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Bush family dog, with Long Island ties, headed to Walter Reed

Sully, the golden Labrador retriever that worked as

Sully, the golden Labrador retriever that worked as service dog for late President George W.H. Bush, sleeps next to the president's coffin in Houston Sunday. Credit: Office of George H.W. Bush / Evan Sisley via EPA

Within hours, the image of the floppy-eared yellow lab lying by the side of the flag-draped casket of America’s 41st president — the pooch’s head propped forlornly upon his paws — had been shared by tens of thousands on social media.

Sully, a service dog who trained on Long Island before beginning his life as an assistant to George H.W. Bush in the former president’s final months of life, was still there for his master.

“Mission complete," tweeted Jim McGrath, the former president’s post-White House spokesman, along with "#Remembering41." 

Sully was given to Bush in June by Smithtown-based America’s VetDogs after the Bush family asked officials at Walter Reed Medical Center about acquiring a service dog following the April death of Bush’s wife, Barbara. Walter Reed referred the Bush family to America’s VetDogs, according to VetDogs spokesman Andrew Rubenstein.

The dog performed a variety of tasks for Bush, who since 2012 usually used a wheelchair because of vascular parkinsonism, a condition believed to be caused by small strokes that damage the brain. Those tasks included opening doors, retrieving items and responding to the “rest command” by placing his head on the president’s lap to comfort him, Rubenstein said.

Rubenstein said the Bush family wanted to keep the dog, but the former president asked that he be assigned to duties at Walter Reed, where Sully will assist injured soldiers as they recuperate from amputation injuries.

Sully will return to Smithtown later this month for six to eight weeks of training before joining two other VetDogs Labrador retrievers — Sgt. Truman and Sgt. Dillon — already on duty at Walter Reed.

“Through retrieval, bracing and innovative tug-of-war exercises, these dogs work with service members as they adapt and work with their new prosthetic limbs,” Rubenstein said in a news release.

Sully is not the first dog to famously grace the life of the former president. Bush and his wife were said to dote on Millie, a brown and white English springer spaniel that came to be known among the most famous dogs in White House history. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bush once disparaged his Democratic adversaries by saying of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, "My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos.”

Sully is the namesake of Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, who drew the admiration of the nation in 2009 for safely guiding US Airways Flight 1549 to a Hudson River landing after the aircraft lost power while climbing from LaGuardia Airport.

Images of the golden-haired dog have zoomed around the internet on the home pages of newspapers, as well as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. As of Monday afternoon, his Instagram account alone had nearly 130,000 followers.

“A kinder, gentler labrador — making my forever home at Walker's Point 🐾 🇺🇸” his Instagram account read, in a canine reference to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Stories of dogs refusing to leave the side of their owners who have died are the stuff of lore.

Barbara J. King, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary and the author of “How Animals Grieve,” has said dogs and other animals are capable of experiencing deep sadness following the death of offspring, companions and even beloved humans.

“We can’t know what these animals think about death, but we can document their visible expressions of intense emotion around the body of a family member or friend,” King wrote in August, after video of a killer whale who kept pushing her calf to the surface for days after it died captivated millions of watchers. “Grief and love don’t belong to just us.”

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