“Dog bites man” isn’t normally a headline that turns heads. However, when the dog belongs to the president of the United States and lives in the White House, and the man (or maybe woman—that detail has yet to be revealed) is a Secret Service agent, more attention is paid.
In a widely reported incident, three-year-old Major—the younger of the Bidens’ two German Shepherds—was startled by a Secret Service agent and responded by biting the agent’s hand. According to the White House press secretary, Major “was surprised by an unfamiliar person and reacted in a way that resulted in a minor injury to the individual, which was handled by the White House Medical Unit with no further treatment needed.” Other reports have said that skin was not broken, and the agent worked out the shift.
Presidential dogs behaving badly isn’t new. In the early 1900s, Pete, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Terrier, chased the French ambassador down a White House corridor and ripped off the bottom of his trousers. A couple of decades later, Franklin Roosevelt’s German Shepherd, who was also named Major (a former “police” dog), was well-known for taking exception to those around him, which included harassing the maids as they cleaned and ripping the seat out of visiting British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s trousers. In the more recent past, Barney, George W. Bush’s Scottish Terrier, nipped the finger of a reporter who tried to pet him. (Unlike the French ambassador, who filed a formal complaint, the reporter didn’t hold it against the dog, but he did get a tetanus shot.)
Let’s just say this upfront: Dogs bite; it’s one of the ways they communicate. Not good, but then, they can’t say, “Hey! Back off!” Put any dog—the best-behaved, best-socialized, best-trained dog you can think of—in a sufficiently stressful situation, and that dog is likely to bite. As well-known trainer Victoria Stilwell said in her Facebook Live video commentary, “Bites rarely come out of the blue; it’s just that humans are not very good at reading the signals, or if they do, they don’t take action on those signals.”
GET THE BARK NEWSLETTER IN YOUR INBOX!
Sign up and get the answers to your questions.
This is not to say that dog bites are okay or inconsequential, or that—especially if the recipient is a child who’s at face level with the dog—the outcome can’t be tragic. It can be. In this instance, as in many similar instances, it wasn’t, thankfully. Dog owners will find it hard not to empathize with the concern, embarrassment and possibly aggravation the Bidens are likely to have felt when they heard what happened.
Stilwell made some other excellent points in her video response. For example, in her opinion, the incident reflected a “perfect storm of circumstances”: a transition to a new home, many calls on the owners’ attention and misread signals. What does she prescribe? Adjust and manage the dogs’ environment, make their lives absolutely predictable through establishing and maintaining a schedule, and restrict their movements to areas in which they’re comfortable. It’s not about training, it’s about helping the young dog become more settled.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Delaware Humane Association (DHA) trainer Leigh Dempsey touched on some of the same points, particularly regarding the transition period. She referenced what she called “the rule of threes,” or the emotional progression a dog goes through when in a new situation. The first three days are a time of high stress, during which the dog needs to decompress; at three weeks in, the dog has started to acclimate; and after about three months, the dog reaches a point of comfort with the environment. Major is about halfway through the third stage. (The Bidens adopted Major in 2018 from the DHA after fostering him for several months.)
Both dogs are now back in Delaware in the care of family friends. (Champ, the 13-year-old, had no part in the brouhaha, but—as anyone with siblings has experienced—shared the consequences of Major’s behavior.) Despite early reports to the contrary, however, they weren’t banished. They were scheduled to be there while First Lady Dr. Jill Biden was away on a short tour of military bases. When they come back to the White House, it’s safe to bet that new protocols will be in place, along with renewed attention to helping Major settle in.
The Bidens did the right thing in the beginning by getting themselves moved into their new residence before introducing the dogs to it. Based on their clear devotion to Champ and Major, we’re confident they’ll figure out the best next steps—although Dr. Biden may wind up in charge of the program, since her husband has a few alligators to wrestle.