President Joe Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden’s 2-year-old German shepherd, Commander, has been involved in more biting incidents than previously reported at the White House, multiple sources familiar with the matter told CNN.
While the US Secret Service has acknowledged 11 reported biting incidents involving its personnel, sources who spoke to CNN said the real number is higher and includes executive residence staff and other White House workers. Those bites have ranged in severity, from one known bite requiring hospital treatment to some requiring attention from the White House Medical Unit to some going unreported and untreated.
While the first family works for solutions to the ongoing issue, CNN has learned, Commander is not on the White House campus.
“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. They remain grateful for the patience and support of the U.S. Secret Service and all involved, as they continue to work through solutions,” Elizabeth Alexander, communications director for the first lady, said in a statement released first to CNN.
Alexander continued, “Commander is not presently on the White House campus while next steps are evaluated.”
It’s unclear if there is an official count of the bites, and US Secret Service chief of communications Anthony Guglielmi told CNN there is not a complete number. CNN spoke to four sources familiar with the incidents who work at the White House complex, and additional sources with knowledge of what happened. None could put an exact number on the incidents, some of which may not have been followed up on like the 11 known cases. Though DC-area hospitals and urgent cares are required to report patients treated for dog bites to the DC Department of Health, the White House Medical Unit is not required to report dog bites since it is under federal jurisdiction.
One source familiar with the incidents pointed to efforts from their colleagues to adjust Secret Service workplace habits amid broader concerns about workplace safety as they work to support the first family at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The situation has also revealed broader tensions between the Bidens and the US Secret Service. Sources suggest the relationship between the first family and the US Secret Service was first strained when the family’s elder dog, Major, caused an injury to an unnamed Secret Service agent before ultimately being sent away more permanently to Delaware. That incident caused a breach in trust, a source familiar with the dynamic said.
Major also had biting incidents with an engineer, per a witness to the incident, and a National Park Service employee, previously reported by CNN in spring 2021.
While the Bidens enjoyed a good relationship with Secret Service during the vice presidency, the Major situation caused “stress” for the first couple in their early days at the White House. That laid the foundation for a “combustible” relationship with Secret Service, which has since been exacerbated by numerous “last minute changes” to schedules – including spending most weekends away from the White House at Camp David or one of their Delaware residences – and “unrealistic requests” that strain the agency’s resources, the source familiar with the relationship dynamic said.
There had also been questions of USSS agents’ political loyalty to former President Donald Trump, as detailed by Biden allies to The Washington Post during the presidential transition in late 2020.
Guglielmi strongly disputed any reports of tension between Secret Service and the Bidens.
“On this I can say with firsthand knowledge that it is categorically false. There is an immense degree of trust and respect between the Secret Service and the first family and we know those feelings are mutual,” Guglielmi told CNN.
Despite assertions that Commander would receive training, the biting incidents keep happening. The last confirmed bite took place last Monday. The White House has also declined to answer CNN’s inquiry on a specific number of biting incidents involving Commander.
“We’re beyond the point of worrying about trust being broken. We have to speak up,” a source familiar with the president’s Secret Service detail said.
That source, who requested anonymity to speak freely, described a “hostile” and “dangerous” work environment, suggesting that some agents have been warned to go through certain entrances and avoid certain areas to evade an interaction with the dog. The Secret Service communicates to its agents by radio when the dog is outdoors, and officers avoid the area.
That source said a supervisor told them that there had been a large number of incidents of Commander biting this past summer “as a way to warn me of how concerning the situation was.”
The Secret Service is in communication with the White House on “how best to operate” in the environment.
“The Secret Service is tasked with ensuring the security of the White House complex, while minimizing operational impact to those who work and live there. We take the safety and wellbeing of our employees extremely seriously, and while special agents and officers neither care for nor handle the first family’s pets, we continue to work with the White House to update our guidance on how to best operate in an environment that includes pets,” Guglielmi said.
The documented bites have ranged in severity. One of the previously reported incidents was described as “playful.”
“Looks like the dog was being playful but playful can go wrong quickly,” a USSS Uniformed Division captain said in an October 2022 email obtained by the conservative group Judicial Watch.
But a November 2022 incident, which was also previously reported, required a Uniformed Division USSS officer to be treated at a hospital for evaluation, according to those emails. And last week’s incident required treatment “by medical personnel” on the White House complex.
Commander becoming ‘a serious issue’ at the White House
The White House has largely downplayed the cacophony of media reports and analysis following CNN’s reporting on last week’s incident, pointing reporters to previous statements on the stressful environment at the White House. But to Jonathan Wackrow, a former US Secret Service Agent on then-first lady Michelle Obama’s detail and now a CNN contributor, the situation cannot be ignored.
“Imagine you’re the owner of a business, a CEO of a company, you bring your dog in, and your dog keeps biting employees. You’re creating an unsafe work environment. And that’s what’s happening now,” said Wackrow.
“There’s uniqueness here where it’s the residence of the president of the United States, but it’s also the workplace for hundreds, if not thousands, of people. And you can’t bring a hazard into the workplace and that’s what is essentially happening with this dog. One time, you can say it’s an accident, but now multiple incidents is a serious issue,”
The Bidens, a White House official said, have taken the situation seriously.
