NBC
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Dateline NBC
updated 6/21/2005 4:44:11 PM ET 2005-06-21T20:44:11

America has gone to the dogs… and the cats, horses, reptiles, fish, birds, you name it. We own 360 million pets, and they are big business. This year alone we'll drop a whopping $36 billion on everything from gourmet puppy chow to designer doggy duds. In fact, while many pet lovers pamper their furry friends with a little extra Frisbee time in the park or a game of catch in the back yard, an increasing number now take their pet love to a whole different level.

Woody, 3, a perfect example, weighs five pounds and like most babies, is adored by his mommy. Okay, technically Woody is a dog, a Yorkie to be exact, but to New Yorkers Heather Nicosia and Jimmy Diresta, who don't want a family just yet, he's very much their baby.

Heather: “He feels like a little kid, you know? He feels like my baby.”

And a spoiled baby at that. "Dad" Jimmy, a designer, made Woody an elaborate miniature dog house and takes him cruising on their Vespa. "Mom" Heather, a boutique owner, gives Woody regular blowouts, makes Woody his very own line of "WoodyWear" clothing and dresses him in just about everything you can imagine, including feetsie pajamas and Batman, Spiderman and tiger costumes. It may seem extreme, but Jimmy and Heather are hardly alone in their pet spoiling ways.

Owen Swaby: “I'm kind of like his servant. It's kind of sad. It's not about me, it's all about him.”

Wendy Diamond: “Everyone loves their animals more than people.”

Well, not everyone. Pets certainly aren't welcome everywhere, something dog lover Mimi Scott was harshly reminded of when she decided to get three new dogs in addition to Kramer, who's kept her company in her New York City apartment for nine years.

For Mimi's condominium board, one dog is okay, but four are unacceptable. She received a letter in March requesting she "dispose" of three of the dogs. 

Mimi Scott: “The picture in my mind was take a gun and shoot them. I mean how do you dispose? I love them; they are part of me. There's no way, no way I would abandon them.”

Mimi decided to stick with her dogs, and believe it or not, she's decided to move out of her luxury apartment.  Psychologist Dr. Herb Nieburg says though not everyone understands it, the bond people form with their pets is very real.

Al Roker: “What's this love affair that we have with pets all about?”

Dr. Herb Nieburg: “Pets serve so many purposes for us. Unconditional love, playmates, protection, security,  filling the empty nest. Plus they're furry, they're cute, they're warm. We respond to that.

Boy do we ever. Surveys of pet lovers reveal 83 percent call themselves their pet’s mommy or daddy, and 78 percent confess they coo to their pets much like a parent would to a baby. That includes Sharon Osbourne, of MTV's hit show "The Osbournes."

And Nicollette Sheridan, one of the sexy stars of "Desperate Housewives," showers her puppy Oliver with plenty of sweet nothings.

Roker: “Did I notice the little baby talk thing working?”

Nicollette Sheridan: “Oh, that does happen a little yeah. He's my little ushkey, kushkey, i just want to kiss his face and bite him hard.”

Though she doesn't like to admit it, Woody's "dad" Jimmy says "mom" Heather is guilty of baby talk as well. Woody's parents are definitely among the 63 percent of dog owners who admit to engaging in a little kissy kissy.

Puppylove goes so deep that 93 percent of dog owners say they'd risk their life for them. Woody's parents can attest to that firsthand. Six months ago, he was dog-napped.

Heather: “I was in the store. The door opened for two seconds. I saw him walk out the door and I walked right after him. And I looked down and he was gone.”

Jimmy: “Everybody on the block was screaming his name.”

Heather: “I was just like holding my head, I was like oh my God, I can't believe this.”

The couple plastered the neighborhood with flyers, thousands of them. Then, 48 hours later, they put up new flyers offering a cash reward.

Jimmy: “A $1,000 reward for Woody, no questions asked.”

Heather: “And within maybe an hour and a half, like by noon, I got a phone call. She just said ’ I know who has your dog. But I want the money. And then she hung up.”

After more strange calls, a plan was hatched/ Jimmy would meet the mystery caller on a Brooklyn street corner.

