First Dogs: With Joe Biden pets will be back in the White House

For the first time in decades, there were no Presidential pets and in this, as in so many other ways, Biden’s two dogs represent a return to normality. But they also represent something new because Major, the younger dog, came from a litter of aba...

First Dogs: With Joe Biden pets will be back in the White House
President Donald Trump’s administration might be resisting handing over power to President-elect Joe Biden’s team. But in one area there has been no resistance. Biden’s two German Shepherds, Champ and Major, were able to take on the First Dogs of the USA titles, at least on social media, since there was no incumbent. Trump refused to keep a dog in the White House because he thought he would look silly walking one.

For the first time in decades, there were no Presidential pets and in this, as in so many other ways, Biden’s two dogs represent a return to normality. But they also represent something new because Major, the younger dog, came from a litter of abandoned puppies at a rescue centre. With the exception of Lyndon B.Johnson’s terrier mix Yuki, who was found by the President’s daughter at a petrol station, all other First Dogs have been purebred dogs usually sourced from breeding kennels.

Biden’s decision to adopt a rescue dog shows the success of the sustained campaign to get people to turn away from professional breeders, and find dogs from the vast numbers abandoned who would otherwise starve or be euthanized. Steven Kotler, in A Small Furry Hope, his engaging book combining science, spirituality and a memoir and manual for dog rescuers, traces the origin of this problem to the Victorian era when “the nouveau middle-class, suddenly flush with leisure time as a result of the Industrial Revolution, discovered a passion for genetics that quickly turned forty core dog breeds into four hundred varieties.”

The earlier breeds served purposes like hunting or fighting, along with lapdogs for aristocrats. While subject to cruelties, they were generally taken care of because of their functional value. But with greater demand for dogs as pets, in more variety, many more were bred than could find homes. Dogs started being abandoned or brutally killed. In response, animal lovers started shelters, like the Battersea Dogs Home, established in London in 1860, which took in unwanted dogs and tried to find them new homes.

But the problem just grew. Economic turmoil, natural disasters and war led to more abandoned dogs. The practice of gifting children puppies for Christmas, or fads for breeds driven by popular entertainment, such as films like 101 Dalmatians, led to people taking in dogs that they later decided they didn’t want or couldn’t maintain. Another problem was unscrupulous breeders who produced dogs with physical problems that again led to their being abandoned later in life. The horrific use of dogs in laboratories created a new category of animals that were abandoned or killed when their use was over.

In the 1970s the USA was euthanizing at least 13.5 million dogs in shelters every year, with large cities like Los Angeles killing around 300 per day. This has changed sharply and today LA euthanizes barely 10 a day, mostly terminally ill cases. Across the USA euthanizing rates have plummeted and the key to this was reducing, or at least limiting, the demand for breed dogs. Kotler writes that “it wasn’t until the 1990s that the catchy tag line, “Less born, less killed, less cruelty,” really caught on. Breeders still operate, but most people will consider a rescue first. And for those in the public eye, like Biden, there is now real pressure to get a rescue dog.
India is now where the USA was decades back. A growing middle class wants dogs and, influenced by films, ads (the Vodafone pug) and celebrities, it wants breed dogs. Many people see breeding as an easy way to make money, setting up puppy farms that turn out ‘trendy’ dogs in gruesome conditions. Many are large breeds like Labradors and Siberian huskies which are hard to maintain, increasing the likelihood of abandonment. Since little euthanizing is done in India, the dogs are just thrown out to join an already huge population of strays.

But animal activists are now trying to change perceptions here too. Priya Chetty-Rajagopal, a Bengaluru-based activist describes a whole system where abandoned dogs are rescued, given medical treatment (when needed) and are spayed (to prevent further breeding), and then rehomed, often through events where people can come and check out prospective dogs and meet other adopters to help deal with the questions that come up about rescue dogs. “People imagine that rescue dogs come with problems, but in most cases, these can be solved by meeting others who have dealt with these issues,” she says.

Chetty-Rajagopal says that some adopters only want puppies, free of problems and perhaps even abandoned breed dogs: “Essentially they want a dog for free.” But a growing number will take on dogs that might be seen less than perfect, like the huge numbers of three-legged dogs who are victims of road accidents. “It is just like the obsession with finding the perfect, virgin bride. We need to accept people and dogs for who they are,” she says. Dogs live in the moment and adapt remarkably well to physical problems, living full and joyous lives, and this is what they share with those who adopt them.

All dogs bring this gift of grounding you in the present, and it is one reason why Presidents appreciate them. Given the distractions and responsibilities of the job, it helps to have someone around who is entirely unaffected by them and reminds you of the regular joys of life. But with rescue dogs there is something more. Kotler describes “an exhilaration unlike any other… that comes from seeing a dog reborn. In the psychology of altruism, that rush is known as helper’s high.” A rescue dog helps you see how healing matters, and that seems well suited for a President who has more than his regular share of healing to perform.


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of
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