Major Biden is in the nation’s doghouse. The president’s 3-year-old German shepherd is known for his “agitated,” behavior around the White House, from jumping on staff members to charging at them. On March 8, he bit a Secret Service agent and was then sent away, with Champ, his older brother, to a training camp in Delaware (which Joe Biden maintains was planned pre-bite). Then, this Monday, back in the White House, Major reportedly “nipped someone while on a walk.” And then reports start emerging that there was dog poop on the red carpet outside the Diplomatic Reception Room. (Champ is also a suspect in that incident.)
At least one news outlet has called on Biden’s dogs to “resign”; the White House hasn’t offered information as to whether Major will step down from his role as a first pup. We wanted to know more about why Major might be acting out, and what could be done to help. Slate turned to dog psychologist Nicholas Dodman to learn about what could help a dog like Major. A professor emeritus of the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Dodman is the co-founder of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies, where he researches how to help aggressive dogs. (To be clear, he has not personally met Major.) Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Elena DeBré: So I’m sure you’ve been following the Major Biden saga?
Nicholas Dodman: Yes, I’ve been trying to reach out to Jill Biden about it. I think I could help them.
What do you think of what the Bidens have done with Major so far?
I did see a picture of the people doing the training [at the camp in Delaware], and I didn’t feel very comfortable with the methods they were using. When Major was sent away by the White House [after the first bite], I told my friend, “The biting is going to happen again. That guy can’t have fixed the problem. I don’t like the methods.”
What were the methods? And what was wrong with them?
Well, I looked at this trainer’s bio, and his qualifications are all in sporting dogs and detention dogs. It’s sort of police, almost army-style. I don’t specifically know what this guy does, but that style of training usually has punitive aspects. I saw in the most recent picture, Major was being reintroduced to the White House with a choke collar on, which I don’t think is right at all.
How would you psychoanalyze Major?
First, somebody needs to tell the Bidens the truth, and that will set realistic expectations for the dog. Major Biden is a fear aggression case.
What might have made Major fearful?
I would imagine that somewhere in the past, Major had some negative interactions, perhaps as an older puppy at a formative time, with someone—most likely a man, since males tend to be a lot brusquer and more physical in their interactions with dogs. So usually it’s men who are the targets of fear aggression cases.
What are some examples of fear aggression triggers?
A veterinary friend of mine in California had a dog that was frightened of men with white beards. Sometimes it’s a hat. Men with boots. People with sunglasses. People in uniform. If someone with a specific characteristic did something to upset a dog when he or she was very young, the dog will be triggered by that characteristic for the years going forward.
So there’s something for Major that we don’t know that triggers him. And in a way, it doesn’t matter what or who the targets are. What does matter is how you work through the treatment.
What is the treatment?
If you identify the trigger, a program of counterconditioning helps the dog approach the feared object. What drives the dog? Food treats? Tennis balls? Work with a positive thing and use it to help the dog approach the feared target. You can also desensitize dogs to the fear target by using relaxation techniques: bring a mat out to the White House grounds and train Major to stay relaxed while its fear target walks by.
You also have to give the dog the right amount of exercise. The more exercise the better—exercise generates serotonin, which has a mood stabilizing and antidepressant effect. Also diet. Too much protein can stoke the fire of aggression. So a low-protein diet. And get the dog some sort of harness. Not a choke chain—something like a head halter will work much better. If you put gentle tension on the leash, it applies pressure to two pressure points that a mommy dog would use on her puppies to get them to calm down. Just pressure, not pain. It’s a long process, though. Joe and Jill probably don’t feel like they have the time.
If you were in charge of Major, what would you be telling the Bidens?
I think the most important thing to understand is that nothing is a 100 percent cure. Anyone who says they can cure that dog, I would challenge to a duel.
This is a dog who, through genetics and early lack of good experience, has probably developed mistrust of certain types of people. And German shepherds are the No. 1 biting breed in the country, though they tend not to bite hard. Most of the German shepherds I have seen over the past 30 years have anxious, suspicious dispositions.
They’ve already had the bites in two months. If you don’t want to have six bites a year, you can reduce that to one negative encounter—perhaps a lunging or growling—by not turning the dog into a little lamb but just use understanding, controlling, relaxation techniques, desensitization habituation.
Do you think that being the most famous dog in the country has affected Major?
I don’t think it makes a lot of difference, as long as the people who are taking care of him directly are knowledgeable.
Do you think that Joe or Jill’s stressful jobs or public lifestyle might have had an effect on Major?
An owner’s personality has about a 15 percent incident effect influence on canine behavior. These figures are averages and can only be used to assess odds of a particular personality affecting the dog’s behavior. In some individual cases, a particular personality mix may have little effect at all, whereas in others the effect may be much greater.
So you see, it is impossible to say with certainty that Joe or Jill’s personality fed into Major’s behavior. In my view, Major came with issues that were little affected by his new owners’ personality.