Perhaps the name didn’t help in establishing who’s boss. When Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, were given a three-month-old German shepherd puppy in December 2021, they decided to call the “very adorable” new pet Commander.
With his “in chief” suffix, Biden may technically outrank him – but it seems nobody told the dog. On Monday Commander (dog not president) bit a Secret Service agent, leaving him requiring medical treatment – and this was not a first offence. The dog has bitten or attacked Secret Service personnel at least 11 times, which among Biden’s security team has earned it the less polite code names of “that stupid dog” and “freaking clown”.
After the last attack in July, America’s first couple introduced “additional leashing protocols and training”, the White House announced, but given Biden’s other German shepherd, Major, was given away to family friends after biting incidents of his own, it seems something is up with the presidential pooches.
Clearly the president is a busy man, but as well as the other minor matters on his plate, he is responsible for his pet’s bad behaviour, according to dog experts. “With dog bites, it’s always down to human failure,” says Luke Balsam, who runs dog training programmes at his London-based firm Luke’s Dog School.
Dogs will very rarely bite without first having first shown escalating signs of stress or warning such as staring, standing defensively and growling, Balsam says. To reach the biting stage, humans have failed to spot these signs, and failed to change whatever is causing the dog stress.
“Most aggression that we see in dogs comes from fear. It’s not being happy with something and having to escalate their own behaviour because the environment is not changing.”
In the case of the White House, he says, “you’ve got an environment where there are people in and out all the time, probably some people are running, different people all the time, at different times of the day. It’s constant change. And so the dogs can be like: ‘Oh, who’s this? Why is this person running? What’s going on here?’”
Fellow trainer Dima Yeremenko agrees, and says that while there can be a place for muzzles, there are other ways to manage a dog that is repeatedly biting, such as keeping them in a calmer restricted area, taking them back to a familiar place after exercise and using “command control” to set limits.
“Put in a new environment, they can learn to behave appropriately. But that depends on the lifestyle of the person who is conducting the process. If you are simply a disorganised person surrounded by chaos, it will eventually lead to disaster,” he says.
Above all, it’s not the fault of the breed, stress devotees of German shepherds. Originally bred to herd sheep, they are not naturally aggressive and are “very loyal, easy to train and very intelligent”, says Katrina Stevens, a Kennel Club assured breeder in Wiltshire for almost 40 years.
“That also means they can learn bad things just as quickly as good things,” she says. “So they need a calm, confident owner.” Not so different, really, from the other parts of the president’s job.