Jimmy: “I called two friends, two big friends of mine.  I was afraid I was walking into an ambush. I'm like this woman's going to not only keep my dog, but she's going to hold me up and someone's going to stick a gun in my ribs for the thousand bucks.”

It took considerable persuasion, but Jimmy also convinced a police car to trail behind.

Jimmy: “I come from a family of cops. I know what's important to a New York City cop. And a dog is low on the priority list.”

But there was no robbery, no guns, just the mystery caller, a nervous looking woman with two young girls in tow.

Jimmy: “She was scared, she thought she was going to be arrested, I said no, no problem.”

Jimmy did not want the woman arrested and had no interest in pressing charges.

Jimmy: “A lot of people were mad that I gave the money and I didn't ask. I said 'You know what, the thing was no questions asked.’"

Heather: “It said it on the flyer.”

Jimmy: “And I just wanted Woody back… I immediately started crying, and Woody was licking my tears the whole time.”

Shaken and grungy, but otherwise fine, Woody got a warm welcome home.

Jimmy: “For the next two days, it was like visiting a dignitary.”  

Heather: “Oh we got gifts. Cashmere sweaters. People were bringing gifts by.”

Jimmy still chokes back tears when he talks about the ordeal.  And as you'll see next, now Woody's parents are among the millions of pet lovers willing to do almost anything to pamper them.

Treating our pets like people

As doggie days go, April 4 was a spectacular one for Woody. We invited him to experience the life of the ultimate pampered pooch. First, he traveled celeb style in a "Doggy Diva" limousine to the New York dog spa. After a relaxing massage, the limo whisked Woody to his next stop: "Woofspa,” a hotspot for swanky pooches. Woody got the works: manicure, oatmeal bath, hot oil and grooming. Royal treatment? You bet. But for pets these days, that's hardly unusual.

Lauren Halperin: “People are treating their pets like they're worth their weight in gold.”

Lauren Halperin, publisher of the brand new magazine "Paw Luxuries," says when it comes to pampering, pets are living large.

Halperin: “There is nothing in the world that shocks me anymore. I've heard of four poster canopy dog beds that cost more than BMWs.”

Your spoiled pet can now dine on sushi, look ultra chic in "doggles" sunglasses, get that perfect "dogicure" with paw-lish and party the night away in pretty dresses that'll run you up to about $600. And get this, you could even buy Fifi a mink coator $3,000 bottle of Les Pooches perfume. And, perhaps the ultimate would be $45,000 for genuine diamond doggy earrings!

Woody's "mom" Heather hasn't broken the bank for anything wildly extreme, but she does loves to see her little guy looking good. To cap Woody's big day of pampering, he donned a tux, then his proud parents escorted him to a black-tie fundraiser for animal shelters. That's right, a black-tie event for the dogs. From Woody's perspective, it had to be one grandevening.

Roker: “When did our pets start becoming people?”

Dr. Nieburg: “It has to do with ego. It has to do with my pet is an extension of me. And if there's something really cool about my pet, that makes me cool.”

Pet lovers don't deny it.

Halperin: “My dog has a carrier, and it happens to be Louis Vuitton.  Does he know it's Louis Vuitton? No. But I definitely do.”

That's right, even high-end designers are cashing in on the pet pampering craze. Burberry now offers custom-made trench coats for dogs, ranging anywhere from $250 to $625. Woody strutted in style when he tried one on for size.

And stores catering to the fashionable pet are everywhere.LA's "Fifi&Romeo," favored by the likes of Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie and even Prince Charles, specializes in cashmere sweaters for dogs that can cost up to $225.  New York's "Scout" carries tiaras, pearl necklaces and, can you believe it, doggy wedding dresses!

That's right, we're talking doggy bow vows, two dogs actually marrying each other.

Karen Ngo, owner of Scout: “People are so obsessed with their dogs that to them it just makes perfect sense that they would get married.”

Think you can't top that? How about a lavish birthday party? One in Miami, complete with private jet and hummer limo for Sweetpea, the dog of honor, was hosted by Kim Walker's "Teacups Boutique."

Kim Walker, co-owner, Teacups: “The party was estimated at $30,000. It was filled with belly dancers. We had pony rides for the dogs.”

