“Dog Bites Man,” in journalism lore, is a boring headline about a predictable event—a non-news story that should never be written, let alone read. But what if the dog in question belongs to the president of the United States? And what if the president’s dog bites not one man, but many?
Joe and Jill Biden’s two-year-old German shepherd, Commander, is that dog. After the U.S. Secret Service confirmed late last month that Commander had been involved in 11 “biting incidents” at the White House, CNN reported this week that the canine had actually been even more prolific with his canines, biting several White House staffers. At some point in the past two weeks, Commander was sent away.
“The President and First Lady care deeply about the safety of those who work at the White House and those who protect them every day,” Elizabeth Alexander, the communications director for the first lady, said in a statement to CNN. Commander, she added, “is not presently on the White House campus while next steps are evaluated.” Woof.
The whole situation has been traumatic. For the bite victims, of course—at least one of whom went to the hospital for treatment—but also for Commander, who now has to leave the only family he’s ever known. And for the Biden family: Not three full years into his administration, the president and the first lady have had to say goodbye to not one, but two family dogs. (The Bidens’ older dog, Major, was similarly expelled in 2021 for his own biting proclivity.)
Banishing the Bidens’ dog is not just a matter of OSHA compliance. It’s political too.
The flurry of really newsworthy dog-bites-man stories has been rough for the president, who comes off as both an unfeeling boss and a negligent dog owner. In the vortex of negative press—impeachment, Hunter Biden’s legal problems, inflation, dipping approval ratings—Commander’s bad behavior is practically the one negative news story that Biden can attempt to control.
The Commander drama has been building toward a climax for months. Major bit a Secret Service agent shortly after moving into the White House, in 2021, and was subsequently sent to live with family friends in Delaware—not a euphemism, we’re told. Commander, the younger of the two, has been biting people for months. In July, reports emerged that the dog had attacked or bitten members of the Secret Service multiple times from last October to January of this year. (This pattern added injury to insult in an already tense relationship between the Biden administration and the Secret Service, many of whom are reportedly fans of Donald Trump.)
As if that situation was not fraught enough, we now know that Commander has chomped on more arms and legs than was previously reported, including on a number of White House executive staffers’. Asked where the dog was taken, Alexander, the East Wing spokesperson, declined to comment directly. She also did not comment on how the Biden family is feeling, though that’s easy to guess: sad, sort of embarrassed, probably annoyed by all the dog coverage when Republicans in Congress are engaged in their own very public brawling.
More than anything, though, I wonder how Commander feels—and whether things might have turned out better if more consideration had been given to that question.
The life of a president’s dog can be stressful. The White House is a working office and a public museum as well as a home, with multitudes of people coming in and out all the time. Even on a normal day, the scene can be a chaotic sensory overload for a dog: Rotating members of the Secret Service detail, uniformed and not, stand outside every room, earpieces in, eyes darting, faces unsmiling; aides fly through doorways with varying degrees of excitement and alarm, waving papers. And the first family is always leaving on trips and official visits; sometimes they bring the dog; other times they leave him behind in the care of a butler or an operating engineer, who is on-site around the clock.
All of this is difficult for a human to adjust to, let alone a dog with limited English comprehension who cannot understand that his owner is the most important person in the Western world.
Presidential pets always take some time to acclimate, according to Jennifer Pickens, the author of Pets at the White House. Eventually, most White House dogs have been able to adapt to the schedule of nights in the first family’s residence, and days with the run of the building (or parts of it). They might spend time sleeping in the chief usher’s office or waiting for the president in the Outer Oval. They’ll go on regular walks through the 18-acre White House campus with Dale Haney, who has been the groundskeeper and unofficial presidential dog handler since he first tended to Richard Nixon’s Irish setter, King Timahoe. During the George W. Bush administration, the president’s squat little Scottish terrier, Barney, liked to follow the pastry chef around in the basement hallways, licking powdered sugar from his shoes, Pickens told me. Bo and Sunny Obama, the 44th president’s Portuguese water dogs, were accustomed to being paraded around for snuggles from children visiting the White House.
But other dogs don’t settle in so easily—or they become irritated by the attention. After all, they don’t get to choose to become part of the first family: In 1961, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the Kennedy family a fluffy white puppy named Pushinka, whose mother had been shot into space on Sputnik 5. Pushinka—who went on to have her own puppies, which John F. Kennedy referred to as the “pupniks”—became “a little nippy” later in life, according to Caroline Kennedy.
The adjustment to White House life has been a challenge for many presidential pooches. Ronald Reagan’s 65-pound Bouvier des Flandres, Lucky, was sent back to the family’s Santa Barbara ranch after a few months, because she was deemed “a little too much for the Reagan White House,” Pickens said. One of the Carter family mutts, JB—short for Jet Black—used to snap at the maids and butlers, Gary Walters, a former chief usher, told me. The dog nipped at Walters on occasion too: “We’d just say, ‘Oh, JB, shut up and go away.’” In 2008, Barney bit the finger of Jon Decker when the Reuters reporter reached out to pet him; Barney could be, as Jenna Bush put it later, “a real jerk.”
I wish I could tell Commander all of this—that dogs act like dogs, and sometimes like real jerks, even when they live in the White House.
Commander’s adjustment to White House life may have been more challenging than it was for other pets. Although German shepherds can be loyal and trustworthy companions, they have to be diligently trained, especially during their adolescent months, Sue Kewley, a dog behaviorist who specializes in the breed, told me. “I don’t think people realize how sensitive German shepherds can be,” she said. They’re herding dogs, and “if you don’t give them a job to do, they’ll go self-employed.”
Young shepherds need to be taught how to behave when a visitor or stranger arrives—how to go to their “place” or grab a toy, something that desensitizes them to the constant flow of bodies coming and going. This appears to be the gap in Commander’s education. “He’s been allowed to make mistakes, which is a real shame,” Kewley said. “But I don’t blame him. It’s not his fault.”
It probably didn’t have to be this way, in other words. With better training and more attention, Commander might have been able to stay in the White House. As with other presidential dogs, he could have been an emblem for the president, something happy and sweet for the American people to latch on to. Instead, he’s become a workplace hazard, an unfortunate headline, and now, sadly, an exile.