Kent Conrad and his Dakota

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad holds the leash for Dakota while talking Monday on Capitol Hill with Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, who commands the Army Corps of Engineers' Mississippi Valley Division. © Kristen Daum / The Forum

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad arrived Monday morning to the Red River diversion meetings on Capitol Hill, he had in tow his white bichon frise, who trotted loyally a few feet behind him.

Many locals in the room weren’t sure what to expect of the day-to-day decorum in Washington D.C., and at least some of us couldn’t help but wonder: What’s up with the dog?

Well, Conrad’s dog Dakota is actually infamous around the halls of Congress. The dog usually goes almost everywhere with the senator (except any of the food service areas and the Senate floor, where dogs are not allowed). Their excursions around the Hill are even mentioned somewhat often by D.C. congressional publications.

While it might seem strikingly odd to see a dog wandering around the formal and ornate halls of Capitol Hill, Conrad’s situation is not unique. The Washington Post ran a photo story recently, detailing the stories of about two dozen members of Congress who take their canine companions to work with them. (Among the most recent member to join the ranks is none other than Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, with his dog, Blaine.)

One of my favorite parts about being able to report from Washington, D.C. this week is meeting with and seeing our North Dakota and Minnesota senators and representatives in their elements here in the halls of Congress.

I hope the story in today’s edition of The Forum gives you a glimpse into that world that we can’t often see up-close from back home.

Check out photos of Conrad and Dakota on this InForum photo gallery, and you can read the feature story in todays edition of The Forum:

A senator and his dog
Conrad, other lawmakers bring dogs to work

By: Kristen Daum, INFORUM

Conrad holds his dog Dakota during a break between the two Red River diversion meetings Monday on Capitol Hill. © Kristen Daum / The Forum

WASHINGTON – Dakota looked up at Kent Conrad with loving eyes, expectant and curious about what was next on the day’s schedule.

The white bichon frise eagerly followed the U.S. senator from North Dakota, trotting behind him as he walked down the hallway toward his corner office on Capitol Hill.

Inside the ornate room, Dakota automatically hopped into Conrad’s yellow wingback chair, nestling in beside the senator for some afternoon shuteye.

A few feet away, a glass bowl filled with drinking water sat near the senator’s desk on blue carpet emblazoned with the U.S. Senate emblem.

It seemed an unexpected sight Tuesday amid such formal surroundings, but members of Congress say it’s not uncommon to see Conrad attend to business on the Hill with his loyal canine friend in tow.

Conrad and his wife, Lucy, adopted Dakota about 15 months ago from a shelter in Maryland.

Conrad said doctors guess Dakota is about 6 years old, but don’t know for sure because he was found starving to death after having been abandoned.

Due to that trauma, Conrad says Dakota needs extra care and attention.

“Because he was abandoned, he can’t be left alone,” Conrad said. “If he’s left alone, he just shakes uncontrollably. It’s very sad.”

The dog comes with Conrad almost daily to Capitol Hill – sometimes waiting in the office with others while Conrad attends meetings and casts votes in the Capitol, but other times tagging along.

“That’s how I get his walks in,” Conrad joked.

If Dakota isn’t with the senator, his wife or family, friends and neighbors will volunteer to watch him – or if necessary, they’ll hire a dog-sitter, Conrad said.

Sunday night, though, Dakota mischievously snuck a lingering piece of cheese off a plate and suffered early Monday from a rare attack caused by Crohn’s disease, which affects the digestive system.

So Conrad decided to bring the dog with him while he attended two meetings with local, state and federal officials about the proposed Red River Diversion.

“I wanted to make sure I was there with him, because I know when something is about to happen,” Conrad said with paternal affection.

But during those four hours of meetings, Dakota was unseen and unheard as he lay underneath the main conference table – living up to his reputation as “one of the calmest dogs you’ll meet.”

Conrad is among about two dozen members of Congress known to routinely bring their dogs to work, a list that includes Minnesota Sen. Al Franken.

Franken’s newly adopted dog, Blaine, often wanders around the senator’s Capitol Hill office, bringing smiles to visitors and staff.

Having a dog around provides a boost in an office complex driven by government business and politics, Conrad said.

“He is great for morale in the office and great with visitors from North Dakota,” Conrad said. “You see this little guy trotting down the hall, and he puts a smile on people’s faces.”

Dakota makes friends easily on Capitol Hill – even across party lines.

Senators who sit on the Budget Committee, which Conrad oversees, confirmed that sometimes Dakota will even attend their committee meetings.

“We know his dog well,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who added jokingly: “We know Kent loves that dog more than anything, and if you want something from Kent, you better love his dog, too.”

“It’s the cutest thing,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. “That dog is just so devoted to Kent. It’s amazing.”

Like Conrad, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is a fellow dog lover and said the dog’s presence “reduces everyone’s blood pressure quite a bit.”

“And there seems to be a genuine bond of affection between the senator and Dakota,” Cornyn added.

Conrad acknowledged that the bond with his dog goes deep.

“This little guy has become part of our family,” Conrad said, lovingly patting Dakota’s head lightly as the dog lay still quietly resting on his knee.