Photo courtesy of DHA / Stephanie Gomez Carter
Major—the nation’s first ‘First Dog’ adopted from a shelter—joins big brother Champ in the White House.
In a pawsitive step for rescue pets everywhere, German shepherd Major Biden, 3, makes history as the first shelter dog to live in the White House, confirms Andrew Hager, historian-in-residence at the Presidential Pet Museum.
Major embarks on his DOTUS journey alongside his brother Champ, 12, a pawlitical veteran with eight years of experience sniffing out Beltway hot spots as Second Dog.
The Biden family adopted Major from the no-kill Delaware Humane Association (DHA) on Nov. 17, 2018, after fostering him for nearly seven months.
“Someone in the community had a litter of puppies and they reached out to us because they needed to give some of them up,” explains Patrick Carroll, DHA’s executive director. “They were concerned because they had a health issue and they were declining.”
They wanted to surrender the five 11-week-old female puppies in April 2018 but keep the lone male—Major. However, when he continued to grow sicker, they realized they could not afford the medical care he needed. Thankfully, the hospital called DHA and said, “‘Rather than elect for euthanasia, can you help us with this puppy and give it a new start?’ So we ended up with all six of the puppies,” Carroll says. “We nursed them back to health. They had gotten into a toxic substance, so it was fixable, but it just took time, money and medical treatment.”
Once the pups were healthy enough to enter foster care and eventually be spayed and neutered before adoption, DHA posted them on social media, which caught Ashley Biden’s eye, Carroll says. She got the ball rolling with a “Hey, Dad, I know you’ve been looking for a German shepherd puppy. Look at this!”
So Joe Biden headed down the shelter to help save the dogs. “He just showed up at the shelter on Easter Sunday to meet the puppies!” Carroll says. When the staff explained that all the pups were currently in foster care, the veep stayed for a group photo.
Delaware being Delaware, Biden’s dog trainer knew Carroll and reached out. “He said, ‘Hey, Vice President Biden is very interested in one of those puppies, specifically a male.’ So that’s what we did. It’s a little unconventional, but it was actually the trainer who came and got the puppy. Then they put him into foster with the Biden family that spring.”
After some schedule juggling, Major’s official adoption was set for November. “Biden came alone, just with Major, to finalize the adoption, and we wanted to make it as normal as possible and he wanted it to be as normal as possible,” Carroll says. “One thing I remember is that he had said, ‘I’m in a rush, so let’s be efficient,’ in a nice way, and then he said, ‘I’ll just do one group photo, if it’s OK with all of you.’
Champ and Major: First Dogs, a picture book written by National Book Award longlist nominee Joy McCullough and illustrated by Sheyda Abvabi Best, comes out Jan. 19.
“When we finalized the adoption, we announced it on the loudspeakers saying, ‘Attention staff, visitors and volunteers: Our puppy Major has been adopted by the Biden family,’ and we say ‘Delaware Humane is making friends for life.’ It was our standard announcement. And then people clapped and we make a big deal out of it. We really want the adopter to feel good about it.”
In typical Biden fashion, “He was not really acting like he was in a hurry,” Carroll says. “He hung out for a while. He sat there and everyone gathered around him and asked him a lot of questions and he shared a lot of information. Kathy, the adoption counselor, said that he talked about cancer, because he obviously has been affected by that with his son Beau, and how they were training dogs to identify cancer in people.”
Everyone got a chance to meet him, Carroll says. “Lots of staff did selfies with him and he was there well over an hour. So I’ve learned that he’s like that. I’ve heard people say, Secret Service or his staff may say, ‘This is how this is going to go,’ but then he does a different thing. So they have to roll with it. And that’s exactly what happened. He was very clear about, ‘I don’t have a lot of time,’ but he was very gracious and very giving of his time and his attention to everyone. So that was a really special moment for everybody, I think.”
Having a shelter pet in the White House is significant, the pet museum’s Hager says.
“I think it’s really reflective of the trend in America over the last 30 or so years to move toward adoption rather than breeders and puppy mills,” Hager says. “The presidents and their pets usually reflect Americans’ attitude toward pets at that time, and I think you can see that with the Bidens, and the fact that Major is a rescue. It’s a great example for people.”
The Bidens are longtime animal lovers, Hager says, and made sure Champ was front and center during Biden’s time as veep. “I do know that Dr. Biden very much wanted Champ to be recorded as a member of the family, and they set up something at the Naval Observatory where they had the names of all the previous vice presidents who had lived there and their family members, and on the Bidens’ plaque they also included Champ.”
This past November, the Bidens announced that a First Kitty would also be joining the 1600 Penn pack at some point.
For DHA, Major’s adoption “highlights the work that we do every day, not only at Delaware Humane but all shelters throughout the country,” Carroll says. “It highlights why it’s so important to remember that not only that you can adopt from a shelter, but that shelters need you, whether it’s to foster or to volunteer, and that the shelters are a resource in the community for veterinary care, for vaccinations or for food assistance. Shelters are really transitioning to becoming full-service resource centers for pet owners because the whole focus is keeping them in their home rather than bringing them into a shelter. That’s actually the goal at this point. What can we do to keep pets and people intact and happy together?”
Renowned Delaware philanthropists Tatiana and Gerret Copeland, the shelter’s top supporters, have created Reggie’s Fund in memory of a beloved dog they adopted from DHA. The fund is designed specifically to help cover medical care for dogs like Major when their owners are unable to afford veterinary costs.
Carroll says he’s proud to seeing Major take on his new high-profile role and is hopeful it will encourage more shelter and rescue adoptions. “If one of our shelter dogs is good enough for the White House, then they’re certainly good enough for your house!” Carroll says lightheartedly.
Major and Champ became social media stars during Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, amassing followers and fan accounts across multiple platforms. Their Christmas video, which features a hilarious, adorable mash-up of the two dogs, had racked up nearly 54,000 likes on the Presidential Transition Twitter, another 50,000 likes on Dr. Jill Biden’s Twitter and almost half a million YouTube views within a week of its Dec. 23 release.