Some facets of the burgeoning pet industry are more functional than just fun. If you travel, you no longer have to worry about leaving Fido or Fifi at home. Midwest airlines even offers pets frequent flyer miles. Luxury hotels like the W cater to their canine guests as well. At the LA Cat Hotel, where Jay Leno's cats are regulars, the feline guests lounge contentedly in front of private television screens. That's just purr-fect.

Doggy daycares are so popular now, getting into some is like trying to get into Yale or Harvard. At Central Bark in Ft. Lauderdale, a dog's day mirrors a child's in daycare. Co-owner Chris Gaba says there's plenty of play time, even time for an afternoon nap.

Chris Gaba, co-owner Central Bark: “They're just like children.  They need that time to wind down. They get a snack. The classical music and aromatherapy help to chill them out.”

For the worry-warts who want to know what their dogs think of it all, Central Bark taps into the services of animal "communicator" Joan Ranquet, who claims she can "talk" to animals via telepathic communication. Eli, a doggy daycare regular, tells Ranquet his previous owner left him feeling a little insecure.

If it all just makes your head spin, you could always cool out with Crunch Gym's Ruff yoga class. That's right, yoga for dogs. Hey! You've heard of downward facing dog haven't you? Well, I borrowed Woody to check it out for myself. Woody's parents, who've never taken him to yoga before, were impressed.

Heather: “Afterwards, the whole night, he just seemed really relaxed.  It sounds crazy, but he really seemed different, his personality.”

Jimmy: “Yeah, he wanted to know where his mat was.”

But has America's love affair with their pets gone too far?

Dr. Nieburg: “I think people do want to pamper their pets. On the other hand, do dogs understand that they're getting a pedicure?”

Roker: “Or do they care?”

Dr. Nieburg: “Or do they care?”

Pet lovers say it doesn't matter. They want to spoil their beloved pets because they provide that elusive thing, something called unconditional love.

Halperin: “Pets do not care who you are, where you come from, what color skin you have or what religious background you have. When you walk in the door they are happy to see you.”

Push for cutting edge medicine

Americans may go to extreme lengths to pamper their beloved pets, but they will just as willingly go to extremes to take care of them. In fact, 73 percent of pet owners say they would go into debt to provide for their pet's well being, something Woody's parents Jimmy and Heather understand completely.

Heather: “If there was something that I could do to keep my dog alive if he was sick and I had the money to do it, 1,000 percent would do it.”

From chemotherapy to MRIs, pet lovers now shell out big bucks for treatments once used only for humans. There are even animal blood banks. Taz, a regular donor, lies down to rest, just minutes after his blood is drawn, and his blood is rushed off to save the life of another dog. Meanwhile, Maxwell is being prepped for a kidney transplant, an operation that costs up to $8,000. Comet is beating cancer thanks to a stem cell transplant. That tab is $45,000.

New York veterinarian Dr. Amy Attas says these days, pet lovers demand nothing but the best for their ailing pets. Her business is strictly house-call. She even makes the rounds in a chauffeur driven town car.

Roker: “When you go into people's homes, what seems to strike you the most?”

Dr. Attas: “Everyone considers their pets to be their furry children. They ask me all the time, is there anything else I can do for my pet to make them happier or healthier?”

Stephanie Lichten understands. When 3-year-old Lucy, her tiny Chihuahua, was diagnosed with a condition causing her brain to be compressed, Stephanie chose to risk surgery to remove part of Lucy's skull at a cost of $3,000. Though the complicated procedure is very new and Lucy is one of the tiniest dogs to ever have the surgery, to Stephanie's immense relief, it was a success.

The breakthroughs in animal medical care are staggering. For example, it's lethal when ingested, but using a form of anti-freeze, that's right, anti-freeze, researchers at Purdue University actually reversed paralysis in dogs. It's animal medicine so pioneering researchers are now seeking FDA approval to test it on humans.

At canine rehab clinics like Dr. Joseph DeLucia's in New Jersey, injured dogs learn to walk again with underwater electrical stimulation and a $40,000 treadmill. He says that veterinarians will give up early, but that the owners are desperate for hope.

Tim DeLorenzo is a perfect example. Since his one-year-old puppy Flashy suddenly lost the use of her back legs, he's spent $6,000 on therapy.

