Top dogs: canine companions in the White House

The death of Bo, the Obamas’ Portuguese Water Dog, unleashed sorrow and tributes from across the United States, but the Bidens will continue the long tradition of presidential pets

Bo, the Obamas' dog, in a 2010 photo taken at the White House.
Bo, the Obamas' dog, in a 2010 photo taken at the White House.Evan Vucci (AP)

One of the promises Barack Obama kept when he began his first presidential term in 2009 was to get a dog for his two daughters, Sasha and Malia. Senator Ted Kennedy gifted him a Portuguese Water Dog, a breed known for its hypoallergenic qualities and tight curls. The girls named him Bo after their grandfather on their mother’s side, known as “Diddley” after the rock musician Bo Diddley, and because their cousins had a cat of the same name. Bo did not take long to win the hearts of the American public on visits to children’s hospitals, and for his playful attitude to high-profile White House guests. So it was with great sorrow that the American public learned of his death from cancer on May 8, when tributes flooded in to messages posted by the former presidential couple announcing the sad news.

“We also know we weren’t the only ones who cared for Bo, and are grateful for all the love you showed him over the years. Please hug the furry members of your family a little closer tonight – and give them a belly rub from us,” wrote Michelle Obama on Instagram. Her husband posted photos of himself with Bo from his time in the White House, including an image of the former president running through the halls with Bo at his side. “He tolerated all the fuss that came with being in the White House, had a big bark but no bite, loved to jump in the pool in the summer, was unflappable with children, lived for scraps around the dinner table, and had great hair,” he wrote. “He was exactly what we needed and more than we ever expected. We will miss him dearly.” With 789,000 “Likes,” the former leader clearly touched a few hearts.

Donald Trump was famously the first president in a century to have no pets at all, so the arrival of Joe Biden’s two German Shepherds – Major and Champ – therefore resets a tradition stretching back to George Washington. Thirty-one of the United States’ 46 presidents so far have kept pets at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Obama’s remark that Bo had “a big bark but no bite” cannot be said of Major, a shelter dog who has bitten two people so far since arriving at his new home. After the second incident in late March, he was sent back to Delaware for further training. Some reporters recalled a 2008 incident when George W. Bush’s dog Barney bit Reuters reporter Jon Decker’s right index finger.

Jill Biden with Champ in January 2020.
Jill Biden with Champ in January 2020.ADAM SCHULTZ / WHITE HOUSE HANDO (EFE)

Major also made headlines back in November when Joe Biden fractured his foot while playing with him, requiring him to wear a walking boot for weeks. Champ and Major regularly appear in the First Couple’s social media posts, though Champ has been a fixture for much longer as he is now 13 years old and was by Biden’s side through his years as Obama’s vice-president. The First Couple are now planning on introducing a cat to the menagerie, for which Major required a day in a cat shelter to get used to the idea. The pair are not the first German Shepherds in the White House – Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dog, also called Major, had some “biting incidents” too.

However they behave, First Pets are a phenomenon. Hillary Clinton wrote a book about her two companions called “Dear Socks, Dear Buddy.” Bo meanwhile became the protagonist of the children’s book “Bo, America’s Commander in Leash.” White House pet followers are now eager to see if Champ, Major or the new cat will become the star of the Biden presidency.

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