George H.W. Bush’s flag-draped coffin was flanked by rifle-bearing troops before they were joined by Sully, his paws quietly shuffling across the polished Capitol Rotunda floor.
The yellow Labrador retriever dutifully marched toward Bush’s remains Tuesday for another farewell to the 41st president, who found comfort in the service dog’s companionship over the last few months of his life.
Sully was solemnly led by Valerie Cramer of America’s VetDogs, a nonprofit that trains and places service dogs with veterans like Bush, a Navy pilot in World War II.
A presidential seal was sewn onto Sully’s harness. He sat and looked around at a crowd both large and silent, then lay for a moment.
After Bush died Friday, Sully captured nationwide attention when a photograph of him lying in front of Bush’s casket in Houston went viral.
The dog appeared woebegone, his head slack over his front left paw, his muzzle resting on the ground. Yet he was also steadfast, still keeping watch over Bush.
The display of instinctual, animalistic devotion captured the reaction to Bush’s death in a way that the words spilled all weekend over the Internet could not.
Dogs, wrote the poet Emily Dickinson, “know but do not tell.”
“Mission complete,” Jim McGrath, the Bush spokesman who shared a photo of the service dog’s mournful stance Sunday, wrote on Twitter.
Bush will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda until Wednesday, when family members and friends will gather for a funeral at Washington National Cathedral.
Sully was raised by VetDogs, first through its prison puppy program that gives inmates a chance to teach animals the basic tasks of housebreaking and standardized commands, and then at the program’s campus in Smithtown, N.Y.
The Labrador was matched to Bush in June, when he was almost 2. He is named after former commercial airline pilot Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, who safely landed a plane on the Hudson River in 2009.
Bush welcomed “the newest member of our family” the same day he received a visit from former president Bill Clinton, a friend and onetime political adversary, at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine. The occasion was also distinguished by a sartorial salute Bush made to his successor. He wore a pair of socks imprinted with Clinton’s face.
The former president came to use a wheelchair or motorized scooter in the final years of his life because of a form of Parkinson’s disease.
Among the services that Sully was able to perform for Bush were retrieving dropped items, opening and closing doors, pushing an emergency button and supporting him when standing. As the dog went about these tasks, he amassed a following on social media, including on his own Instagram account, which boasted more than 98,000 followers as of early Monday.
Sully celebrated his birthday in July with a bone tied in a bright pink bow. Last week, he was already preparing for Christmas. On Sunday, the photo of the service dog lying before Bush’s casket became the latest post.
Although his presidential mission is complete, Sully’s work isn’t done. America’s VetDogs said the Labrador will join the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he will assist with “physical and occupational therapy to wounded soldiers and active duty personnel during their journey to recovery.”
That Sully will continue to serve veterans was a source of comfort for the Bush family. George W. Bush, the late president’s son and the 43rd president, predicted that the dog will bring joy to patients at Walter Reed. Jeb Bush, the late president’s younger son and a 2016 contender for the Republican presidential nomination, also weighed in.
“Sully has the watch,” he wrote on Twitter.
The 41st president’s devotion to dogs was not born of necessity alone. Long before he came to rely on man’s best friend to move around, he and his wife, Barbara Bush, who died in April, kept the company of Millie, an English springer spaniel named for Mildred Caldwell Kerr, a friend of the couple. The pet was once declared “the most famous dog in White House history.”
Bush did, however, use the dog to score political points, although they didn’t always land effortlessly.
In a campaign speech in 1992, the incumbent Republican president attacked Clinton and running mate Al Gore by saying, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos.”
Sully, by contrast, bore none of the weight of his person’s political ambitions. Sometimes he appeared with the American flag, such as on the Fourth of July. At other points, he was used to promote guide dogs.
But mostly, he was just at Bush’s side, which is where he remained after the president’s death.