Tim: “I wasn't just going to give up on her, put her to sleep like most people were recommending.”

Still, with 58 percent of pet owners confessing they visit their vet more often than their own doctors, is it too much? Psychologist and pet loss counselor Dr. Herb Nieburg says some things may well be over-the-top.

Dr. Nieburg: “I had a young girl that I saw the other day, was told by the vet that her animal was obese and was in danger. And she wanted to know where the animal could have gastric bypass surgery.”

Roker: “No. A gastric bypass on a dog?”

Dr. Nieburg: “Absolutely.”

Think that's extreme? How about plastic surgery? That's right, a little nip tuck for Fido. L.A. pet surgeon Dr. Alan Schulman has heard it all.

Dr. Schulman: “We have people that ask us for botox and for collagen.”

Roker: “are you serious?”   

Dr. Schulman: “Yeah. I don't like the wrinkles. I want to take the wrinkles out. That's when you give them the telephone number for one of your friends who is a psychotherapist.”

Dr. Schulman does perform cosmetic procedures on pets, but only for medical reasons, a liptuck or eyelift for instance when extra folds cause infection. And he adamantly refuses to implant the increasingly popular "neuticles."

Roker: “What are neuticles?”

Dr. Schulman: “They are testicular implants.”

Roker: “Why? Why, Why?”

Dr. Schulman: “If their dog is neutered, oh my God. I mean, how embarrassing.”

Roker: “Who's embarrassed?”

Dr. Schulman: “Well, the end of the leash that's holding it. And the reason I know it's an issue is because the majority of them want the next size up implant than what their dog had naturally!”

Even Woody's parents, Heather and Jimmy, who openly admit to treating Woody more like a person than a dog, find that one hard to comprehend. And Dr. Attas cautions that taking extraordinary measures to treat pets like people could be a dangerous trend because they don’t live as long as people do.

Of course, you could always try cloning. A Texas woman forked over $50,000 to genetically duplicate her deceased cat and in December, little Nicky made history as the first cloned-to-order pet.

If cloning is too steep, well, for a couple thousand, taxidermy is an alternative. At Mac's Taxidermy in Pennsylvania, it's not just deer heads anymore. Mike McCullough does brisk business with a special chamber for freeze-drying pets. 

Kim Vail brought her family's beloved dog Buster to Mac's after he was killed by a car.

Kim: “This was the only way I was able to get past him dying was the fact that I knew we'd have him forever.”

After months in the freeze-dry chamber, Buster was touched up with an airbrush and presented to the entire Vail family.

Freezing Fido in time isn't everyone's cup of tea, but Dr. Nieburg says it underscores the intensity of our love affair with pets, our desire to do anything to extend our time with them.

Dr. Nieburg: “It's all part of remembering. It's all part of the difficulty in letting go.”

Heather: “I want my dog to live forever. Even though I know most Yorkies live 15 years, you don't even want to think of that.”

Red carpet life for celebrity pets

They stroll the red carpet, pose for the paparazzi and even hit the evening talk shows. Such is the pampered life of a celebrity pet.

Nicollette Sheridan: “For Christmas he flew in a private jet and then took a helicopter and then was on a four-wheeler the next day.”

Extravagant? You bet. But Oliver, the pampered pup of "Desperate Housewives" actress Nicollette Sheridan, is hardly the most spoiled pooch of the Beverly Hills pet set.

Wendy Diamond: “I think Paris Hilton's dog is the most pampered in the sense of clothes and everything.”

Wendy Diamond's "Animal Fair" magazine always features a pet loving celebrity on the cover.  She says Paris Hilton's Chihuahua Tinkerbell is definitely living the doggy diva life.

Diamond: “Tinkerbell is a little like Paris, you know, loves to go out at night, get dressed in skimpy outfits.”

Tinkerbell has it so good, other dogs actually wear t-shirts proclaiming their envy. Stars love to splurge on their spoiled pets. Whitney Houston dropped two grand in one shopping spree at Miami's "Teacups Boutique." At LA's celeb-favored "Fifi&Romeo," Cameron Diaz spent $5,000 on cashmere doggy quilts. But Tamar Geller, an L.A. dog trainer who's roster of star clientele includes Ben Affleck and Courtney Cox, cautions celebs to curb their pet doting ways if they want well-behaved pooches.

