by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
Some pundits say that state government is going to the dogs.
It may be true in a literal sense, since Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton takes time out of a busy schedule almost daily to spend special time with his two black, purebred German shepherds named Mingo and Itasca.
Dayton and his companions reside at the Governor’s Residence on Summit Avenue in St. Paul.
“When I come home from work and everybody in the world hates me, these two dogs wag their tails” as a sign of friendship, Dayton said.
Dayton’s affection for German shepherds began when he was growing up. His mother Gwendolen had a black German shepherd named Natasha that Dayton often took for walks in the woods. He said he vowed if he ever were to get a dog, it would be a black German shepherd.
His love for dogs grew in 2002 during his term as a United States senator when he began searching for a black German shepherd.
Dayton took to heart a comment reportedly made by former President Harry S. Truman. Truman said, according to Dayton, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Dayton said he had two dogs while in Washington, “and at least the dogs had friends.”
Dayton’s first dogs, Dakota and Mesabi, were siblings from Coon Rapids. The dogs were 2 months old when they moved to Washington with then Sen. Dayton. Both made the transition from the U.S. Senate to the state governor’s office in 2011.
Dakota died of cancer at age 8 1/2, three days after Dayton took office as Minnesota’s 40th governor. The week Dayton was sworn in as governor, other state constitutional officers were sworn in, as were the entire Minnesota Legislature and all of the U.S. Congress. Dayton said he recalls it being reported that the story on Dakota’s death drew more viewers than did the political news.
“That shows how much people care about their dogs and cats,” Dayton said.
With only Mesabi as his companion, both spent time together on the couch.
“He was the ultimate canine couch potato,” Dayton laughed.
Dayton recalled that Mesabi became very depressed with the loss of Dakota, a sibling with whom he literally spent every minute of his life. “Suddenly, she was gone,” Dayton said.
Dayton decided he would get another female shepherd puppy. He placed a post on Facebook seeking an all-black, female shepherd puppy. A high school junior Hailey Wolf of Clara City, Minn., answered his inquiry and sent him a photo of a young puppy.
“I already had picked out a name before I saw a photo, deciding to call her Wanamingo after a community near Rochester. After seeing a photo, I said, ‘bingo, that’s Mingo.’”
Just by coincidence, Dayton was on his way to Montevideo about a week later. He stopped by Clara City, met Mingo, part of a litter of nine. She was the only all-black female.
“I liked her and love her,” Dayton said.
At eight weeks, Mingo adjusted quite well at the Governor’s Residence and became a playmate of Mesabi and the governor.
“She would hunt me down and want me to play,” Dayton said. She also tried to coerce Mesabi to play but often received a friendly growl in return.
Dayton decided Mesabi and Mingo needed another companion, thus he began a search for another male in the summer of 2011. The governor went online and found a breeder in Pine County who had an all-black male shepherd. Enter Itasca. He is 2, six months younger than Mingo. Mesabi died last year at age 11.
“Come on, let’s go play,” Dayton says to his current Governor’s Residence watchdogs. Mingo and Itasca love to play catch with a plastic disc with the governor and also with Luke Hjermstad, a caretaker from Burnsville. He comes to the residence daily and, when Dayton is away from Minnesota, takes the governor’s dogs to his home.
Mingo and Itasca are inseparable, Dayton confirmed. He said they want to play all the time.
“They have zero interest in two Frisbees but a strong interest in one Frisbee,” he said. “They fight over it, or who’s got a bone and who has a stick; it’s all in good fun,” Dayton added. Dayton also takes the dogs on frequent walks in the backyard of the residence.
Dayton said that his two canine companions are “tremendous” stress relievers.
“If I come home stressed or frustrated, I just lie down on the floor with one or both of them, pet them, talk to them, and in a minute I am feeling much more relaxed and content,” Dayton said.
Dayton said pets are very important in the lives of Minnesotans. He said he received an overwhelming response from people following the deaths of Dakota and Mesabi. Dayton also said he owned cats for 14 years.
Dayton admits that he is partial to German shepherds but acknowledges other “wonderful” breeds.
“Shepherds are so smart, so sensitive and so loyal,” he said.
When asked if he some day might think about raising German shepherd puppies, “I’m too busy,” Dayton responded. If looking for another career, it would be literally be that, he said.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at [email protected].