode is a fixture in the office of Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., where Hasenberg now works. He comes in every day of recess and has friends across the Senate.
Like many humans, Bode developed some anxiety during the pandemic and does not like to be left alone. But when he’s in the Senate, Bode is perfectly calm, Hasenberg said, whether he’s sitting by her chair or nuzzling colleagues. When Bode senses anyone is stressed after a meeting or phone call, the black-and-white mutt will trot over. Staffers describe him as “empathetic.”
“He’s not an emotional support dog or anything. But I think, like all animals, they are emotional support for their humans,” Hasenberg said.
Meet Rocco, Lilly and Freya
The pandemic has changed things a bit, and some offices are more open to welcoming four-legged friends, especially as lawmakers and their staff become pet owners.
Nationwide, the pandemic was seen as a golden period for pets, with people spending more time with them and reports of shelters struggling to keep up with adoption demands. The real picture may be more nuanced, but close to 20 percent of households may have acquired a cat or dog between the first lockdowns and May 2021, according to one survey from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
In the office of Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., three dogs are better than one — namely, Rocco, Lilly and Freya.
Rocco, an English bulldog, comes in daily and is a favorite among constituents and fans of the University of Georgia, which is partially in Hice’s district. Both Rocco and Lilly, a miniature goldendoodle, are 2 years old and were adopted during the pandemic.
Lilly and Freya, a cocker spaniel, come to work a few times a week.
“It has kind of permeated the culture,” said Emma Settle, Hice’s press secretary, adding the dogs are heavily involved in office life.
They will join meetings when Hice is in the office or sit on his lap. Lilly, in particular, can sense moods and is highly intuitive, said Settle.
Dog life at the Capitol can get pretty whimsical, as lawmakers prop gavels next to their pups for committee room photo ops or track their adventures on Instagram. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina named his dog “Mitch” (yes, after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) and hosts an annual “bipawtisan” costume parade for Halloween.
But lately the complex has seen some organized efforts to tap into the power of dogs to improve mental health.
On the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack, the Senate Employee Assistance Program held dog therapy sessions as part of a day of reflection and support for staff. The sessions have continued, averaging about 50 to 100 visitors.
“Each visit has been incredibly well-attended, and we plan to continue hosting quarterly as long as possible,” said Kristin Welsh-Simpson, director of the Senate Employee Assistance Program.
Most recently, Senate staff met a 1-year-old Shih Tzu-poodle mix named Mimi, a 9-year-old miniature goldendoodle named Maple and a 3-year-old golden retriever named Indy.
On the front lines of the Jan. 6 attack, pro-Trump rioters beat police officers with flag poles, hockey sticks and batons, but the mental toll is harder to see. Initially, the Capitol Police department brought in therapy animals from other law enforcement agencies.
“We noticed the positive impact, so we added Wellness Support Dogs Lila and Leo to our own wellness family,” said Tim Barber, a Capitol Police spokesperson, who said the dogs “have the unique ability to listen and help our employees decompress without having to discuss what they went through.”
Lila and Leo, both Labs, visit with members of the force and check in with families of fallen officers.
It’s a dog’s world
Back in Cárdenas’ office, 3-year-old Teddy is shy, despite visits from such prominent fans as Democratic Reps. Angie Craig of Minnesota and Kathleen Rice of New York, who have offices nearby.
Cárdenas has an open-door policy, and both Democrats and Republicans stop in to see Teddy.
He often sits in on meetings with the congressman and outside groups, which can help reduce tension, staffers said. Teddy can even be found lurking in the background of live shots and interviews with local TV stations or CNN.
Usually, he sticks to his quasi-cubicle in their Rayburn office — complete with toys, treats and a dog bed — or perches on an office chair under a window.
He celebrated his birthday in September with work colleagues, looking quizzically at a shiny “3” candle stuck into a cake. Cradled in Rojas’ arms, he posed for a photo with rapper Mase, who happened to be visiting the office to talk about getting people of color involved in public service.
Holding a birthday party for a dog in the heart of the legislative branch might seem strange, especially since the culture of Capitol Hill is hardly relaxed. Staffers still wear suits, work long hours, hear death threats when they pick up the office phone, and navigate a partisan minefield.
But that may be why dogs have found such a foothold in Congress, and why staffers and lawmakers have leaned on them over the challenges of the past few years. It’s a natural fit for Cárdenas, who has sponsored both mental health and animal advocacy legislation in the past.
“In Washington, D.C., or in any environment, especially when there’s a lot of serious work being done, sometimes when there’s sort of pain that people are experiencing, having pets around really makes a difference,” he said.