Roker: “In dog training, is it just as important for the human, in a way, to be trained as their dog?”

Tamar Geller: “Completely. Otherwise, your dog may listen to me but they are like [waves finger] for you.”

Geller, a former intelligence officer for the Israeli army, teaches famous clients like actor Michael Vartan, who stars in the hit show "Alias," how to reinforce good doggy behavior.

Michael Vartan: “Every time she does something, I praise, and I can't do it on camera, because you'll think this guy is a lunatic.”

Roker: “Oh come on, you’ve got to do it.”

Vartan: “Like you know if she sits down, ‘good sit!’"

Millie, Vartan's year and a half old chocolate labrador, accompanies him to the set of Alias every day. But Vartan, who grew up in France, claims the whole pet pampering thing is just a little beyond him.

Vartan: “Very rarely in Europe would you see a dog wearing a little coat or socks or whatever.”

Roker: “Or a Mets collar.”

Vartan: “Or a Mets collar. You're right. That's a good point. Touché.”

Millie does sport a special collar honoring Vartan's love of the New York Mets baseball team and Vartan confesses he also owns this doggy DVD. That's right, a DVD made exclusively for canine viewing.

Roker: “She watches it?”

Vartan: “Oh my God. She stares at this video like she's there.”

Still, Vartan says his puppy love definitely has its limits.

Roker: “Are you a dog owner who leaves messages on the answering machine for your dog?”

Vartan: “No!”

Roker: “No?”

Vartan: “I'd never thought of that! But my God, I will start. That's fantastic.”

Nicollette Sheridan is another Geller client. The long-time dog lover graces the cover of Christopher Ameruoso's new book, "Pets and Their Stars" with her 8-year-old dog Fatty Princess. But now there's a second doggy love in her life: Oliver, that7-month old golden retriever.

Sheridan: “The moment I got him, he had me wrapped around his little puppy pad. Let me tell you.”

Roker: “What kind of things do you do to spoil Oliver?”

Sheridan: “We took a bath together.”

Roker: “You took a bath with your—“

Sheridan: “We're very close.”

Roker: “You're very close.”

Sheridan: Yes.”

So close that in January the sexy actress ran out of her house naked to rescue Oliver from her freezing pool.

Sheridan: “I had a very high fever, and whenever I have a very high fever I will take on cleaning tasks in the house--

Roker: “So you're doing housework with a high fever.”  

Sheridan: “Yeah.” 

Roker: “Naked?”  

Sheridan: “Yes, and the next thing I see isthis little black nose and these black eyes in the pool. I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ So, yeah. I ran outside, jumped in the pool, and saved him.”

Roker: “From what I gather, he didn't really need saving?”

Sheridan: “He's a golden retriever. He's a water dog.”

Roker: “So Oliver is a real water baby. Does he swim everyday?”

Sheridan: “Yes. He comes in completely soaking wet, shakes all over me and the furniture.”

Roker: ”Does that thing” 

Sheridan: “That was very good. That's exactly what he sounds like. Do it again. I love it. Very good. Did you see that?”

Sheridan wanted me to see just how well her darling Oliver could swim, but he refused to play along. So clothes and all, Sheridan showed him how it's done and he finally got the hint.

And it's not just dogs that celebrities go ga-ga for. NBC Today Show entertainment correspondent Jill Rappaport's best selling book, "People We Know, Horses They Love," reveals the intense bond stars like Robert Redford and Kelsey Grammar form with their horses.

Jill Rappaport: “They're in such a hectic, wild, red carpet world. These animals take them back down, not to sound corny, but back down to nature and to the basics where they can just be themselves.”

Christie Brinkley: “I just love seeing the world from the back of a horse.”

Covergirl and avid horse-lover Christie Brinkley says there's just nothing like being in that saddle

Christie Brinkley: “You’re so in touch with everything, the sound of the birds and the way the breeze brushes up against you.”

Some stars prefer something more slippery brushing up against them, like L.A. Clippers basketball player Mikki Moore, who has a thing for reptiles.

Roker: “Oh my God. That's a big snake!”

Mikki Moore: “I can't get him off right now.”

Roker: “Wow, he likes bling.”

