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President Biden’s ‘Shelter Rescue’ Dog Bites Again – Aggression, Protection or Fear?

ANIMAL WATCH-Major, the shelter dog fostered by President Joe Biden as a puppy and then adopted from the Delaware Humane Society, has bitten twice since being moved into the White House, with the first bite on March 8 and CNN reporting a second bite last Monday. 

The first time, Major reportedly “nipped” a U.S. Secret Service agent’s hand. It was called a very minor injury in which the “skin was not broken.” However, it was of sufficient concern to be treated by the White House Medical Staff, according to CNN

After that incident, Major -- along with his 13-year-old companion, Champ -- was quickly returned to the Biden home in Delaware, where he reportedly received training.  President Biden pardoned Major, stating he is a “sweet dog.” 

(See: “Will President Joe Biden’s Dog Bite Again?”

He told ABC News that Major had “turned a corner, there’s two people he doesn’t know at all, you know, and they move and [sic] moves to protect.” He reportedly added, “85% of the people there love him.”  (The President did not discuss the opinions of the other 15%.) 

The victim of the latest bite on March 29 was identified as a National Park Service employee. First Lady Jill Biden’s press secretary reported that, "Major. . .nipped someone while on a walk.” He excused Major’s behavior as “still adjusting to his new surroundings.” But he admitted the employee “was seen by the White House Medical Unit before returning to work.” 

Although we are assured that a full-grown German Shepherd has now inflicted two “bites” and allegedly not broken the skin, there is no mention of compliance with the Washington, D.C.   , law which requires that any dog bite must be reported to animal control. 

The sudden return of Major and the Biden’s 12-year-old Shepherd, Champ to the Biden home in Delaware was described as “already planned” because Jill Biden was scheduled to travel and be away from home for four days. 

It quickly lead to speculation that Major was removed due to his behavior, which the President quickly disputed, according to the AP. 

Could the adamant insistence that “no skin being broken” during two bites be intended to dispel any rumor that the trip home might have been a mandated quarantine period, as indicated under D.C.    animal-bite law? There was no mention in any media reports that these bites were reported to Washington, D.C.   , animal control. 

DOG BITE LAWS IN WASH., D.C. 

D.C.    Health.D.C.   .gov states (in part): 

If Your Dog Bites 

The District will require you to keep your dog under quarantine by keeping him/her confined to your property for 10 days. If your dog remains healthy during the quarantine, the bite victim will not have to have rabies shots and your dog will be released from quarantine. 

The number of days an animal is quarantined can depend on what the animal bites and whether or not it is current on vaccinations.
 

Report the incident. Call animal control to report all animal bites at (202) 576-6664. 

Animal Bite Facts 

The District of Columbia Dangerous Dog Statutes place restrictions on dogs that have bitten or attacked pets or people without provocation, (§ 8-1901, et.seq).  

(Note: All of the above appear to apply whether or not the skin is broken by the bite.)  

IS MAJOR BEING SET UP FOR FAILURE? 

Major may be a “sweet boy” with the Bidens, but he is sending two clear messages -- he does not seem happy about being a White House dog and he doesn’t like strangers. The new living conditions apparently make him uncomfortable and fearful, and he is speaking in the most direct language a dog has -- he is lashing out with his teeth. He told them once and now he has repeated his point.  

But there has been no admission made by the Bidens that this is dangerous behavior, nor does it seem there has been any strong, immediate instruction to Major to stop the behavior. How is Major to know his reactions are not acceptable? Excusing him merely reinforces his belief he is acting as expected and is an invitation to repeat the behavior. 

Equally alarming is the effort to cover up the potential danger if this is allowed to  continue. Being bitten by a dog -- especially a large German Shepherd is emotionally traumatic -- even if the physical damage is minor. No serious or poignant concern for the victims or potential targets has been publicly voiced by the First Family. 

FAIRNESS TO THE DOG 

There are two issues about Major’s behavior that need to be openly discussed as he becomes an increasingly prominent news item merely because of the family into which he was adopted. Is he merely lunging out because it is a new environment filled with strange people whose movements he is attempting to control? (Shepherds protect herds and their owner by nature.) Is he truly aggressive?

Or is this behavior based on fear? 

And, if this continual perceived threat to the safety of his owner and himself are causing Major such extreme stress, why torture him by constantly placing him with his “peeps” in danger of these strange people, whom he considers a threat? 

If this behavior occurs ONLY at the White House, why not leave Major at home in Delaware with whomever maintains the home -- or is this more about the political need to have a successful “shelter rescue” dog than Major’s personal comfort (and safety) level? 

“To prevent over-guarding and aggressive behavior, German shepherd dogs should have socialization and obedience training at a young age,” says HillsPet.com, adding that “. . .in keeping with their guarding instincts, they tend to be leery of strangers.” 

Although he is being described only as “German Shepherd,” the exact lineage of the litter of reportedly “sick” puppies brought to the Delaware Humane Society, is apparently unknown.  (His appearance and his energetic circling behavior have caused several comments by observers that he appears to share some strong qualities reminiscent of a Husky also.) 

Many dogs encounter new people unexpectedly during the course of a lifetime -- or even every day -- and do not bite or attempt to bite them. If this were not the norm, no dog could be walked on the streets and no visitors could enter any households. 

IS MAJOR A ‘FEAR BITER’? 

According to the President’s analysis, Major perceives the mere presence of strangers as creating a need to protect by biting. Is this protection, aggression, or fear? 

