Commander, President Joe Biden’s dog, has made headlines recently for something various dog owners can, unfortunately, relate to: reactivity and biting.
The 2-year-old German shepherd joined the Bidens at the White House as a puppy in 2021. He has bitten several Secret Service agents a known total of 11 times, including one incident in which an officer had to go to the hospital after Commander bit his arm and thigh. Last week, a spokesperson for first lady Jill Biden revealed that Commander was moved out of the White House “while next steps are evaluated.”
Very few of us have famous dogs that live at the White House, but it’s unfortunately common to have a dog that bites, even if it’s a familiar dog that never bit you before.
One common mistake is that people “believe that a dog that they’ve seen or interacted with before is going to interact with them the same way. And that’s not necessarily true,” said Dr. Cherese Sullivan, a veterinarian at Houston’s Skyline Animal Hospital.
More than 4.5 million people get bit by dogs in the U.S. each year. And in the worst cases, bites can be fatal. An average of 43 people die every year from dog bites, according to the CDC. That’s why biting is not a behavior to ignore.
“In general, no behavioral issue in your dog is going to fix itself. And a lot of people wait for that. They’ll say, ‘Oh, he bit this 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. “What we see is it progresses and gets worse, as we’ve seen with Commander.“
Here’s how to figure out what could be causing that reaction, and how to address it:
Identify what’s triggering the biting. New homes or new people can be common reasons.
Although your dog’s reaction can feel random to you, it’s often tied to environmental stressors that are causing the dog to feel startled, scared or like they need to defend their territory.
If a dog bites a person and then they leave them alone, it is teaching the dog that biting is a “mechanism to get away (from) the stressor that I have,” White said.
“They can also bite because they feel threatened. Or because they are trying to protect something that’s valuable to them,” Sullivan said. “Any of these scenarios could potentially apply to those Secret Service agents, depending on the relationship they have with the dog.”
Biting incidents could also be because the dog is stressed. “To me, with the amount of traffic, the amount of different people, the loudness, the noise, I just think being in the White House full-time is a perfect environment to create anxiety,” said Dr. Blake Hardin, a veterinarian at pet telehealth company Dutch.
White said the White House is a tough proving ground for a dog to handle, with “every distraction possible” and hundreds of people coming in and out. That’s why a dog that has not done desensitization and confidence-building drills would be at a disadvantage, he said.
As for why Commander bit so many Secret Service agents, White suggested it might be simply because “there’s so many of us throughout the White House, inside and out.”
Socialization is a big factor, too.
Exposing dogs to different people and situations when they are eight to 20 weeks old is critical. That way, “they start life with ‘humans equals something great,’” White said.
“Generally, what we’re seeing when it comes to aggressive dogs, whether it’s people aggression, dog aggression … the vast majority of the time it’s based solely off a lack of socialization at a young age,” White said. “When Commander was eight weeks to 20 weeks, were they taking him out a lot, getting him around a lot of different types of people?”
If you miss that socialization window when your dog is an impressionable puppy, it will take more work to address reactive behavior ― but it’s not too late to do training, White said.
He shared a positive-association drill in which he would expose an under-socialized dog to different people and environments and give them 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 that’s kind of how the system works of building a super confident dog.”
Illness or injury can also be reasons dogs bite.
Sometimes, dogs also bite when they do not feel well.
“If you touch something and an animal naturally kind of comes back and nips, it might be the way that they’re saying, ‘That hurts. Please don’t do that,’” Hardin said.
Your dog’s newfound reactivity could also be hormonal. “At a certain age, dogs will come into their sexual maturity and they will have a tendency to have more aggressive types of episodes,” Sullivan said.
Consider the personality of the breed and their genetic predisposition.
Your dog’s breed can also influence what triggers them. “A lot of people just aren’t getting breeds of dogs that are conducive to their lifestyle,” White said.
“If you have a working dog … and it’s not actually doing the purpose it was meant to in life, that creates anxiety in the animal, restlessness,” Hardin said. “And that restlessness can turn into a bite or nip if approached in the wrong way.”
He gave the example of Australian shepherds, which are hardwired to herd sheep by running five or six miles a day. Hardin said he has treated more Australian shepherds having reactive issues after being cooped up in apartments during the COVID pandemic. Beyond giving them more exercise, one way to address these dogs’ restlessness is to have these dogs solve puzzles to get a treat instead of just giving them a treat, he said.
“That way, they’re working their brain and when they’re working that brain, that anxiety goes down. And that risk for biting or or attacking also goes down,” Hardin said.
Hardin said he always recommends starting behavioral training before anti-anxiety medication.
“These herding breeds have that genetic predisposition to (go) ‘Hey, this person is running really quick in front of me, I’m going to chase them and go nip at them. That’s just in there,’” White said “But that’s where the training comes in, it can certainly override that.”
There are several ways you can address this issue.
Hardin acknowledged that some dogs with have anxiety or reactivity might need medication full-time, too. And that’s totally OK. Medication may also help you and your pup as you work on behavior modification and training.
“With those animals where we’re fighting a physiological mechanism, we need to just keep them on that medication for their own safety (and) for the safety of other people, too,” Hardin said.
Commitment to treating the issue through these routes will likely result in improvement.
That said, part of addressing your dog’s repeated biting behavior means knowing when it’s time to escalate the situation and re-home your pet with someone else or move them to a new environment, like what happened with Commander. The stakes are high if biting behavior is not addressed, especially if your dog is around kids.
“Children are going to be the most common victims of dog bites, and are more likely to be severely injured. So dogs that are biting children, I tend to get very, very cautious about keeping that dog in a home,” Sullivan said.
It’s always best to talk with your vet. In extreme or more uncommon cases, a doctor may suggest measures like euthanizing, particularly if there’s something medically wrong with the dog that is affecting their quality of life, such as tumors or other medical issues that are causing new aggression.
Ultimately, though, it’s a human’s commitment to helping their dog that matters most.
“A lot of people see, ‘We re-home the dog, and now he’s doing well.’ Well, it’s not necessarily just because you changed that dog’s environment,” White said. “Now that new owner says, ‘Hey, this dog was re-homed because he had aggression issues. So I need to take this seriously. So I’m going to get him in training, I’m going to try to do all the right things.’ And that’s why the dog’s successful.”