In January 2009, a pilot named Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger steered his struggling aircraft to a safe landing in the Hudson River and became a national hero. Almost 10 years later, a dog named for the pilot has become a beloved “hero” in his own right, and he did it for something much simpler: lying down.
On Sunday night, George H.W. Bush spokesman Jim McGrath posted a photograph to Twitter depicting a golden Labrador named Sully resting in front of the former president’s casket. The caption read “Mission complete.”
Within hours, Sully the dog had become a bona fide celebrity. McGrath’s sentiment has been retweeted 61,000 times and counting, and “Sully” was trending on Twitter at various times on Monday. C-SPAN covered the dog’s arrival at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Monday afternoon. The picture of the dog lying in front of the casket was covered by outlets from Fox News to NPR as the internet exploded with tributes to the pair’s “forever friendship.” The photograph was submitted as evidence of Bush’s character, of Sully’s character, and as support for the idea that America should not elect a president who “does not love and is not loved by pets.” Heavy.com offered “5 Fast Facts You Need to Know” about the dog. People magazine gushed that Sully was “keeping the 41st commander in chief safe in death as he did in life,” and even produced a slideshow of their “special friendship.” Many suggested Sully was heartbroken, and/or that they themselves were crying over the photo; conservative writer Dan McGlaughlin compared the dog to a Marine.
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.
Sully’s Instagram account, which has 147,000 followers as of Monday night, has been active since late June. That’s when “he” posted a photograph with a sign reading “Walker’s Point Here I Come,” referring to the location of the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Sully arrived there over the summer to help the former president, who used a wheelchair because of symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, with tasks like opening doors and picking up objects.
Sully’s Instagram account and several mainstream news outlets refer to him as “Sully H.W. Bush.” His bio also says he is “making [his] forever home” at Walker’s Point. But Monday morning, just a few days after his owner died, Bush’s son George W. Bush announced that Sully is heading to his next assignment: Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.
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 lie 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?
The photograph, in other words, is not proof that Sully is a particularly “good boy” or that “we don’t deserve dogs,” as countless swooning tweets put it on Monday. On its own, it says almost nothing other than the fact that Sully was, at one point in the same room as the casket of his former boss. This is simply a photograph of a dog doing something dogs love to do: Lie down. The frenzy around it captures something humans love to do, too: Project our own emotional needs onto animals.