So far, he has reportedly reacted aggressively only toward strangers and it has been verbally classified by Biden as “protection,” but dogs learn by repetition. In the near future, Major’s quick bite response could be misdirected when  someone he knows reaches out to stop a bite and he inflicts unintended serious injury.  

Dog bite law across the U.S. is fairly similar and clear that the dog owner is responsible for his/her dog’s behavior. With this happening on federal property, will taxpayers also foot this bill for a dog that has already bitten twice? 

On March 9, VOA reported that Katherine Houpt, Cornell University Professor and veterinary behaviorist, stated in an interview that, although a change in environment can cause a change in behavior, she suspects that Major was already beginning to mildly demonstrate this behavior before the move to Washington, D.C. but it was not noticed. 

“There are several veterinary behaviorists in the Washington, D.C., area, so they should probably make use of their talents. And the dog needs behavior modification and maybe even psycho-pharmacological treatment to reduce his aggression,” she advised. And, if necessary, she suggested he may need to wear a muzzle, which will not change his behavior but will protect the public. 

(This article also shows a photo of Jill Biden bending down to lovingly pet Champ’s head, but there is no photo with Major. Interestingly, during the CNN video discussing this event, there are three occasions where either Jill or Joe Biden are with both dogs but bend down to pet only Champ. In each, the very energetic Major, does not appear to seek their attention but is more focused on his surroundings.) 

GERMAN SHEPHERD DOGOWNER GROUP DISCUSSES ‘FEAR BITING’ 

Experienced German Shepherd dog owners recently responded on the forum, GermanShepherds.com to questions about “protection vs. fear biting.” Here are some of their opinions: 

“Fear biters are dangerous. They require management as well as training. . .your friend’s dog did not become a fear biter. It probably always was. Find a trainer who can evaluate the dog and give your friend a training plan.” 

Another wrote, “Beyond crate training, locked gates, secure fences and signs, diligent supervision and handling are required. But, understand that dogs who are fear biters are not to be trusted.” 

A long-time dog trainer states, “Ultimately they all turn out to be who they will be.  It’s my job to see that no one, or their pets, gets harmed while the process is on-going.” 

In response to a question about determining whether a dog is protective or fearful, this response was offered, “A fearful dog is reacting to a non-threatening situation or thing. A protective dog reacts to an actual threat. (this can include a perceived threat by you, if you are actually scared). Is the dog reacting to a random person walking up to the car or near you on a walk posing no threat and it causes a reaction?  If that's the case, it's probably fear.” 

Is someone threatening or yelling at you and your dog intervened? If that's the case, it's probably protection. 

To be honest, if you're not sure, I'll bet 99% of the time it's fear. 

A long-time dog trainer states, “Ultimately they all turn out to be who they will be. It’s my job to see that no one, or their pets, gets harmed while the process is on-going.” 

‘RESCUING’ DOES NOT ENDOW A PET OR THE OWNER WITH VIRTUE 

Was Major truly “rescued” or was he placed in a terrifying situation by becoming the highly publicized pet of a political figure?  

“Rescuing” a dog has become the main thing that catapults an ordinary dog owner closer to sainthood and a politician to winning his next office. 

(And, in this cases, was very financially rewarding for the shelter, “Major Biden's 'Indoguration' Raises $200K for Delaware Rescue that Adopted Out Pup to Joe Biden.” 

Sadly, too often “rescuing” has become more about the person (and the money) than the dog. The conversation usually begins with the horrible situation for the dog before it was “saved,” followed by the amazing transformation brought about by the “rescuer”/adopter.  

The real “rescuers” that take dogs from harmful situations or danger usually talk about what the dog has meant for their lives and how the animal’s gentleness, love and devotion has transformed them.

Major was adopted as a puppy from a litter brought to the Delaware Humane Society and was reportedly seen on their website by Biden’s daughter. 

But, if the purpose was to select a lifelong family member and companion for their beloved older dog, why didn’t Joe or Jill Biden take the time to personally select their new canine family member?

“Biden's staff members picked up one of the dogs and brought him to the family home,” according to the News Journal

So, was the real emphasis to “fall in love” with a new puppy or to select an impressive, photogenic dog that could be touted as a “rescue” during a political campaign? 

‘RESCUED’ OR USED? 

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing in the same way and expecting a different outcome. So far, there has been no acceptance of the fact by the President and First Lady that not even the Presidential pooch is allowed to bite people just because they are there. There is also no reason to believe this will change because excuses have now been made twice. 

A local dog expert/trainer stated, “The statement that Major is “still adjusting to the environment of the White House flies in the face of those who know dog behavior. If he hasn’t become accustomed to the routine in that environment in over three months, he likely never will.” 

In adult or juvenile dogs, some are homeless because of a tragedy or misfortune in a family, but the majority come with a problem already discovered and possibly mishandled by the prior owner. 

But Major spent the first eight months of his life with the Biden’s before his adoption was completed. Biden was not in political office during that time, so the environment may have been much different, or they may not have noticed or recognized any developing signs of aggression or fear toward strangers. 

There is still time to admit that Major may not be the right dog for the lifestyle at the White House. If they cannot leave Major at their home with a caretaker and spare him, and themselves, this stress, they need to provide responsible management of his anxiety about a constant flow of strangers. 

It does not make him, or them, less virtuous to consider placing him in a more suitable surrounding with someone who does not have a life filled with political considerations and where he can have continual training and humane confinement as needed and live a more peaceful life. If he escalates his current behavior, the only solution may be euthanasia for his own and the safety of others. 

And, if they wait until his instincts -- fear or protective -- have caused a tragic attack on an innocent person, they may not have an option.

 
(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of Los Angeles employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Photo: White House/AP. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.