Any dog can bite. It is the special misfortune of dogs living in the most famous house in the United States to have their bites widely publicized, amplified and scrutinized. And so when Commander, the German shepherd who lives with President and Jill Biden, began biting, his behavior made headlines.
The story, I think, is bigger than the question of whether Commander is showing “aggressive behavior,” as an email from a Secret Service agent put it. I’m chary about assuming that Commander means to maim. Even in my hesitation, though, I know that when it comes to our dogs, we still like to characterize them in categorical terms, as good or bad. We blame the breed or blame the owner.
Neither is correct. The real story is that we are still holding dogs to standards they cannot possibly understand, while at the same time failing to really observe them and understand their behavior on their own terms.
Commander is not the first biter in the White House. The Bidens’ previous dogs Champ and Major were sent back to Delaware in March 2021, after what was described as a “biting incident.” Teddy Roosevelt had a bull terrier called Pete who bit a Navy Department clerk and tore off the pants of the French ambassador. Franklin D. Roosevelt exiled his dog — also, coincidentally, a German shepherd called Major — after he bit the British prime minister as well as the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate, Hattie Caraway. (Lest anyone start hand-wringing about German shepherds, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Scottish terrier Meggie, a squat, short-legged dog was herself a biter: she was sent away after biting a journalist.)
Why do dogs bite? As much as we like looking to our own behavior to interpret a dog’s actions, this is one case among many in which it is not apt. A biting man is well outside social norms. But biting is part of every dog’s normal behavioral repertoire. From 3 weeks of age, puppies are biting — which is to say, they are using their mouths to explore the world — to taste it, grab it, manipulate it. If they are growing up around other dogs, they very likely will bite them too, and learn from the response what happens when they bite too hard.
Early development marks the beginning of dogs’ learning to inhibit their bites, knowledge that will serve them well in their future social interactions with other animals, including people. If a dog is not properly socialized in early life — exposed to other dogs, people and any other animals they’ll be living with — they won’t get that all-important feedback. By 5 weeks, puppies are mouths with tails, and their teeth are sharp.
Only a few weeks later, puppies may wind up in a human home. The ease with which we can adopt or buy a dog (you could purchase a puppy with PayPal in the time it takes you to read this article) obscures the fact that dogs do not arrive at your home with a clear understanding of how you expect them to behave. Among the concepts that are fundamentally perplexing to dogs is that, while they use their mouths operationally, we reserve our mouths for breathing, speaking, eating and kissing, for the most part — and expect dogs to as well. Even more challenging, dogs frequently use mouthing and biting in play with one another without incident. So dogs need to learn that while they are free to bite toys, sticks, objects and other dogs in various contexts, they are never free to bite you.
This does not stop people from reacting with alarm at any sort of dog bite, often resorting to killing the dog. It is worth pausing here to interrogate what exactly a bite is.
When we read about “biting” dogs, it is often assumed that they are biting aggressively, with intent to harm or kill. That is certainly one possible aim of a bite. But a well-socialized dog might do plenty of nonaggressive biting. Some biting we could call “gentle biting” or “mouthing”: putting one’s mouth on a person, often when the dog is playing or excited. These are not aggressive bites, nor are they, typically, damaging ones.
There is also a warning bite: a dog might snap her teeth defensively if startled or afraid. The resultant bite could be damaging, but the intent is not aggressive. A bite could be done reflexively, as in a case where a person grabs a stick of interest to a dog or takes his food away prematurely. This kind of protective gesture is an indication that the person has failed to see what the dog thinks of as his own. A bite could be done to scold, as when a mother dog bites her puppies when they nurse too hard or bother her. This bite is an inter-dog communication of a line being crossed.
Since I am a researcher of animal behavior, my approach to Commander’s biting would be, in essence, to ask him what he means by his bite. I have not been a witness to any of the reported bites, but if I were, I would look to describe their context in order to help differentiate the kind and reason for each instance.
Did someone suddenly approach Commander (surprising him)? Does it look as if he was in pain or in an uncomfortable situation (the bite as information about his discomfort)? Did he give warning signs like a growl or bark before biting (defensively)? Was the bite done in response to a spirited gesture or a chase (playfully)? What did the dog do after the bite — continue to bite or step back? Bark and jump (more assertive) or roll on his back, exposing his belly (more submissive or playful)?
There is no one kind of bite, nor is there any bite without a prompt, internal or external. To know what to do with a biting dog — to even know how to talk about what he did — we need to understand that context. Even so, as some individuals were hospitalized after being bitten, the meaning of Commander’s bites might be secondary. Whether he intended it or not, his mouth can inflict damage.
Many sweet, laid-back dogs living as pets in our homes might be stressed to the point of developing a lively biting habit if they lived in the White House, faced with so many people, so much noise and so many camera eyes directed at them, handling by multiple people, and lacking the typical owned dog’s straightforward daily routine. The White House acknowledged this in a statement, saying, “The White House complex is a unique and stressful environment for family pets.”
I agree, and the answer isn’t that the dog needs better “training.” There’s no bad dog, Mr. President, but there are better and worse environments for a dog to be a dog.
Alexandra Horowitz (@DogUmwelt) runs the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College and is the author, most recently, of “The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves.”
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