Commander Biden, the family’s 2-year-old German Shepherd, committed his 11th known bite last week. Coming on the heels of the transfer of Major, another Biden pet, for similar offenses, this pattern of behavior begs the question: WTH? Why are these dogs struggling in the White House?
On the surface, there seems to be a simple answer: The White House is a busy place where it is difficult to have a consistent routine for a dog. Dogs like predictable patterns. This explains the rules and helps them understand boundaries, something that is important for young dogs, especially. But 31 of the 45 other presidents have had dogs, and few have stirred the uproar (at least in public) that we’ve seen from the dogs belonging to the Biden family.
Of course, we cannot fully understand why Commander and Major, also a German Shepherd, had this problem when other early dogs, as far as we know, did not. But there are some general guidelines about dog behavior and what we know about their status in the White House that provide some insight into what’s going on — and what can be done about it.
Some dogs thrive in socially complex and busy environments while others struggle with a lack of structure. The reasons why run the gamut of genetics, learning history, environment and individual health and behavior.
But one of the big determinants is the breed. Different breeds have different characteristics because they are all bred to do different jobs, from warming a person’s womb to controlling rat populations in farms. Some are bred for protection work while others are intended to move animals from one place to another and warn us if there are predators.
In this photo, taken on Christmas day, 1932, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown with his family, including Major, the family dog.
While Presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy had German shepherds in the White House, historically many other breeds were well represented, such as setters, beagles and spaniels.
German Shepherds, as it happens, face a special challenge. They are meant to do two jobs rather than one. How confusing is that? Originally, they were shepherds, but are now widely used for their herding tendencies and strong work ethic. (They are dogs that need work. Their personalities lend themselves to guard work but they love to work.)
As a result, German Shepherds were bred to protect their territory by moving people. If they bark, howl and growl, people or other dogs should read that as a threat and back off. That way, the dog doesn’t have to bite.
As they enter adulthood, adolescent and young adult dogs naturally become more suspicious of strangers. A cycle can develop when a young dog practices these behaviors and then they are repeated over and over again – leading to more frequent compulsive displays of “intruders.” Without professional support, young dogs cannot tell the difference between real threats and perceived threats.
The commander likely gave plenty of warning signs before chomping in, but it’s likely that the busy White House staff had time to notice subtle signals like a freeze, a hard look or a raised lip. A dog’s body language is like a traffic signal that offers a lot of communication about when it’s safe or when to slow down. But if the yellow light is missed, the sudden RED signal and the resulting collision between tooth and skin is a terrible consequence.
Former President Bill Clinton holding his dog Buddy with first lady Hillary Clinton and their daughter Chelsea during their vacation at Saranac Lake, New York in August 2000.
Commander may also misread the staff as a threat. When he bites someone, he probably thinks he is doing his job. Unfortunately, that has turned out to be more of a workplace hazard than a protector.
You may be wondering if Commander is a dangerous dog. After all, he bit 11 people, one of whom had to be hospitalized. But the truth is that we need a lot more information to make a determination. Are the bites “nips” from the front teeth? Deep bites from the incisors? And what about the man who was hospitalized with two bites? Did the Commander get bitten once and then dive in to get bitten again? Or is the second bite after the person begins to retreat, as a herding instinct might dictate? Or is he caught and restrained after the first bite, only to redirect out of frustration and bite again?
However, we don’t need the answers to these questions to know that steps should be taken to avoid another bite. I see two possible options.
First, the Bidens will get Commander a dedicated handler — a humane dog professional who can help him understand when he’s off duty. He needs to know that he can relax in certain zones of the White House and not be responsible for keeping everyone safe. He will benefit from learning manners that are more respectful and appropriate than forceful displays of communication.
If he is unsupervised, I believe he should spend time in a safe, supervised place where he can sleep and not hurt anyone. Baby gates or other barriers may not be common in the design of the White House decoration, but they can be instrumental in preventing the Commander from making further mistakes.
On the other hand, Commander can live with someone who gives him a new sense of purpose. German Shepherds excel in search and rescue work because of their strong work ethic and intelligence. Perhaps the best post for the Commander is not in the president’s busy home.
If the Bidens take that course and want to get a dog to live in the White House, an easy, welcoming behavior would be ideal. Labradors, golden retrievers, spaniels and beagles have all been successful presidential dogs in the past and have the potential to be friendly, social additions to the White House.
Or, if they’re looking for a simpler, less dramatic pet, they might take a page from the book of Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of the sixth president, John Quincy Adams, who kept silkworms. They are less likely to stir up a scandal or put the president’s staff in the hospital.