by Kasper Halevy (’24) | May 10, 2021
The “indoguration” party celebrating Major’s journey from a pup shelter to the White House marked a milestone for rescue dogs. Since the First Dogs of the United States, Champ (12) and Major (3), moved into the White House on January 24, Major has been displaying some aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, little mainstream media coverage has investigated the possible causes of these issues. As a German Shepherd lover who has assisted in the socialization and training of GSDs rescued from high-kill shelters, I feel compelled to defend Major from the recent onslaught of negative publicity. Major’s traumatic past, new environment, and mismatched training methods support the view that he is not to blame for his actions.
Major was rescued by the Delaware Humane Association from a litter that had suffered life-threatening abuse; severe maltreatment at a young age leaves long-term psychological scars on animals and humans alike. It is plausible that Major’s aggression stems from a puppyhood memory that developed into a phobia against people who share his abuser’s traits. Hypothetically, if his perpetrator wore sunglasses, Major would be likely to act out against others wearing similar eyewear. An investigation into Major’s possible trigger sources would thus help identify the best course of treatment for him.
Additionally, Major’s new home environment may provoke antagonistic reactions. Unlike his previous residence in Wilmington, Delaware, the White House is a bustling place with lots of people who have different appearances and odors. Moreover, German Shepherds are fiercely loyal dogs who generally do not take well to having multiple handlers. The drastic increase in stimuli could trigger periodic “fear aggression” responses in Major. To ease his anxiety, his Secret Service details should prioritize settling him into a more predictable routine.
Last but not least, Major’s training method needs reassessment. Following a second nipping incident on March 30, Major was sent to a K9 training camp that focused on obedience by simulating military experiences. However, the goal should not be converting civilian Major into a military or police canine. Customized training should aim to assist Major in conquering his fears and acclimating to a new environment. Furthermore, punitive training methods must be avoided: a choke collar was spotted on Major when he returned to the White House from Delaware on March 24. Ms. Lynn Halliday Brown, a seasoned dog trainer and Palo Alto Humane Society volunteer, explained that when attending to rescue dogs, “rewarding desirable behavior is more effective than punishing naughty behavior.” Although both approaches are effective, punitive training could generate unintended side effects. The dog could develop additional fears due to damaged emotions resulting from repeated punishment. Major’s rescue background is already filled with trepidation. Potentially exacerbating it through punishment is ineffective and frankly, inhumane.
A kinder and more constructive way to help Major is counter-conditioning, the process of converting an unwanted reaction to a particular stimulus into a desirable response. This is often done by offering treats or toys in the presence of a feared stimulus, which ideally results in more comfort around the trigger over time.
Major is an inspiration to all the families who choose to adopt from shelters. Our First Rescue Canine and Greeter-in-Chief deserves more compassion and understanding. Compared to some of his predecessors’ infractions, Major’s recent nipping episodes were much less consequential. Sunny, President Obama’s Portuguese water dog, sent a two-year-old tumbling at a party. Disastrously, Fala, President Roosevelt’s Scottish terrier, ripped a French ambassador’s pants off and chased a South American diplomat up a tree!
My final verdict in this case? Major’s misdemeanors are merely minor.