Dealing with Change: What Went Wrong, First Dogs Champ and Major Returned to Delaware


The two German Shepherds belonging to President Joe Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden were returned to the Biden family home in Delaware last week after Major was involved in a “biting incident”with a member of the security staff , according to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

“[Champ and Major] are still getting acclimated and accustomed to their surroundings and new people,” said Psaki. “And on Monday, the first family’s younger dog, Major, was surprised by an unfamiliar person and reacted in a way that resulted in a minor injury to the individual,” added Psaki, who added the injury was handled by the White House medical unit.

Major is a 3-year old dog who was adopted by the family in 2018. According to various reports, the dog has been known to display agitated behavior on multiple occasions, including jumping, barking, and “charging” at staff and security. Champ, who is 13, is now being hobbled by age, but in his younger days he apparently demonstrated nothing but love, and seasoned to the White House, by all accounts, he continues to be friendly to all.

“We got Major, he’s a rescue dog. We asked the vet, ‘What can we do to keep Champ going?’ and he said, ‘Get him a young dog.’ They’re buddies,” President Biden told the media on Valentine’s Day while walking the two German Shepherds unleashed on the North Lawn.

So, what went wrong here? And can this situation be rectified?

If indeed Major has previously expressed problematic behaviors, these issues typically don’t resolve on their own. From where I sit, there’s no way to know if these actions are fear-based behaviors or simply a lack of training. In any case, pick the dog up and drop him in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people it’s not surprising that these behaviors might be more apparent.

Major may need professional guidance to build confidence and trust around strangers. The problematic behaviors are often termed aggressive in the media – and they may be – but it’s important to understand they are nearly always based in fear, or sometimes a dog just not knowing what to do. So, the default becomes self-protection. This is never, ever about dominance which I’ve already read in some reports, noting that Major is seeking to be dominant. This is rubbish and based on antiquated dog training theory popularized by some TV trainers. Major is not seeking to be President.

Also, when relocating dogs (or cats), gradual acclimation is generally the most secure idea. The White House is a big place with lots of people. I have no idea how Major was previous to the White House move with strangers. If indeed Major was tentative about strangers, of course in a novel environment, Major would predictably be even more unsure.

Allowing gradual access would have been best – room by room, and at first in rooms where there is generally less commotion and people Major is familiar. On the upside Major does have his role model , that’s Champ who has been there and done that with previous White House experience, and may be a calming influence. Still that isn’t enough.

My prescription: Decompress in Delaware, where Major is presumably comfortable.  Major should be assessed by a professional (someone with my certification or a veterinary behaviorist), and then start all over again – likely with training and additional behavior advice along the way, and a gradual introduction as described above to new surroundings.

In all honesty, what has happened here isn’t a particular surprise. And most certainly doesn’t mean Major is a “bad dog.”