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‘It’s Not the Dog’: What’s Really Behind the White House Dog’s Biting Problem


President Joe Biden just moved in, and already in the neighborhood he’s the guy with … that dog.

Major, a 3-year-old rescue from a Delaware shelter and the younger of the first family’s two German shepherds, has been “agitated” at the White House, jumping, barking and “charging,” according to CNN’s reporting. Back toward the beginning of March, Major bit a Secret Service agent. More recently, he “nipped” a National Park Service employee.

The White House has tried to cast the episodes as mostly no big deal — a case of “a sweet dog,” in the president’s words, merely trying to get used to his new, busy and disorienting digs. “Major was surprised by an unfamiliar person and reacted in a way that resulted in a minor injury,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said following the initial incident. “Major is still adjusting to his new surroundings,” Michael LaRosa, first lady Jill Biden’s press secretary, said in the wake of the sans-injury second.

With the exception of the coverage on cable news, the basic parameters of the storyline are probably uncomfortably familiar to many American dog owners who think of their pets as beloved and blameless members of the family, only to suffer the chagrin of watching them misbehave out in public. Of course, when our pound pup lunges at the Amazon man, we don’t have to attempt to explain it from the podium in the Brady Briefing Room. The Bidens do, though — and all politics aside, the dog training world is not overly impressed with what they’re hearing.

A quartet of celebrity and expert dog trainers I talked to told me the response from the first family misses key points about a serious but eminently solvable situation. Jason Cohen, Larry Krohn, Joel Silverman and Cesar Millan — some of whom have written bestselling books and have starred in hit TV shows — are stationed from New York to California and have varying styles and focuses, ranging from easing dogs’ social anxiety to lessening their aggression. But they all agreed on one overarching thing.

As Millan put it?

“It’s not the dog.”

It’s the place and the people around the dog.

And what’s going on with Major needs to get fixed, and it isn’t going to get fixed until what’s going on around Major gets fixed, too.

Here, presented in a sort of chorus, edited and organized for clarity and length, are the most compelling pieces of my conversations with these prominent dog whisperers — their thoughts on Major, on Biden, on Washington and the White House and why Joe and Jill will need to find some time between infrastructure, immigration and gun reform for a little dog work as well.

‘It’s a place full of tension’

Millan: I’m a good listener. And I listen to the animal. I listen to the dog.

Cohen: To blame the dog is not fair. No dog should bite — of course — but we have to understand: They’re not fur babies. They’re apex predators. And we have to respect them for that and understand they don’t always speak to us in the language we understand.

Millan: What Major is saying is that he doesn’t feel safe yet. And if he doesn’t feel safe, he can’t trust. And if he can’t trust, he can’t feel calm.

Krohn: Unfortunately, with that kind of behavior, it’s almost always based out of fear and insecurities, and it runs rampant in the German shepherd breed, especially when it’s not a well-bred dog. And you can’t punish that out of a dog. And you can’t treat that out of a dog. You have to change the mindset of the dog to where they feel comfortable and confident in their own skin and they trust the people around them.

Silverman: We use the word triggers in the dog training world, and triggers — that’s what happens long before the dog will actually bite…



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