The Goldwater Rule prohibits mental health professionals from diagnosing presidents from afar. It does not, however, apply to their pets. And so we must respectfully ask: What’s the deal with Major Biden?
President Joe Biden’s 3-year-old German shepherd has been the source of two “biting incidents” in less than a month, first nipping a Secret Service member’s hand and then biting another staff member while out on a walk. Neither bite resulted in serious injuries, but they did generate some bad press. Also, The Associated Press reported that one of the president’s two German shepherds — maybe it was 12-year-old Champ, but let’s not kid ourselves — left a pile of poop in the hallway outside the Diplomatic Reception Room. A spokesperson for Jill Biden announced on Monday that Major would undergo private training “off site,” and that it would last a few weeks.
Is Major a Good Boy? The answer holds no bearing on the future of our republic, but to the extent that the first family reflects the American experience, and owning dogs and being vexed by their behavior is a hallmark of American life, we decided it was worth gnawing on, briefly, before sniffing our way to something more pressing.
To begin with, we tried asking Mark Tobin, the president’s dog trainer. A former police officer and K-9 coordinator in Delaware, Tobin trained both Biden dogs. He had been game to talk about them in January, before the “biting incidents,” but this time he told The Washington Post he had signed an agreement prohibiting him from talking to the press. He confirmed that he’s still working with the Biden dogs, but beyond that? “I can’t comment.”
Very well. Guess we’ll have to start from the outside and work our way in.
Major is a German shepherd. Could this be a German shepherd thing?
Absolutely not, says the German Shepherd Dog Club of America.
“This is one of the greatest breeds of dog on the planet,” says Vicki Bemont, a dog trainer who serves on the club’s education committee. “For every German shepherd that acts inappropriately, you’re going to find many, many more who do the right thing every single day in service to mankind.”
Bemont said it would be a “real shame” if reports of Major’s behavior tarnished the reputation of the breed, but she said she’s not worried about that. She described German shepherds in a way that made them seem like model citizens of the dog-human alliance. “They want to do the right thing,” she said. “And if you tap into some of their natural instincts, I think they’re one of the easiest breeds to train that there is.”
Let’s assume it’s not the breed. What about the circumstances? Leigh Dempsey, a Delaware dog trainer, said that moving from Wilmington to Washington might have been disorienting. “Everybody knew at some point that Major and Champ were going to the White House,” said Dempsey. “The only two that didn’t know were Major and Champ.”
OK, you might be thinking, but Champ hasn’t bitten anyone since moving to the White House. Granted, Champ is an old dog, who has long since grown out of his hyper youth. (Major, still in the throes of young adulthood, has what Tobin, his trainer, described in January as “a high drive.”)
Moving to the White House may mean more than adjusting to new physical surroundings. Major’s humans might be a bit busier than usual, not around as much.
“He’s probably not being handled by the people that he knows and trusts the most, which were the president and first lady,” says Dempsey. “All of that can just be very overwhelming and stressful for any dog.”
We should probably talk about the foot injury President Biden sustained while playing with Major in November, in Delaware. Remember? The one that sent the 77-year-old president-elect to the doctor in the middle of the most fragile and dangerous presidential transition in living memory?
In a December interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Biden put the blame on himself, explaining that he had decided to throw a ball for Major while returning to his bedroom from the shower, and ended up chasing after the dog (?) and trying to grab his tail (???) before tripping on a rug that Major had pushed out of place during his escape.
So perhaps we can dismiss this minor Major incident as a classic case of an unclothed septuagenarian pet owner injuring himself while pursuing his dog down a hallway to seize its tail and commandeer its toy. Not as a portentous instance of misbehavior — nor, for that matter, an attack on American democracy — by a Bad Dog.
Major is not the only presidential dog to embarrass its owners by acting out. Sunny, one of President Barack Obama’s two Portuguese water dogs, knocked over a 2-year-old at a holiday party (the child was not injured). Barney, President George W. Bush’s Scottish terrier, bit a Reuters reporter so hard that he bled and needed a tetanus shot (“Barney was a real jerk,” the president’s daughter, Jenna Bush Hager, later declared).
None of those dogs were as bad as Teddy Roosevelt’s dog Pete, a prolific biter who “chased a South American diplomat up a tree and incidentally chewed two or three policemen who went to the aid of the distinguished foreigner,” according to a 1907 report. Pete reportedly tore the pants off French Ambassador Jules Jusserand, forcing the French government to issue a formal complaint about the dog, who was then rehomed.
By comparison, Major is doing just fine. He has not toppled any toddlers. He has not attacked the free press. He has not drawn any blood or ripped any pants. He has not alienated any foreign dignitaries.
In the Trump years, it was considered scandalous in some quarters that the president didn’t have a dog, launching a thousand refrains of the “If you want a friend in Washington …” joke.
“How does the president not have a dog?” asked an incredulous Barbra Streisand, who famously had her Coton de Tulear cloned, in 2018. (President Donald Trump in 2019 said that he was too busy for a dog, and that walking one on the South Lawn “feels a little phony to me.”)
Look, if you wanted dogs back in the White House, well, now you’ve got them. And this is what some dogs sometimes do: They completely freak out when they’re in new environs. They have personalities, just like us. Some deal well with change, and some do not. People tend to have unrealistic expectations of how well animals can handle big changes, says Dempsey. And, just like humans, a lot depends on the individual.
“There’s some dogs that are going to do better in certain situations than others,” she says. “And if you know your dog and you know their personality and you know their boundaries and you respect those, dogs are very communicative, even just in their body language. That will give you cues or clues as to how they’re feeling.”
Maybe the story isn’t: Major Biden … Bad Dog?
Maybe the story is: Major Biden … poor dog.
“Some of the messages I’ve gotten are very judgmental,” says Patrick Carroll, the president of the Delaware Humane Association, the shelter where Major was adopted. “Some of my closest friends would send a text when those incidents happen and say, ‘Oooh, Major’s in the doghouse!’ ”
Carroll worries that people will attribute Major’s difficulties to his status as a former shelter dog. “What concerns me is comments like, ‘This is a thing that’s specific to shelter dogs,’ with behavior issues, and that just couldn’t be anything further from the truth,” he says. Many of the dogs that people surrender to his shelter due to behavioral problems are purebred dogs that a family had purchased, he added. He suspects that media interest in Major’s behavior is, perhaps, an example of “looking for drama that isn’t there.”
If they care about all this — and maybe they don’t! — it’s possible The American People will find the first family’s dog troubles relatable. Pascale Lemire, the author of “Dog Shaming,” sympathizes with the Bidens: She has a dachshund that bit her grandmother. The several trainers she hired to work with the dog weren’t able to cure its nippiness, and the 10-pound stubby wiener dog needed to be muzzled on walks.
“You have to think twice about bringing your dog to places. We have to be careful around little children,” she says. “It is super stressful on everybody.”
The key to Major’s success will be “not just training him, but really training the humans, too,” says Dempsey. “So whoever is working with him now off site should then, in my opinion, be going to the White House and either continuing to work with him or training the people who will be working with him and handling him.”
The important thing is that the training is happening, says Dempsey. By helping the dog to thrive in his environment, and not giving up on him, the Bidens are doing “exactly what any responsible dog owner should do,” she said.
But, uh, they should probably hold off on those plans to get a cat.