After four years of no dogs in the White House during Trump’s presidency, Joe Biden’s dogs brought back that time-honored tradition in 2020. “How would I look walking a dog on the White House lawn? Would that be right?,” Trump asked during a 2019 campaign rally in El Paso, TX. (via ABC News). “I don’t know. Feels a little phony, phony to me.”
The Biden family didn’t need to answer those existential questions as they would eventually bring three German Shepherds to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Affectionately known as “The First Dog,” Champ was adopted in 2008, the year Biden was elected Vice President (via Reuters). Named after the nickname Biden’s father gave him as a child, Champ unfortunately passed away on June 19, 2021 at the age of 13.
“Our hearts are heavy today as we let you all know that our beloved German Shepherd, Champ, passed away peacefully at home,” the Biden’s said in an official White House statement. “He was our constant, cherished companion during the last 13 years and was adored by the entire Biden family.”
“In our most joyful moments and in our most grief-stricken days, he was there with us, sensitive to our every unspoken feeling and emotion,” the statement continued. “We love our sweet, good boy and will miss him always.”
In 2018, Biden adopted a second dog, Major, from the Delaware Humane Society. Also a German Shepherd, Major became the first rescue dog in White House history (via The New York Times). According to a Facebook post by Humane Animal Partners, Major and his litter mates were exposed to “something toxic” shortly after birth. “Their original owner was unable to afford veterinary care so they surrendered them,” the post explained.
However, Major had some trouble settling in at his new residence. In March 2021, Major was sent to Biden’s Delaware home after he “nipped” a Secret Service agent, Today reported. A month later, Major was back at the White House two weeks later after receiving training. Biden chalked the incident up to Major being startled by a stranger. “You turn a corner, and there’s two people you don’t know at all,” Biden said (via NPR). “And he moves to protect.”
Later that month, CNN reported Major bit a National Park Service employee working on the White House South Lawn. “Yes, Major nipped someone on a walk. Out of an abundance of caution, the individual was seen by [White House Medical Unit] and then returned to work without injury,” Jill Biden’s press secretary Michael LaRosa said. He added that Major was “still adjusting to his new surroundings.”
A gift from Biden’s brother and sister-in-law, Commander moved into the White House on December 20, 2021, CNN reported.
On October 4, 2023, the Daily Mail reported that Commander bit White House grounds superintendent Dale Haney. The next day, CNN reported that, during his time at the White House, Commander had bitten 11 people.
Although Jill Biden’s communications director Elizabeth Alexander stated “The President and First Lady care deeply about the safety of those who work at the White House,” the incidents have caused “stress” and created a “combustible relationship” with the Secret Service. ““We’re beyond the point of worrying about trust being broken. We have to speak up,” source within the security detail told the outlet.
Former US Secret Service Agent to the Obama’s, Jonathan Wackrow, didn’t mince words. “[Y]ou can’t bring a hazard into the workplace and that’s what is essentially happening with this dog, he said. “One time, you can say it’s an accident, but now multiple incidents is a serious issue,” he stated.
Documents made public under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that during a four-month period, Commander exhibited “extremely aggressive behavior” towards White House staff, sometimes charging them (via CBS News). One Secret Service officer stated he required a “steel cart to shield” to keep Commander at bay.
On October 5, 2023, the BBC reported that Commander was moved out the White House.
The challenges of raising dogs in the White House
Raising dogs in the White House is a unique challenge. The dogs are subjected to a lot of stress and excitement, and they must be able to adapt to a constantly changing environment. In addition, the dogs must be able to interact with a wide variety of people, from Secret Service agents to world leaders.
President of Mid-Atlantic German Shepherd Rescue, Ryan Bulson, believes consistency might be the underlying issue. “It’s a German shepherd. They need structure …. consistency …. boundaries. They are a guardian breed,” he told CNN. “When you’re looking at different people holding that leash, I would guarantee that there is no consistency amongst all of them,”
The importance of dog training
It is clear that Biden’s dogs have faced some challenges in adapting to their new life in the White House. However, it is important to remember that all dogs require training, and this is especially true for dogs who live in this unique situation.