The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Major Biden’s removal from the White House has critics howling. But the first family did the right thing by their dog.

A handler walks Major, one of the Biden family's dogs, on the South Lawn of the White House on March 29. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Major Biden, the 3-year-old German shepherd rescue who moved into the White House to great fanfare in January, is no longer in residence. Reports this week introducing a new first dog, a 3-month-old puppy named Commander, brought to light that Major had been re-homed with family friends after failed attempts at further training following a series of biting incidents.

Cue the howls of rage on social media, where some claimed that Major had been dumped for a younger, more sprightly model.

This dog-lover begs to differ. I think the Bidens, who are longtime dog owners, showed just how much they love and respect Major by placing him with a family who could offer him a better environment.

The White House is a stressful place to live or work. Many people can’t handle it. Major was apparently no different. Soon after arriving at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Major began nipping.

Though the Biden administration initially admitted to two incidents, it has emerged that there were more. According to emails obtained by the activist group Judicial Watch in August, Major bit Secret Service agents over eight days in March, as well as a visitor to the White House. In at least one of the incidents, he was thought to have been surprised by an unfamiliar person.

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The Bidens swiftly sent Major for further training — a strategy that was probably bound to fail given the family’s unusual circumstances. As one well-regarded dog trainer told Politico in the spring, “Everyone involved in the dog’s life needs to be a part of the training.”

That’s almost certainly impossible here. Not only could no president of the United States break away from work every day for dog training, but the first family — the people Major had become familiar with after his adoption in 2018 — have been surrounded by many more staff and security officials.

Dogs, especially anxious dogs, thrive on routine and certainty. (They also don’t necessarily recognize some changes. After almost a decade of apartment living, my poodle cries to be taken for a walk first thing every morning — even though for 18 months we’ve been living in a house where she can immediately run outside and use the yard.)

Ensuring a calm, orderly environment for a dog is almost impossible in the White House, where the staff is an ever-changing cast and visitors stream in and out. Run the dog on a lawn, and a crowd is likely to gather. The president and first lady are there one day but traveling the next. Even when they are home to take Major out for walks, they have security details.

Little wonder Major acted out. No, he does not deserve to be euthanized over these incidents, as some had wondered — the White House press secretary said months ago that would not happen.

Let’s be clear: The Bidens did not just throw up their hands. Major was clearly a beloved member of the household. They attempted training and reportedly consulted trainers, animal behaviorists and veterinarians before making a tough decision. All apparently agreed the pooch needed a calmer setting to thrive.

Commander is likely to be a better fit, partly because he will be brought up thinking the busyness around him is normal. He was also almost certainly vetted for his ability to adapt.

Responsible dog breeders evaluate their puppies’ temperaments before placing them and ask buyers detailed questions about their lifestyle. A shy, anxious or fearful dog would almost certainly not be given to a family living in the White House.

One other thing: I wouldn’t take seriously any barking tweets from Trump supporters about these Major matters. The former president has made clear that he doesn’t care for canines. He has a track record of using dog insults to belittle humans. Remember Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed in a military raid? Trump crowed that he had “died like a dog, he died like a coward, he was whimpering, screaming and crying.” Trump gloats when a perceived enemy or rival was “fired like a dog.” His history of comparing political rivals to canines includes claiming that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) “choked like a dog” in the 2012 presidential contest and that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was “sweating like a dog” at a 2016 Republican presidential debate.

The Biden family, by contrast, clearly love dogs. When Champ, their 13-year-old German shepherd, died in June, their statement was heartbreaking. Sometimes the best way to show love to our pets is to face it when things are not working out and find the animal a better environment. There’s no shame in that. The only shame here belongs to those who would use such a sad situation to score political points.

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