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The Bidens’ Dog Keeps Biting People. Why? – Slate

Commander, the Bidens’ dog, is a workplace hazard. The 2-year-old German shepherd reportedly bit another person this week, bringing his total to 11 such incidents in the past year. In at least one incident, a Secret Service agent was taken to the hospital. If you’re a White House employee—and in particular a Secret Service agent—Commander poses a genuine danger.
But you might recall that he isn’t the first Biden dog with a biting problem. The Bidens’ first White House dog, Champ, had been, as far as we know, a well-behaved German shepherd, but as he aged, the Bidens decided to get him a companion, “to keep Champ going.” They adopted their second dog, Major, another German shepherd, from a shelter in 2018. In 2021, after Major had had a couple of biting incidents, both Major and Champ were moved to the Biden family home in Delaware. (Champ died in June 2021, and Joe Biden’s brother James gave the president Commander as a birthday gift that December, meant, in part, as a replacement. )
So is it just bad luck that the Bidens got two snapping German shepherds? Or is there something else going on here?
Well, to get the boring answers out of the way: Animal behavior experts say that every individual pet is unique, and you can’t make any generalizations about them or their situation. There could be something that happened in their formative puppyhood months that put them on edge, or some medical issue or genetic quirk that makes them more anxious. A dog’s behavior is a complex mix of factors. We simply can’t know exactly what happened with Major and Commander that led them to be so aggressive.
That being said, past White House dogs have done fine (the Obama dogs, for example), and two problem dogs in a row almost makes a pattern, meaning there’s probably some part of the equation that’s gone wrong. And experts did have some guesses as to what that could be.
First, there’s the matter of the environment. We don’t know exactly where Commander spent his time, but we do know that he certainly came in contact with Secret Service agents.
“I can guess the environment is playing a big role here,” said Juliana DeWillems, the owner and head trainer at JW Dog Training & Behavior Consulting in the Washington, D.C., metro area. “For dogs that show aggressive behaviors, you need an environment that’s predictable, consistent, that’s able to be well-managed. And that’s what I imagine is the opposite of the White House, where it’s unpredictable; there’s likely lots of changes, people coming and going day to day. It’s chaotic. I imagine it’s a very stressful environment for a dog that’s experiencing behavior challenges.”
The Biden family has said as much.
“As we’ve noted before, the White House can be a stressful environment for family pets, and the first family continues to work on ways to help Commander handle the often unpredictable nature of the White House grounds,” a spokesperson for Jill Biden said in a statement to press on Wednesday.
Then, there’s the genetics. Any dog expert will tell you that individuals should be treated as individuals, that there are sweet and docile dogs of any breed, just as there are mean golden retrievers out there. (“It doesn’t sound like he’s on the stable end of the well-adjusted side of the breed,” DeWillems said.) But that doesn’t mean there aren’t general differences among the breeds. Suzanne Clothier, an animal trainer who breeds German shepherds, suggested that the Bidens might have fixated on the wrong breed for their lifestyle.
“I’ve bred shepherds since the ’80s, and I would not put any of my wonderful young dogs in that setting and not expect something to go wrong,” Clothier said.
According to Clothier, German shepherds were bred to do two tasks. The first was, as the name suggests, herding sheep in continental Europe and working as a sort of “living fence” to keep the flock in a certain field. This meant they had to be intelligent, athletic, and alert. And they were bred to be guard dogs, with a frightening bark to hold intruders in place until someone arrived to check out the potential threat. (“Aside from the Labrador, it’s the world’s most versatile breed,” Clothier said.) This intelligence and acute spatial awareness have made the dog useful as a guide or therapy dog, but have also given it its more unsavory reputation in military and police work.
“The guarding-dog tendency to say ‘Who’s in this space’ makes them very aware of who comes and who goes,” Clothier said. “So you can imagine how that works out in the White House, where people come and go all the time.”
And once Commander got a reputation as a danger, that probably made things worse, she said. When people start to approach the dog more hesitantly, it makes the dog suspicious. “That great intelligence is a double-edged sword,” she said. “They take note, and they remember. It’s a good thing when you’re training them. It makes them a joy to work with. But they also take note of other stuff: ‘That guy’s afraid of me, and when I bark at him, he backpedals.’ ”
The problem there is that the dog can read the body language of a person who seems to be anticipating conflict as inherently threatening—particularly when they don’t understand that there’s a reason for the person’s strange behavior.
“He’s unaware that his reputation precedes him,” she said.
So you have an unusually intelligent breed of dog, genetically designed to be on the lookout for strangers and to act threatening when dealing with unknown factors, being bombarded by strangers all day in a chaotic and ever-changing environment.
“You don’t give a 16-year-old a can of beer and keys to a car and wonder why something went wrong,” Clothier said. “He’s telling you, ‘I don’t have the skills for this situation.’ ”
And on top of that, Commander is 2—a young adult in human development, Clothier said. “Like any 18- or 20-year old young man feeling his oats, he may not make the best choices.”
So what should the Bidens do? If they were really committed to keeping Commander with them, the dog would need a dedicated handler for training and exercise. (The White House has said that it was working on “additional leashing protocols and training” after the latest incident.) DeWillems said that muzzle training could prevent further attacks. He would also need to be trained on the specific environmental triggers of the White House setting, and to minimize his sense of anxiety, he could be given a more restricted space. (“I’m thinking as a dog trainer,” Clothier said, “but the Oval Office has plenty of room for a nice pen where he can hang out with Joe and not bother people.”
And, most importantly, he’d need to be kept away from anyone he doesn’t know. “My question with this is how Commander still has access to people to bite at all,” DeWillems said. “His environment should be so well-managed that if you know he’s a bite risk, he’s only going to be around people he feels safe and comfortable and well-behaved around.”
But both Clothier and DeWillems said that ultimately, it seemed that the best thing for the dog would be to remove it from the White House altogether. (This would also be the best thing for the Secret Service agents.)
“I feel bad for the Bidens; I can imagine the stress that takes, and the comfort of a dog is no small thing,” Clothier said. “But I think that’s the problem in the White House: The Bidens clearly love their dogs, but after a day of being a world leader, acting as a dog trainer is—well, it’s hard enough to have a pet if you just work at Walmart, never mind run the U.S.”
Slate is published by The Slate Group, a Graham Holdings Company.
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