The bling-loving snake is just one of four Moore keeps in his L.A. apartment.

Roker: “Your big snake. Could he kill you?”

Moore: “Yeah. He could sneak up on me and strangle me.”  

Roker: “See, that's what I want in a pet.” 

Moore says he likes snakes because they're easy, no pampering required.

Roker: “So you don't have any sweaters for your snakes?”

Moore: “No, no sweaters, no little trinkets for it to play with. None of that. Here's a rat for you, here's some water…have a nice day.”

Yep, in L.A. that's just the way it goes. Some pets living in the lap of celebrity luxury get cashmere sweaters and red carpets; others get only water and the occasional brush with bling.

When Fido is the celebrity

Call it a canine audition. Bash Dibra, author of the new book, "Star Pet: How to Make Your Pet a Star," is looking fordogs with the potential to star in commercials and movies, dogs with that "it" factor. Dibra says a successful dog can earn as much as $50,000 a year. That translates to a lot of kibble.

Among the hopeful pooches is our own Woody, dog number 11. On the audition stage, he strikes a picture-perfect pose, then mom Heather shows how he can bark "I love you."

Celebrity pets have been around for decades. Who could forget Lassie, Benji or Toto? And now you can find talented pets everywhere. On Broadway, eight dogs hit the stage in the new show, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," on the runway in February, doggy models unveiled Target's new line of petwear.

On television, we've had Morris the cat and Gidget the Taco Bell Chihuahua. And on the big screen, there's Bruiser in "Legally Blonde," and Frank the pug in "Men in Black." New York Veterinarian Dr. Amy Attas' dog Winston is such a dead ringer for Frank, he could probably sign pawtographs.

Some pets become stars because they hang with the right people. Minnie, a regular on MTV's "The Osbournes," is Sharon Osbourne's beloved Pomeranian. Minnie even gets her nails painted to match mommy's. And like all of Sharon and rocker husband Ozzy's 14 dogs, this diva drinks only bottled water.

At the Osbourne's Beverly Hills mansion, spoiling is the name of the game. The dogs, whose portraits grace the staircase, have free run of the pool and the waterfall. And when it comes to pampering, nothing's off limits, even if that means a little nip tuck.

Sharon Osbourne: “Ozzie's favorite dog ever was a bulldog. And his folds were so heavy that he had to have a facelift.”

Roker: “He had a facelift?”

Osbourne: “He had a facelift before me. I was jealous!” 

Other pets are famous for where they live – like the ones at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion. Holly Madison, Hef's "main gal," took me on a tour of the mansion zoo, home to some 200 animals.

Roker: “You've got everything from bunnies, obviously…”

Hugh Hefner: “Of course.”

Roker: “To monkeys. Why such an exotic menagerie in your backyard?”

Hefner: “Walking through the woods, and the interconnection to the animals here, is almost a spiritual experience for me.”

Roker: “Do you ever talk in a different voice, kind of like baby talk or anything to your pets?”

Hefner: “No, no, no, I don't do that, no.”

Roker: “No, no, no, no, no?”

Hefner: “Maybe I do, who knows?”

Back at the canine audition, Woody is still working on getting his 15 minutes of fame. Star pet trainer Bash Dibra wants to see if he can follow the kind of basic commands a photo shoot would entail. So is Woody Hollywood material? As Heather and Jimmy await the verdict, Dibra reviews the audition photos.

Dibra: “Oh that's beautiful, yeah Woody has it. I think he has star quality all the way. First we'd start with print jobs, eventually a TV series, a sitcom.”

Just imagine Woody's first Emmy. Those are big dreams for a little dog, and his parents couldn't be prouder.

First pets of the White House

Puppy love isn't all about cashmere and diamonds, in millions of homes all across America, pets are just part of the family -- and that includes the White House, which could very well be called the dog house.  Some 200 dogs have lived at this famous address, which may be why Harry Truman once said "if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

It's advice President Bush takes to heart

President Bush: “It's one of the few beings that you can talk to without somebody debating you all the time.”

The President has two canine confidants in his administration, the first lady's 7-month-old puppy Miss Beazley and his own steadfast companion, 4-year-old Barney. I met the First dogs, who are both Scottish terriers, and the first cat, India, in the Oval Office.

