Commander, President Joe Biden’s dog, has been making headlines lately for something that many dog owners can unfortunately relate to: reactivity and biting.
The 2-year-old German Shepherd joined the Bidens in the White House in 2021 as a puppy. In total, he has bitten several Secret Service agents a total of 11 times, including one incident in which an officer had to be hospitalized after Commander bit his arm and thigh. Last week, a spokeswoman for first lady Jill Biden said revealed this Commander was moved out of the White House “while next steps are considered.”
Very few of us have famous dogs that live in the White House, but unfortunately it’s common to have a dog that bites, even if it’s a familiar dog that has never bitten you before.
A common mistake is that people “believe that a dog they have seen or interacted with before will interact with them in the same way.” And that’s not necessarily true,” said Dr. Cherese Sullivan, a veterinarian at Skyline Animal Hospital in Houston.
More than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year in the United States. And in the worst case, bites can be fatal. An average of 43 people die from dog bites every year, according to the CDC. This is why biting is not a behavior that should be ignored.
“In general, no behavior problem with your dog will resolve itself. And a lot of people are waiting for it. They’ll say, ‘Oh, he bit that person.'” “That was weird … maybe it was just a freak accident,” said Nick White, a former Secret Service agent and owner of Off Leash K9 Training. “We see it progressing and getting worse like we saw with Commander.”
Here’s how to find out what might be causing this reaction and what to do about it:
Identify what triggers the biting. A new home or new people can be common reasons.
Although your dog’s reaction may feel random to you, it is often related to environmental stressors that cause the dog to be startled, frightened, or feel like he needs to defend his territory.
When a dog bites a person and then leaves them alone, it teaches the dog that biting is an “escape mechanism.” [from] “The stressor I have,” White said.
“They may also bite because they feel threatened. Or because they are trying to protect something that is valuable to them,” Sullivan said. “Each of these scenarios could potentially apply to these Secret Service agents depending on the relationship they have with the dog.”
Biting incidents can also be due to the dog being stressed. “Given the volume of traffic, the variety of people, the volume and the noise, I just think being in the White House full-time is a perfect environment to create fear,” Dr. Blake Hardin, a veterinarian at pet telemedicine company Dutch.
White said the White House was a difficult testing ground for a dog, with “every possible distraction” and hundreds of people coming and going. For this reason, a dog that has not undergone desensitization and trust-building exercises would be at a disadvantage, he said.
As for why Commander has bitten so many Secret Service agents, White suggested it might simply be because “so many of us are in and out of the White House.”
Socialization also plays a big role.
Exposing dogs to different people and situations between the ages of eight and 20 weeks is crucial. That way, “they start their lives saying, ‘People are great,'” White said.
“In general, what we see with aggressive dogs, whether it’s human aggression or dog aggression… in the vast majority of cases it’s purely due to a lack of socialization at a young age,” White said. “When Commander was eight to 20 weeks, did they take him out a lot and put him around a lot of different people?”
If you miss this window of socialization when your dog is an impressionable pup, it will take more work to address the reactive behavior — but it’s not too late for training, White said.
He shared a positive association exercise in which he exposed an undersocialized dog to different people and environments and gave him a high-value reward each time.
“So they say, ‘Oh, I heard a loud noise, but he gave me a reward for it.’ “So maybe loud noises are a good thing,” White said. “And this is how the system works to build a dog with great confidence.”
Illnesses or injuries can also be a reason why dogs bite.
Sometimes dogs bite when they are not feeling well.
“If you touch something and an animal comes back naturally and bites it, they might say, ‘That hurts.’ Please don’t do this,” Hardin said.
Your dog’s newfound responsiveness could also be hormonal. “After a certain age, dogs become sexually mature and tend to have more aggressive episodes,” Sullivan said.
Consider the breed’s personality and its genetic makeup.
Your dog’s breed can also influence what triggers it. “A lot of people just can’t get dog breeds that fit their lifestyle,” White said.
“If you have a working dog … and it’s not really fulfilling the purpose it’s supposed to serve in life, it creates fear and anxiety in the animal,” Hardin said. “And that restlessness can turn into a bite or a pinch if you go about it the wrong way.”
He gave the example of Australian sheepdogs, which are adapted to herding sheep by running five to six miles a day. Hardin said he has treated more Australian Shepherds that had reactive problems after being confined to apartments during the COVID pandemic. Aside from giving them more exercise, one way to combat these dogs’ restlessness is to have them solve puzzles to get a treat instead of just giving them a treat, he said.
“This is how they train their brain, and when they train that brain, the fear goes away. And the risk of biting or attacking also decreases,” said Hardin.
Hardin said he always recommends starting behavioral training before taking anti-anxiety medication.
“These herding breeds have this genetic predisposition to do that [go] “‘Hey, this person is running real fast in front of me, I’m going to chase them and catch them.’ It’s just in there,” White said. “But that’s where training comes in, it can certainly override that.”
There are several ways to fix this problem.
Hardin acknowledged that some dogs with anxiety or reactivity may also require full-time medication. And that’s completely okay. Medication can also help you and your puppy with behavior modification and training.
“For the animals where we are targeting a physiological mechanism, we just need to continue to provide them with these medications for their own safety [and] also for the safety of other people,” said Hardin.
Committing to treating the problem in these ways is likely to result in improvement.
However, to combat your dog’s repetitive biting behavior, you need to know when it’s time to escalate the situation and place your pet with someone else or move him to a new environment, as was the case with Commander. There is a lot at stake if biting behavior is not addressed, especially when your dog is around children.
“Children will be the most common victims of dog bites and are at higher risk of serious injury. So when it comes to dogs that bite children, I tend to be very, very cautious about keeping that dog at home,” Sullivan said.
It’s always best to talk to your vet. In extreme or rarer cases, a doctor may suggest measures such as euthanasia, especially if the dog has a medical error that affects its quality of life, such as: Tumors or other medical problems that cause new aggression.
Ultimately, however, it is the human’s commitment to helping their dog that is most important.
“A lot of people see, ‘We rehomed the dog and he’s doing well now.’ “Well, it’s not necessarily just because you changed that dog’s environment,” White said. “Now the new owner says, ‘Hey, this dog was rehomed because he had aggression issues. So I have to take this seriously. So I’m going to take him to training and try to do everything right. And that’s why the dog is successful.”