“They’ve been working diligently with Secret Service, with trainers, with veterinarians, with the residence staff and others on this – they have been taking this very seriously, and for months,” the official said.
The Bidens have long been dog owners, and much like any other family member, the topic of their dog’s behavior is a “sensitive subject” for staff to raise, the source familiar with the dynamic said.
“The pets are like their children, and they are bonded to them because they are loved and cared for just like all members of the family,” said Michael LaRosa, former press secretary to the first lady.
Champ, also a German shepherd, lived at the vice president’s residence, which has a much smaller security footprint. Champ passed away at the Biden family home in Wilmington, Delaware, in June 2021 at the age of 13.
LaRosa suggested that the loss of Champ, who died, and Major, who was sent away, both within a six-month period, was a “jarring experience” and an “abrupt disruption to their family life.”
“The public nature of those challenges with the dogs and then losing them made it all more stressful for both the president and first lady,” LaRosa said.
Bringing Champ and Major to the White House was an adjustment, Jill Biden told Kelly Clarkson during a 2021 appearance on her talk show.
“They have to take the elevator, they’re not used to that, and they have to go out on the South Lawn with lots of people watching them. So that’s what I’ve been obsessed with, getting everybody settled and calm,” she said.
When she’s in Washington, the first lady takes the dog for a walk in the early mornings before heading to school for the day. But during the day, there’s a rotating cast of executive residence staff who take the dog out, and also transport Commander and the cat, Willow, to the Bidens’ weekend destinations (in separate cages), a source familiar with the process said.
The lack of consistency could be part of the behavioral problem, according to Ryan Bulson, a local dog trainer and president of Mid-Atlantic German Shepherd Rescue.
“It’s a German shepherd. They need structure. They need consistency. They need boundaries. They are a guardian breed. … When you’re looking at different people holding that leash, I would guarantee that there is no consistency amongst all of them,” Bulson said, pointing to the different tensions and distances with which the different walkers would leash the dog, and different wording of commands, like “heel” or “walk.”
Bulson, speaking through his expertise with German shepherds and as a dog trainer, has not specifically worked with Commander, nor does he have inside knowledge into the walking process.
White House officials have previously said that Commander would be receiving remedial training, though they were unable to answer whether that had taken place in the aftermath of reporting on 10 incidents this summer.
Bulson said it’s critical after any training is complete that the owners of the dog and any other handlers are speaking from the same script and continuing to do the hard work of ongoing training together.
He warned that re-training Commander, who has displayed aggressive behavior and subsequently repeated it, could be a challenge.
Asked if it was too late, Bulson said it’s up to the Bidens.
“If they don’t, as the humans, change their behaviors, then yes, it’s too late. They’re going to have to change their behaviors first before you can even think about changing the dog’s behaviors. Because they’re enabling, that’s what it boils down to. If they don’t change the way they handle and care for the dog … and learn and make a conscious effort to and legitimately say, ‘I am going to change my ways to set the dog up for success,’ if they can’t do that, that dog’s never going to be able to be helped in their care. They have to make that decision,” he said.
The situation also underscores an uneven set of rules applying to a White House pet – though the legal ground itself is murky.
Local DC laws “are not applicable on federal properties, including White House grounds,” a DC Council official said. The White House falls under federal jurisdiction.
However, there aren’t many federal laws that address, regulate, or protect animals, creating a “gap,” said Kathy Hessler, assistant dean for animal legal education at George Washington University Law School.
“It’s possible that certainly people could allege absent any federal regulation that the DC code would apply. And I think the opposite could also be argued. It’s not clear to me what outcome would happen in that kind of a dispute,” Hessler said.
Under DC code applying to any other Washingtonian dog, Hessler explained, dog bites are supposed to be reported. That initiates a process for quarantining the animal to make sure there’s no risk of rabies. And then a determination is made, based on the facts surrounding the bite, on whether the dog is dangerous. That can result in a fine of a few hundred dollars, with impoundment a more serious potential consequence.
As incidents involving Commander mount, Hessler warned that the situation can no longer be ignored for the well-being of the dog, White House staff and the Biden family.
“I think the simple thing would be to remove Commander from that environment, at least temporarily, to see if these behaviors can be ameliorated, if they’re repeating in a different situation — so that people can get more data upon which they can make an informed decision about whether this is going to work, or whether some different decisions need to be taken for the benefit of everybody,” Hessler said.
It’s all led to a difficult situation for the first family, for those who feel they have been put in danger, and, sadly, for the dog.
“It doesn’t matter if we were talking about the president, the pope, it doesn’t matter to me. I take that title out of the equation. I look at the dog. … At the end of the day, I feel the worst for the dog first. Second of all, I feel just as bad for the people that dog had bitten. Because the dog has been set up to fail. If you can’t give the dog what the dog needs, then get a goldfish,” Bulson said.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that the Secret Service officer bit by Commander Biden in November 2022 required hospital treatment.