Pity poor Major Biden, First Dog of the United States, FDOTUS for short. Thrust first from the lowly surroundings of a shelter in Delaware then on to the porticoes of the Biden HQ and finally the White House, he appears to be experiencing teething problems as he adapts to his new life. And teeth are, quite literally, the problem. Prone to biting, the German Shepherd has now been found guilty of two biting incidents having first injured a member of the Secret Service and now a White House staffer whilst out on one of his walks. But this is not all. Major is also suspected of pooing outside the Palm Room doors of the Diplomatic Room in the carpeted sanctuary of the West Wing. Although he’s not the first White House resident to be caught up to no good in the environs of the Oval Office, his indiscretions were quickly politicised.
Like most dog owners charged with defending an unruly animal, President Biden leapt to his aid. Speaking on ABC news, Biden described Major as a 'sweet dog' whose innate instinct to protect his master went awry: 'here’s two people he doesn’t know at all, you know, and they move […] to protect'. Whilst this coda may be sufficient to quell the dog brigade, it bears unpacking for those whose sensibilities are not canine. Never mind the fact that Biden is the US President, all dog owners must, at some point, enter the emotionally loaded continent that is Obedience and Control. On the surface, this landscape looks pretty straightforward. The dog is a creature of hierarchy and must learn his place in the pack, you say to people. The dog must not defecate, bite people, scare small children or bark at passers-by when out in the public realm (he may be as rabid as you like in your own house of course). Easy peasy you think; I am the alpha boss, the dog is my vassal, and we live in happy feudal harmony.
But this turns out to be harder than it sounds even for someone who has beaten Trump in a highly contested Presidential election and survived the indignity of falling up the steps to Air Force One. In excusing Major’s behaviour, Biden does not exactly inspire confidence in his ability to communicate authority. As a dog owner, I recognise this as a classic anthropomorphic trap, one that I fall into myself. When my dog exhibits signs of disobedience in public, I veer out of the realm of leadership and into the murkier land of love: 'he didn’t mean to!' I cry, treating the dog as an extension of my own morality when patently they are quite different. Biden’s critics may point out that other members of his pack are also in breach of authority: has the President not excused the business dealings of his son Hunter numerous times? Like his German Shepherd, Biden is motivated by an instinct to protect his own, often moved to tears at the mention of his family. But unlike Major, grown children can’t be brought to heel.
As both Biden and Major’s handlers may be discovering, in communicating authority to a dog, you stumble upon one of the critical differences between canines and humans: dogs live in a physical world, humans live in an emotional one. The dog universe is predicated on immediate drives, smells, sounds, pleasure and pain. Ours is about feelings, fantasies, and abstract thought. Dogs act and we interpret. The key to taming Major lies in the basic separation of the two. Biden may see in Major a 'sweet dog' but we project human emotion onto our canines at our peril, and often at the expense of authority.
I do, however, have some anthropomorphic sympathy for Major. Give the dog a break; he’s moved house and started a stressful new job as America's First Dog in the middle of a pandemic. Have some 'pawpathy', as the Democrat dog brigade scream on Twitter. After all, what’s a mess on the floor and a couple of nips on the leg compared to a raid on the Capitol, repeated blarings of YMCA and Kelly-Anne Conway?