The best ambassadors know they need a great team to help them succeed. They need trade experts and economic advisers, staff with political know-how and the right language skills. Yet there are some things an embassy official cannot possibly do, which an ambassador needs nonetheless. They cannot lick food out of the ambassador’s hand, they are unlikely to willingly perform tricks in front of guests, nor can they be relied upon to chase after a stick, bring it back, then chase after it once again. A dog can smooth the edges of a difficult meeting, provide light relief and generally improve the atmosphere.
Soft power comes in many sizes – and many breeds. Meet the ambassa-dogs.
Breed: Standard poodle
Owner: Bruce Oreck, US ambassador to Finland
As soon as the door of the American ambassador’s residence opens, a large white standard poodle – complete with leather-studded Harley-Davidson collar – bounds towards me and licks my hands. It is this unconventional diplomatic welcome which has endeared Deckard the “ambassa-dog” to many Finns. “Having a dog that is friendly, fuzzy and fun to look at is a really great door opener,” says Bruce Oreck, the US ambassador to Finland – and Deckard’s owner.
“I go to places with this dog where dogs aren’t allowed and everyone just melts and lets me go in with him. From a political standpoint it’s great. People love the dog and they figure that I’m OK.”
Ambassador Oreck is a big Philip K Dick fan. Deckard is named after Rick Deckard, the protagonist of Dick’s sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which later became the film Blade Runner) because he more closely resembles a sheep than a dog.
Like all the embassy staff, six-year-old Deckard has his own security card so he can stroll around the grounds without interruption. His pass is yellow. “There are different colour passes for different levels of security,” the ambassador explains. “When Deckard came he was issued with a pass that had the highest level of security access. My marine attachment commander here decided that was wrong so they have given him the lowest level of access now. It must have been something he did!”
Finland’s minister for European affairs and foreign trade, Alexander Stubb, and his family have looked after Deckard when Oreck has been away. The Finnish president’s wife, Jenni Haukio, is also said to be an admirer. Oreck says most event invitations for him come on the condition he brings Deckard. “After five years in Finland I’ve figured that the Finns have had enough of me but they still have an attachment to the dog.”
Special diplomatic skill: Deckard’s easy-going nature instantly puts visitors at ease. With a vast array of tricks (in return for a treat) he adds an element of playfulness to the embassy.
Breed: Golden retriever
Owner: Péter Györkös, Hungary’s ambassador to the European Union
In his previous post as Hungary’s ambassador to Croatia, Péter Györkös was able to enjoy leisurely walks in the park with his golden retriever Füles, often in the company of other diplomats and their canine companions. Since assuming the post as Budapest’s permanent representative to the EU in 2010, however, life has changed for both the ambassador and his beloved dog.
For Györkös, the job means long days studying texts and debating the finer points of monetary union, foreign policy and complex trade deals with representatives from the EU’s 27 other member states. For Füles – the Hungarian name for the Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore – this translates into 05.30 starts to join his owner on invigorating jogs before long days in the office.
“It is very useful, in particular when you are under real stress, and it helps starting the day outside getting fresh air,” Györkös tells monocle at his home in the leafy Brussels suburb of Uccle. But, having reached the grand old age of 12, Füles is a little more sceptical about pre-dawn runs these days and prefers to spend a good 20 hours a day napping. “Now he is absolutely not enthusiastic if he sees me in jogging clothes,” says the ambassador.
When called upon to perform the functions of ambassadorial dog, however, he has impeccable credentials. A loping golden retriever with kind eyes and an endearingly curious manner, he is a hit at the social functions Györkös is able to fit in to his hectic schedule.
Special diplomatic skill: While Füles’ amiable ways may be strong qualities in his diplomatic role, Györkös is not sure about his merits as a guard dog: “If somebody tried to illegally enter the house, I think he would be more than happy to welcome them.”
