The Bidens’ troubled canine son, Major, is back in the White House after an intensive few weeks of schooling, the family confirmed on Friday. Major and his brother, Champ, were initially sent back to Delaware for a spate of training after Major bit a Secret Service agent’s hand in March, causing a “minor injury.” A few weeks later, the White House revealed that the 3-year-old German shepherd had “nipped” another staff member while out on a walk. Major then underwent another round of training, this time at an offsite location in the D.C. area.
That’s a lot of nipping, especially from a dog that likely weighs well over 60 pounds! And yet, the Bidens have seen fit to welcome Major back into the people’s house, which remains chock full of weird noises, unfamiliar smells, and scary-looking, bite-able people. “He is such a sweet, lovable dog, he really is,” Jill Biden told the Today show by way of explanation.
The Biden administration is also adding another variable to the mix: the family cat, who is set to move into the White House any day now. On Today, the first lady reassured viewers that Major’s minders “took him into a shelter with cats” as part of his training regimen and “he did fine.”
Be that as it may, and as comprehensive as his training may have been, under no circumstances should Major be returning to the scene of his two recent crimes. Biting once might be a fluke; biting a second time is a pattern. I’m sure Major is still a very good boy—he has a goofy smile, his fur looks soft, and a temporary lapse in obedience is to be expected when a dog moves into a new home. But it’s one thing to freak out and poop on the floor (which Major also did—or maybe Champ; apparently it’s hard to tell their poops apart). It’s quite another to bite two employees at your dad’s workplace.
To me, that’s a clear indication that the White House is too stressful a home for this high-strung dog. Since pets can’t speak, their owners have to divine their moods and desires from their behavior. That’s often a tough task: It’s not always easy to tell, for instance, whether a cat is staring at you because you have a piece of bacon stuck in your teeth or because it’s enjoying a vivid fantasy of your painful death. It seems that Major is trying to get his message across in a more obvious way—with his teeth. He’s telling his parents that he feels uneasy and threatened in his new home, so much so that he’s become a terrible nuisance, and maybe even a danger, to the people around him. His bites are saying he’d much rather be frolicking across a suburban lawn with a trusted caretaker and a favorite toy, with occasional visits from the Bidens and their grandkids to spice up the routine.
The Bidens should listen to their dog now and send him back to Delaware for good, before he bites again. The workplace-safety argument makes itself. No one at the White House should have to fear a run-in with the president’s dog. Though no severe injuries resulted from his first two White House bites, there’s no telling what those plenty-capable jaws will do next time. But rehoming Major, or keeping him at the Biden home in Delaware, is a political imperative, too. Major has already distracted from the president’s celebration of his highly successful first 100 days as president, given that Joe and Jill are on a victory tour that has now—on the Today show, at least—turned into a pet apology tour. If their very good boy acts out again, that will be another news cycle lost, and another round of bad PR for both dog and presidential administration.
Things could get even stickier for the Bidens in the future, if Major chooses to keep clamping down his jaws. Assuming that Major’s victims didn’t provoke him, Major could already be classified as a “dangerous dog” in the D.C. legal code. Such dogs have to be registered with the city, and their owners have to post warning signs outside their property (which would be its own PR disaster for the White House). They can’t be out in public unless they’re on a leash, muzzled, and “under the control of a responsible person.” Also, in D.C. and elsewhere, if a dog has bitten someone before, the owner is expected to take extra care to prevent it from happening again—and if they don’t, they could be subject to additional liability. It’s not clear whether the White House instated additional safety precautions in response to Major’s initial bite, but according to an expert on aggressive dogs who spoke with Slate, the training he received isn’t likely to work. And now that he’s bitten twice, they should be taking even greater care to make sure he doesn’t have the chance to do it again—specifically, by moving him to a quieter, chiller home.
If you’re a dog lover who just can’t imagine the thought of Major being away from his mom and dad, consider that this might be for Major’s own good. What if he seriously maims someone? Beyond the damage to his victim, this could lead to a worst-case-scenario for the beloved dog. In D.C., the mayor can “destroy” a “dangerous dog” if it “has been determined to be a threat to public safety.” Picture the scenario: A dog who has bitten more than two people in its bustling home-slash-workplace, and who remains in the environment that was stressful enough to trigger the bites, inflicts a gash on an employee. It’s hard to imagine such a dog would not qualify as a public safety risk.
Any dog except Major, that is. I’m fairly confident Mayor Muriel Bowser wouldn’t dare issue an order to “destroy” the First Pet. But imagine if she did. Imagine the trauma certain Major-loving Americans would suffer, on the tails of an already-traumatic pandemic and four years under Donald Trump. You never want the life of the country’s favorite pet to rest on a single politician’s discretion. This should not be a difficult decision to make. If you look up “better safe than sorry” in an idiom dictionary right now, I’ll bet you’ll find a photo of a sad (but serene!) Major riding an Amtrak train back to Delaware.
So why have the Bidens dug in their heels on this multi-bite dog? Sure, they adore him, but who’s really tugging the chew toy here? Well, there’s the Major Biden hive to contend with, for one thing. Adult people who go absolutely wild for the president’s dogs are clamoring to put the biter back in office, and that is one interest group you do not want to piss off. On Thursday, the Oval Pawffice, an unauthorized fan account that has amassed an absolutely inexcusable 214,000 Twitter followers, tweeted an imagined message “from” Major’s adoptive big brother, the 12-year-old Champ:
This is a pro-Major pressure campaign. By raising the specter of Champ’s death, the Oval Pawffice has cleverly tied the Biden administration’s hands. (Amazingly, people replied in earnest to the Champ tweet with photos of their own elderly dogs and reflections on the importance of an elderly dog’s final months.) Now, if the White House relegates Major to Delaware, they’ll be accused of depriving Champ of his brother’s comforting presence in what little precious time he has left on this earth.
The animal welfare community also has some influence here, as well as some responsibility for putting Major on a pedestal in the first place. Since Major is the first shelter dog to reside in the White House, many animal rescue agencies issued jubilant statements upon Biden’s election, predicting that Major’s newfound prominence would help demystify and encourage pet adoption among the American public. The Delaware shelter where Major was living when Biden adopted him held an elaborate “indoguration” ceremony in the pup’s honor. In an image posted to the ASPCA’s Instagram account on Nov. 9, the organization’s CEO kvelled, “This is a wonderful opportunity for people to see how fostering and adopting animals saves lives, helps animal shelters, and brings love and joy to families.”
Love and joy are great, but what happens when the country’s most famous adopted dog bites people when he’s scared? The adopt-don’t-shop crowd could not have expected Major to be such an imperfect ambassador, but such are the perils of demanding that a glass-ceiling-breaker present a flawless image of a marginalized community. In a way, Major is a victim of the pressures of respectability politics, and of the inadequacy of representation as a means of righting structural inequities. He never asked to hold the fate of every U.S. shelter dog in his trembling little paws.
More importantly, the Bidens shouldn’t be asking him to take on that responsibility when he’s not ready to receive it. Major can’t thrive in the White House. Sure, maybe it would look bad to admit that a few weeks of training can’t cure this rescued animal of fear-based aggression. But imagine how much worse it will look when he acts out again.