Bringing a dog into a new home can be a stressful experience, whether it’s your house or the White House.
So dog behavior expert Cesar Millan, aka the “Dog Whisperer” by fans of his long-running reality show on National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo Wild, wasn’t too surprised to hear that President Joe Biden’s dog, Major, reportedly nipped an unidentified person at the White House. Major and Champ left the White House for a “previously planned” trip to Delaware soon afterward, although the First Dogs were back at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. by Wednesday afternoon.
Millan tells MarketWatch that he immediately reached out to the White House, offering to lend his services.
“We are waiting and ready to help,” says Millan, whose new series “Cesar’s Way” will premiere on Nat Geo Wild in August. “What that incident says to me is that they were not in agreement on how to welcome Major into this new lifestyle.”
“In order for a dog to bite, he either feels the need to protect his territory, or he feels the need to protect his family — or when he’s afraid or he doesn’t trust, he can also bite,” Millan says. The dog might also need clearer rules, boundaries and limitations.
And this is a doggy dilemma likely shared by the many Americans who adopted or fostered a pet as the pandemic allowed them to work or spend more time at home. Indeed, animal rescues have reported record numbers of adoptions and fosters over the past year. So it’s not too surprising that many people sided with Major, a 3-year-old German shepherd that the Bidens rescued a few years ago, when they learned about the altercation.
So how can the First Family — and families across the country — help their dogs settle into a new home?
Millan, 51, has more than 25 years of experience helping man and man’s best friend see eye-to-eye — or rather, nose-to-nose, as this is the way our canine companions actually view the world. He got his start rehabilitating aggressive dogs in California, but will be the first to tell you that the dogs themselves are not the problem.
“I train humans,” he says with a laugh. “My clients are Harvard graduates, but they can’t walk a Chihuahua.”
And the root of the disconnect between folks and their fur babies comes from a good place; people consider their dogs a part of our family, Millan says, so we start seeing them as people, and forget to see them as dogs. Indeed, Americans collectively dropped an estimated $99 billion on their pets in 2020, according to the American Pet Products Association, which is up from $95.7 billion the year before.
“Dogs follow instinct. They don’t know Google exists. They don’t know Elon Musk exists. They don’t know politics. What they do know: the pursuit of happiness, unconditional love and hard work.”
— Cesar Millan
So dog owners often assume that their pups understand things beyond their comprehension — like, say, moving into the Executive Mansion and all of the stress that entails.
“It’s a new environment. It’s new people. And this particular place is a lot of stress.” Millan says. And while the president and first lady have accepted this stress and made the decision to move into the White House and its “routine for chaos” willingly, the dogs didn’t have a say in the matter any more than a toddler would.
“The way [Champ and Major] see it, they just appeared from one place to another place one day. And to us, the White House is a very symbolic house in the world, a very powerful house — but in the dog world, it’s just a house where people are not in sync,” Millan says. “So you have to let the dogs adapt in their way.”
And that includes introducing the dogs to the Executive Mansion and the grounds that they will have access to in a controlled way, and making sure everyone who is going to be coming into contact with the dogs on a regular basis is on the same page about where the dogs can go, how the dogs are supposed to behave in each space, as well as basics such as how people should approach the dogs.
And German shepherds like Champ and Major fall under the group of working dogs, which means they need jobs to do. That includes lots of exercise and mental stimulation to release the excess energy that can otherwise become pent-up stress and erupt in aggressive actions, like barking and biting.
“If he’s allowed to move around too much, as a German shepherd he’s going to start ‘patrolling,’” Millan says. This harks back to something White House press secretary Jen Psaki said about Major’s altercation: that the younger dog “was surprised by an unfamiliar person and reacted in a way that resulted in a minor injury to the individual.” Millan recommends reining in that extra energy by getting Major to run on a treadmill indoors, or having him fetch a ball and bring it back when he’s outside.
When Major is inside, the Bidens and their team can keep him in a “calm, surrendered state” by giving him a “job” in each room of the White House, such as a specific spot where he is supposed to sit, stand or lie down in each room. “He needs to know exactly what he’s doing in the Oval Office: stay here to the right or to the left, sitting or standing. You have to let him know. He can’t choose,” Millan said. “It’s like how soldiers or the Marines are trained to do their work. It’s that kind of discipline.”
“I know that this is his home, but he needs to know how to ‘be’ in his home.”
— Cesar Millan
And if 50 people walk into the room, they also need to be taught not to run up to Major and touch him. “Tell them he’s working,” Millan said, similar to how those with service dogs gently remind other people not to pet or make eye contact with their dog while he’s doing his job.
And Millan would love to walk the First Family, the White House staff, animal handlers, Secret Service and anyone else who would be coming into regular contact with Champ and Major through a seminar that gets everyone on the same page about caring for the dogs — as well as literally taking a group walk with the dogs.
“It would be awesome for Major to walk with all of the people he lives with, like a pack, to see and put everyone together into a community,” says Millan. “To a dog, that is the best thing in the world: walking with his pack. His goal in life is to make sure the pack is awesome.”
This is something your family can do, as well, especially when bringing in a new dog, or moving into a new house or apartment. Have all adults and kids walk the dog around his new neighborhood, and also introduce him to each room in the house one at a time. “He shouldn’t go in all directions on his own on day one,” says Millan. “Teach your dog manners from day one, and do it in a calm, confident way like you’ve known him for a million years.”
In fact, the daily walk (or, preferably, walks) would do humans and canines a world of good right now, Millan says, noting that the average American dog spends roughly 23 hours indoors, with just about an hour in total outside walking with his human.
“If he goes one hour outside, that’s not him living the best life,” Millan said, likening it to humans who have been chafing at stay-at-home orders one year into the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Look at us! People are going crazy,” Millan says. “So we can now have empathy and compassion for what we have done to our dogs prior to the pandemic. The best thing we can do for a dog in America is to walk him as long as we can, and make sure that family members join in.”