As I write this, it has been reported that one of the Bidens’ dogs, Major, has bitten someone for the second time in the White House.
After the first bite, Major was sent back to Delaware, where he received “training.” If the Bidens were my clients, how would I handle this? The first thing is to realize that behavioral concerns like this can’t be fixed by sending a dog away for two weeks of training.
I would obtain as much history as possible about Major. Do we know why he ended up in rescue? If he was owner-surrendered, what was the reason? We need to remember that people surrendering animals may not tell rescues about undesired behaviors – they want to increase the chance of adoption. And behavioral concerns may not show up at a rescue or shelter, which means the adopting family has to deal with them.
Are there any recorded evaluations the rescue can share? What methodology and tools were used in any previous training? Shock collars, prong collars, showing a dog who is boss and flooding/saturation with stimuli should be avoided. Science has shown these methods increase the risk of things escalating even if there is the illusion of the behaviors resolving.
Next, I would teach the Bidens and their staff how to read subtle stress signals. When I see pictures and videos of Major, I do not see a relaxed dog. Long before a bite, a dog will speak volumes if you know what to look for. If people repeatedly ignore his signals, a dog will give less warning and go faster to a bite.
The importance of understanding the subtleties of communication should be emphasized and resources for reference provided. Every picture and video I see of Major, he is exhibiting concerning body language. He needs help and is not getting it in a meaningful way.
Careful management of Major’s environment is needed. Major needs to feel safer and be able to decompress.
Think how chaotic the White House is for humans. Staff, reporters, photographers, Secret Service, the Bidens traveling a lot. There is inconsistency for dogs who may not be able to handle change. Now, add in a dog with a background we are not sure about and who needs extra stability, and Major is stressed.
Dogs who are stressed and do not feel safe are more likely to respond in ways humans do not want. I would make sure all staffers who have contact with Major understand what they need to do. Then I would keep Major away from other stressing elements, such as guests and photographers.
Major would be taught to wear a basket-style muzzle and enjoy it. This is another layer of safety when someone fails to remember management. Trust me, management will fail. There are so many people involved at the White House that it is a matter of time before there is another incident.
Finally, I would create a careful, methodical program to try to help Major adapt to his new life. His needs would be my priority, even if it meant realizing the White House and all its chaos is not in Major’s best interest. What may be best for him and safer for others is the quieter Biden residence in Delaware.
Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project and owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.