Roker: ”How is it having a cat with all these dogs?”

Laura Bush: “The cat immediately put Beasley into her place when she came with a few slaps.”

President Bush: “Hey Barney, you know Al? This is Al.”

Roker: “He's not very impressed.”

Barney has reason to play it cool. After all, how many dogs can say they've rubbed paws with world leaders or been saluted by marines?

Roker: “He's got the top security clearance, doesn't he?”

President Bush: “he does, Barney, plus he knows a lot about policy.”

Roker: “Really?”

President Bush: “Yeah.”

Roker: “He's a wonk.”

President Bush: “He's a wonk.”

Barney even stars in his own "Barney cam" videos, which are posted on the White House website to give fans a peek at the adventures of a First dog. But his most important role is President's best friend.

President Bush: “Barney is like, kind of like the son I never had.”

The president's fondness for his pooch echoes that of Franklin Roosevelt, who was so attached to hisScottish Terrier, Fala, he's even memorialized with him. Claire McLean, who runs the presidential pet museum in Lothian, Md., says that kind of genuine animal love humanizes a commander-in-chief.

Mclean: “They have such power and such prestige. The fact that they love animals and have animals make the American people feel even more connected to them.”

In fact, only three of our 43 presidents have been pet-less: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Chester Alan Arthur. And from Calvin Coolidge's raccoon to Caroline Kennedy's pony, Macaroni, almost every kind of pet you can imagine has roamed these famous grounds.

Mclean: “We had wallabies, we had tigers. In fact, Van Buren had two tiger cubs that he fought Congress to keep.”

Don't expect any Tigers to show up in the Bush White House. India the cat is perfectly content playing the role of first feline, though unlike Beasley and Barney, she isn't one to romp on the South Lawn.

Every day, the President tries to steal 15 minutes outside, and he loves to get in a little putting relief with Barney.

Roker: “Now what's his handicap?”

President Bush: “Four paws.”

But being a world leader is no guarantee your dog will be in the mood to hit the links.

President Bush: “Come on Barn. Barney. This dog spent a lot of time in obedience school as you can tell. And we're asking for a refund. Forget golf.”

Video: White House pets Soccer didn't go over so well either.

President Bush: “Notice how he immediately charges the ball.”

Yep, even at the White House, where the first dogs have free run of the most important red carpet in the nation, things aren't so different from other pet homes. With first twins Jenna and Barbara now college graduates, the pets even help fill the empty nest void.

Laura Bush: “Since the girls are gone, it's great to have the pets now.”

Roker: “How do the girls feel about the pets?”

Laura Bush: “They love them”

President Bush: “There's been a disconnect in our family between love and the willingness to actually feed the dogs.”

Roker: “That happens here?”

President Bush: “I'm afraid it does.”

Roker: “I can't believe it.”

President Bush: “If we had to rely upon the girls the dogs would be like totally starved!”

And if you're among the 78 percent of pet owners who confess to talking to your pet in a different voice, you've got company at this Washington address.

Roker: “Do you guys ever talk baby talk to the pets?”

Laura Bush: “I do to Beasley a lot.”

President Bush: “I will never admit it.”

Roker: “Does he talk baby talk?”

Laura Bush: “No, not really.”

President Bush: Well—“

Roker: “Uh-oh.”

President Bush: “Of course everybody talks baby talk to their pets.”

Roker: “Sixty-three percent of people admit to kissing their dogs.”

Laura Bush: “We kiss ours.”

Roker: “Yeah? You're a part of that group?”

President Bush: “I wouldn't say on a regular basis. But yeah, I've been there.” 

In fact, the President credits his pups with keeping him grounded.

President Bush: “They help me relax. There's something soothing about having a pet.”

Roker: “It's that unconditional love.”

President Bush: “It is unconditional love. And the pets give it back.”

So, it really doesn't matter who you are, whether it's the president having a tense day, or little Woody's mom Heather having a blue one, our pets seem to know exactly what we need.

Heather: “There's times where I don't want to get out of bed. And you're just like, all of a sudden your dog's licking your face. And it just snaps you out of it.”

Yes, we're crazy in love all right. From the very top down, we are one bona fide pet nation.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

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