Does Bo, the Obamas’ Dog, Get a Secret Service Detail?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 16 2013 1:29 PM

Guard Dog

Does the Secret Service protect Bo Obama?

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Who guards the guard dog?

Martin H. Simon/Getty Images

President Obama signed a bill restoring lifetime Secret Service protection to former presidents, their spouses, and children under the age of 16 last week. One type of family member is absent from the new law: pets. Does the Secret Service have any responsibility to protect Bo, the Obamas’ Portuguese water dog?

No. Federal law authorizes the Secret Service to protect the president and vice president and their “immediate families.” The statute doesn’t define family, but there’s nothing in the law to suggest that pets are included. When family is defined elsewhere in federal law, it’s limited to people. To take a couple of examples, the Family and Medical Leave Act grants employees time away from work to care for sons, daughters, spouses, and parents, but not pets. For purposes of certain health insurance regulations, “family” includes only spouses and unmarried dependent children. Where federal law does mention pets, it describes them as property, not as family members. Since deadly force may never be used to protect mere property, the Secret Service would be hamstrung in protecting Bo, even if the statute ordered them to do so.

The press frequently snaps photos of Secret Service agents acting as dog-walkers, leading to a persistent myth that the agents are obligated to care for the presidents’ pets. In addition to being untrue, the notion seems to annoy the Secret Service. In his autobiography, former agent Dan Emmett emphasized that “walking the dog or cat is not and will never be a part of an agent’s job description.”

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Although they don’t have to, the agents often forge a bond with the presidents’ dogs. Secret Service agents used to play with President Reagan’s dog at the family ranch. (The barking infuriated Nancy.) Jimmy Carter’s security detail befriended a stray dog that hung around his Georgia home, which was fine until the dog started eating the food Carter put out for the family cat. According to an agent on the scene, Carter allegedly attempted to kill the thieving Jack Russell terrier with a bow saw, but the 52-year-old politician didn’t have the legs to catch him. Carter eventually ordered the Secret Service to eject the dog, which went home with a member of the press corps. A Secret Service agent claimed he once looked on, bemused, as a curious Richard Nixon tasted one of his dog’s biscuits.

In the Secret Service’s most common interaction with animals, it’s the beasts who are doing the protecting, rather than the other way around. The agency employs Belgian Malinois dogs to search for drugs, explosives, and guns. The Secret Service also has dogs on guard at the White House, ready to pounce if someone attempts to jump the fence.

Secret Service agents don’t just worry about dogs and cats—they sometimes protect, or protect against, other creatures great and small. A 6,000-pound performance elephant once charged Amy Carter at the home of Ethel Kennedy, who was hosting an animal show. Agents managed to rescue Carter as the animal closed within 35 feet of her, hustling her inside the house before the elephant reached her. In March, agents reunited a brood of ducklings with their mother after she stranded them on the wrong side of the White House gate.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.