Breed: Shiba inu
Owner: A Carsten Damsgaard, Denmark’s ambassador to Japan
Unlike his affable owner – A Carsten Damsgaard, Denmark’s ambassador to Tokyo – Herman is not a natural diplomat. A fiercely independent shiba inu, he is a hunter by nature who is wary of strangers and can only be unleashed in the confines of the residence’s walled garden. Definitely not the type to mingle with ease at an embassy soirée.
Damsgaard, who came to Tokyo in 2011 after ambassadorial postings in Israel and Afghanistan, grew up with pet dogs but hadn’t owned one for years. American friends recommended a shiba. “We were looking for a native Japanese breed,” says Damsgaard. “We didn’t know anything about shibas although they look like the huskies that Esben [Karmark, Damsgaard’s husband] grew up with as a child in Greenland.”
Damsgaard and Esben went to see a breeder in the east of Tokyo who had a litter of black-haired shibas. “Herman was the shyest and prettiest,” says Damsgaard. “We quickly discovered our friends hadn’t been entirely honest though. Shibas have an independent mind and they’re not easy to train. Herman is quite a handful – he’s no labrador.”
Herman has to be introduced to visitors gently. He’s protective of the house, an elegant residence designed by Fumihiko Maki in 1979.
Although Tokyo is notorious for its canine boutiques, shiba owners know better than to put their dogs in clothes. “I’d like to see them try,” jokes Damsgaard. Herman – named after the novelist Hermann Hesse – goes to the local park in Daikanyama every afternoon to see his friends. “The joke in this family is that he thinks his name is kawaii [cute] because he hears it so often,” says Damsgaard. “I’m not known as the Danish ambassador around here but as the man who takes Herman to the park.”
Special diplomatic skill: Even if diplomacy is not Herman’s strong suit, his good looks and dignified demeanour have won him many admirers. Anyone who wants to get on Herman’s good side should come armed with cheese – a personal favourite.
Owner: Christian Turner, UK high commissioner to Kenya
Meet Tchui and Christian. Tchui is a nine-month-old labrador and Christian Turner his 41-year-old ambassador. Turner came to Kenya as the UK’s high commissioner in June 2012 with his wife, Claire, and their two young children.
Until microchips and pet passports were introduced, the nomadism of the Foreign Office conspired with international quarantine regulations to make it impossible to have a pet and keep it from posting to posting. “It’s a reasonably new prospect for people with the peripatetic diplomatic lifestyle to be able to have a dog,” says Turner. “It’s now a viable emotional investment.”
Turner’s Nairobi home is an enviable option for the dog in question. Tchui has the run of a vast, shady and colourful garden that sweeps down from the veranda of a 1930s stone-built residence in the upmarket Muthaiga neighbourhood – home to ambassadors, ex-presidents, aid workers and well-to-do Kenyans. Tchui (pronounced “chewy”) means “leopard” in Swahili but it is also the name of the street she lives on and a pun on her tendency to slobbily maul anything she can get her jaws round.
When the Turners got Tchui last year, housetraining was the first order of business. “You’ve got the government art collection, the government furniture, the Persian rugs,” Turner says. “We’ve not had too many accidents on Her Majesty’s parquet flooring I’m pleased to say.”
Tchui undergoes training once a week and joins Turner on his evening run – in preparation for the annual charity Lewa half marathon.
The choice of a yellow lab was conservative but practical. “We needed a dog that would be OK with the family, and biddable and friendly in an ambassador’s house where you’ve got hundreds of people coming in and out,” Turner says.
He worried that picking a mutt from the local pound rather than a pedigree could be a recipe for trouble. “It might take one look at a minister and go for his or her throat. That would not be a particularly diplomatic moment,” he says.
In Kenya guard dogs are more common than pet dogs and there’s a cultural sense that dogs are best avoided, which poses its own challenges when the great and good of Kenyan politics, business and culture visit the residence. “It’s a bit of test really: if you can get through the front door, past the dog and onto the veranda then you’re clearly an OK visitor,” says Turner.
Special diplomatic skill: Sadly lacking. Elsewhere Tchui’s rambunctious, slobbery and friendly demeanour would be a winner but unfortunately most Kenyans just don’t like dogs very much.