"They say, if you want a friend in Washington," President Obama told Jay Leno, "get a dog." The Obamas at last got theirs — a 6-month-old, black-and-white Portuguese water dog named Bo, expected to be officially introduced today — fulfilling the long-anticipated campaign promise to daughters Sasha and Malia.
Obama's observation on The Tonight Show is no revelation to business leaders, who say it can be so lonely at the top that dogs are the only constant source of unconditional love. Most CEOs are diplomatic enough to say that their wives are their best friends, but in times when CEOs are particularly reviled, the dog never has a hidden agenda.
"My dog will love me even if my $50 billion Ponzi scheme is discovered," jokes Jack Holt, CEO of S3 Matching Technologies, a software company based in Austin. Holt owns two dogs, a Great Dane mix named Ella and a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Hank.
Harold Burson, founder of Burson-Marsteller, the world's largest public relations firm, says his wife has seen him cry twice in 62 years of marriage: When his father died and when his 13-year-old diabetic dog Angus was put to sleep. "On downer days, one gets an immediate uplift at the joyous and totally unencumbered greeting that only a canine can give," Burson says.
First Dogs are a tradition that dates to George Washington, and with Bo, the White House joins the 39% of U.S. households with a dog, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. But among CEOs, company presidents, chairmen and founders that percentage jumps to 66, according to an unscientific USA TODAY survey. Seventy-five of 114 who responded to a USA TODAY query own at least one dog, including PetSmart CEO Philip Francis, who owns a rescued terrier named Bit O'Honey.
Scott Jones, CEO of ChaCha, a website that answers texted questions, owns seven dogs including a Neapolitan mastiff named Megatron, a Saint Bernard named Titan, a boxer named Tyson, a Boston terrier named Oreo and two teacup Yorkies named Tandy and Duff. Jones is also the only CEO to own a dog named Beau, although spelled differently than the Obama dog. Beau is a French bulldog. None of the CEOs owns a Portuguese water dog.
CEO dogs range from shelter mutts to show champions, and there seems to be some deceptive branding going on. There's a husky-wolf mix named Rascal, and the four CEO dogs that are pit bulls or pit bull mixes are named Molly, Clover, Tibby and Chloe Belle.
There's more truth in advertising in names such as a West Highland terrier owned by Bayer CEO Greg Babe named Kobe; and Dutchess, a 5-year-old Yorkie owned by Alan Miller, CEO of hospital company United Health Services. "Intimidating burglars is still my job," Miller says.
Dogs are more than companions, and the First Dog might be strategically employed during sensitive negotiations, says Graham Kill, the CEO of Irdeto in Beijing, a digital media technology company with a second headquarters in Amsterdam and 900 workers in 25 offices worldwide.
Kill was once seated at the negotiating table in the headquarters of a competitor. Sleeping in the corner was Sweetie, a black schnauzer owned by the rival CEO. Every now and then Sweetie would get up and bury her nose in Kill's crotch and sniff out the situation.
"Perhaps the dog was trained to do this," Kill says. "I can assure you, aside from being unpleasant and causing the need for dry cleaning from the slobber, it was highly disconcerting from a negotiation point of view."
Kill declines to identify the CEO who owns the slobbering schnauzer, although he says anyone who has been in the inner sanctum of the office will recognize who he's talking about.
CEOs offer the Obamas other dog advice, and it often begins with the word "never":
•"Never do a deal with someone who goes on long walks with their dog without bringing a poop bag," says Bruce Merrin, CEO of Bruce Merrin's Celebrity Speakers & Entertainment Bureau, who has booked Lassie for appearances and owns Kubby, a 175-pound Great Pyrenees.
•"Never work with someone whose dog isn't overtly happy to see them when they come home, or vice versa," says Plaxo CEO Ben Golub, owner of 11-year-old shelter mutt Gracie. "Never work for someone who makes their dog sit, beg, roll over, and play dead for 10 minutes just to get a Liv-a-Snap."
•"Never trust a person that does not hug his or her dog … too cold and not caring," says John Leibert, president of technology company Factivity and owner of a 5-year-old wheaten terrier named Scooter.
Sniffing out loyalty
The owner of crotch-sniffing Sweetie isn't the only CEO who brings the dog to work. Balthazar, an 8-year-old Shiba Inu owned by Innovative Stone CEO Karen Pearse, carries the title of director of security, but seems to have more of a human resources function. Balthazar knows all 400 employees, and Pearse says she feels "positive about people whom Balthazar approves."
"I would love to have the intuition my Rottweiler (Chester) has," says Dave Young, CEO Verlo Mattress Factory Stores. "That dog makes judgments about people that prove to be amazingly accurate over time."
CEOs often confess to making important decisions largely on instinct and gut. And 77% of the 75 CEOs in the USA TODAY survey who own dogs said they can know something about the character of others based on how they treat dogs, how dogs respond to them, and even what they name their dogs.
"If someone carries a small dog in their coat pocket and talks for him, it tells you one thing. If they have a dog box filled with hay on the rear bumper of a truck, it says another," says Bruce Clarke, president and CEO Capital Associated Industries and owner of a 12-year-old Dalmatian bought at a flea market.
Christopher Palumbo, the founder of upscale health club company Elements for Women, owns a cat because of his travel schedule, but says he trusts dog owners more. However, Laura Wellington of The Giddy Gander is a dog owner who says she'd rather strike a deal with a cat owner because it indicates they have chosen to devote more time to the business.
Many CEOs own both dogs and cats and report other pets including horses, mules, parrots, parakeets, hamsters, fish, lizards, snakes, ferrets, mice, turtles, rabbits, guinea pigs, hermit crabs and chinchillas.
"I tend to trust people a little less if they are not pet owners as they sometimes are a little more narcissistic," says Judy Odom, co-founder of Software Spectrum, and owner of 3-year-old goldendoodle Lizzie and 6-year-old golden retriever Woody.
Dogs vs. cats
A few CEOs say cats are at least equal to dogs, "but I have found that folks with cats seem to be a little more compulsive and uncertain," says Rory Cowan of Lionbridge Technologies and owner of a Bernese mountain dog named Dodo.
Richard Hanks, president of Mindshare Technologies, often gives eight tips for success in speeches. No. 1 is to know your customers so well that you know their dogs' names. Todd Kane, CEO of Temps and owner of five dogs, says photos of dogs at client offices are a conversation starter.
"Do they feed the dog table food? Does the dog sleep in a cage?" Such details are a window into someone's character, says Scott Dorsey, CEO of software company ExactTarget and owner of a 4-year-old Labradoodle named Ellie.
Last summer Bill Marriott blogged about his 8-year-old golden retriever, Murphy, who has learned that as hard as he runs and swims he can never catch up to wild ducks. "I've found that experience is a great teacher," Marriott wrote. "I've been through at least six (economic) downturns — I think this is my seventh — in my career. But I hope, like Murphy, I've developed the patience to work my way through these difficult times."
Dogs may offer insight, but as in all things business, nothing is foolproof, says Gregory Selker, CEO of executive search firm Selker Leadership. He owns a 4-year-old mutt and believes that when someone treats a dog badly it shows they can't be trusted. "However, there are a great many scoundrels who have treated their dogs as kings while grinding people underneath their heel," Selker says.