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Dog days for Biden: A presidential pet causes a ‘minor injury’ — and a public relations challenge

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

Major, one of the family dogs of President Biden and first lady Jill Biden, explores the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, upon his arrival from Delaware, on Jan. 24. (White House/Adam Schultz)

President Biden has made them as much a part of his personal brand as his scrappy Scranton roots, his anecdotes of overcoming grief and his folksy demeanor.

“Not many people have Oval Office walk-in privileges. Happy to report that these two are on the list,” he wrote on Instagram last month — a caption for a photo he took with his two German shepherds, Major and Champ.

It was meant to convey relatability, warmth and an all-American quality many felt the previous president — avowedly anti-pet — sorely lacked.

But that picture-perfect tableau was dented this week by news that Major had a run-in with someone at the White House. The incident caused an immediate public-relations problem for the White House, which had spent weeks publicizing the arrival and presence of the two first dogs.

President Biden’s German shepherds, Major and Champ, were seen on Jan. 25, their first day in the White House. Biden announced Champ’s death on June 19. (Video: The Washington Post)

Late Tuesday, a Secret Service official told The Washington Post that Major nipped at an agent’s hand at the White House, causing a minor injury and leaving a small mark. The skin was not punctured, and there was no bleeding, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a sensitive subject. The agent resumed normal duties after the incident, the official said.

Initially, details were sparse. CNN reported a “biting incident” late Monday, followed by a return of the dogs to their home in Wilmington, Del. The White House — normally not shy about discussing the dogs — said nothing.

Tuesday morning, first lady Jill Biden’s spokesman offered a partial explanation. “With the first lady traveling for three days, Champ and Major went to Delaware to stay with family friends,” said her press secretary, Michael LaRosa.

But what of the reported bite? And would the dogs return? He wouldn’t say.

On the White House grounds, there was an air of mystery. A reporter tweeted a photo of an empty dog bed leaning against a wall. A few hours later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about it at her daily press briefing. She came prepared to share a bit more.

“Champ and Major, the president and first lady’s dogs, are members of the family and still getting acclimated and accustomed to their new surroundings and new people,” she said, reading from her notes. “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, which was handled by the White House medical unit with no further treatment needed.”

Psaki was asked by a reporter later Tuesday whether she could confirm it was a Secret Service officer who was bitten. She declined to say and encouraged the reporter to ask the Secret Service. An agency spokeswoman referred questions back to the White House.

Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said “dog bites can occur for a variety of reasons.”

“Dogs experience a transition period when settling into a new environment,” Block said. “Some dogs adjust to a new environment very quickly, while for others, the transition may take a few days, a few weeks or even a few months.”

The dogs would be back, Psaki said, explaining that plans had already been in place for them to be cared for by family friends as the first lady traveled. “She has a three-day trip this week, and the dogs will return to the White House soon,” Psaki said.

Asked by a reporter whether Major could be euthanized as a result of the episode, Psaki said that would not be the case.

“Major Biden is a member of the family, so I can assure you of that,” she said.

By that point, social media was abuzz with commentary and concern. And as is customary in today’s Washington, it somehow became politically charged.

“Biden can deport his dogs for violent acts, but not illegal immigrants. I guess the White House isn’t a sanctuary city,” tweeted far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).

Liberal activist Peter Daou had a different take. “I’m seeing more empathy and concern for Biden’s dogs than caged migrant children,” he tweeted.

Like many past White House dogs, Major and Champ have achieved celebrity status. Also like their predecessors, they have come to symbolize something larger about their owners.

Barack Obama had Bo, the Portuguese water dog who made good on the promise Obama made to his daughters after the 2008 election and was emblematic of a young family’s arrival in the White House.

George W. Bush had Scottish terriers Barney and Miss Beazley, who appeared in popular holiday videos. Barney also bit a reporter. Richard Nixon had Checkers, a cocker spaniel who was a political gift and the topic of a famous speech.

Americans have long been captivated by politicians’ dogs — and how they treat them. The story of Mitt Romney’s Irish setter Seamus, who fell ill after riding 12 hours on the roof of Romney’s station wagon, was fodder for opponents when he ran for president in 2012. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s recent jaunt to Cancún while Texas was in crisis prompted questions about how his dog Snowflake was doing while Cruz was away.

Biden adopted Major in 2018. They’ve had Champ — reportedly named after his father’s motivational saying, “Get up, champ!” — since 2008, shortly after Biden was elected vice president under Obama.

Biden, his team and his family have actively posted photos and videos of the dogs and often discussed them publicly. One photo released by the White House shows Champ sitting on the floor of the Oval Office as Biden consults advisers.

As for Major, Tuesday wasn’t the first time he had made headlines: Biden injured his foot playing with him late last year.

For now, Major and Champ have the White House to themselves. But the Bidens revealed to CBS News last year that a cat would eventually join them. “What happened to that?” a reporter asked Psaki.

“Where’s the cat? Today’s a good day for the cat,” she replied. “I don’t have any update on the cat. We know the cat will break the Internet, but I don’t have any update on its status.”

John Wagner contributed to this report.