Just as Vice President Joe Biden was wrapping up an interview with “60 Minutes” in 2015, he turned to an observer sitting quietly to the side to pose a question of his own: Was there any interest in going outside to play?
“He’s a talker,” Biden said of his German shepherd, Champ, who by then had erupted into excited howls, ready to leap past the doors as soon as Biden grabbed a golf club.
A longtime presence in the federal government, Biden took the famous line literally: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. Now, his two German shepherds, Champ and Major, are expected to join the president-elect and Jill Biden at the White House after his inauguration in January.
At 12 years old, Champ is the elder of the pair, while 2-year-old Major, who will become the first shelter dog to live at the White House, was adopted a few months before Biden announced his latest run for the presidency. The German shepherds will fill an empty role at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: President Donald Trump was the first occupant in more than a century not to own a pet of some kind.
Like Barack and Michelle Obama, the Bidens did not initially own a dog during the 2008 Obama-Biden race for the White House. But Jill Biden had promised her husband, who has long had German shepherds, that they would get a puppy after the campaign, according to Politico, and they bought one shortly thereafter from a breeder in Pennsylvania.
Although their grandchildren chose the name “Champ,” it carried special significance for Biden, whose father would often tell him to “get up, champ” during tough moments, a common refrain in his speeches on the campaign trail.
Months into his first canine term in Washington, Champ had “generally been a good dog,” a Biden spokeswoman told the Washington Post at the time, although “the occasional puppy accident” prompted the second family to replace the off-white carpet at One Observatory Circle, the vice presidential residence, with hardwood floors.
The nation’s second dog also left his mark on the home in a different way. When Jill Biden created the residence’s Family Heritage Garden, with flagstones bearing the names of all its former occupants, she included the German shepherd on the Bidens’ paver.
“Of all of us, Champ is going to have the hardest time leaving this place,” Jill Biden told the Post as the Bidens prepared to move back to Delaware in January 2017. “Champ has a built-in family here 24 hours a day with all the staff and security guards that keep little dog biscuits on hand for him.”
The family had intended to adopt a second puppy in 2008 to give Champ a playmate, but it took nearly a decade to do so. In November 2018, the Bidens officially adopted Major, then 10 months old, from the Delaware Humane Association.
The dog, who was first fostered by the couple, was one of six puppies who had been brought to the shelter “after being exposed to something toxic” in a previous home.
A number of news outlets have reported that Major will be the first rescue dog to live in the White House, but the more appropriate title appears to be first shelter dog. (President Lyndon B. Johnson’s terrier mix, Yuki, was a rescue – found by daughter Luci at a Texas gas station before being gifted to the president.)
Still, Andrew Hager, the historian-in-residence at the Presidential Pet Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia, said Biden’s choice to adopt a shelter dog underscores how the animals at the White House have reflected historical trends in American pet ownership.
“You can kind of follow the cultural view of dogs starting with Washington,” he said in an interview with the Post.
The earliest four-legged residents of the White House served as working animals just as much as they were pets, Hager added, including goats, horses and even a cow that grazed on the lawn. But as Americans began treating animals as companions, so did the country’s heads of state.
With shelter adoptions skyrocketing in popularity in the past several decades, he said it is fitting that Major came from a no-kill shelter in Delaware. Biden, he noted, was criticized for purchasing Champ from a breeder in 2008.
The tradition of White House pets is so ingrained that Trump drew some suspicion about his lack of a pet. It was not until February 2019 that he addressed the matter, explaining that he doesn’t “have any time” and that getting a furry friend “feels a little phony.”
Jennifer B. Pickens, a historian and the author of “Pets at the White House,” said that dogs have been such a mainstay for many presidents in part because they can offer companionship and relatability. She expected to see a surge in Americans’ interest in German shepherds in the coming months.
“People love to see ways they can relate to their president, and I think pets provide that,” she said. “If you’re truly a dog lover and you have a dog, that shows, and it’s something people can see and enjoy.”
Bo, the Obamas’ first Portuguese water dog, made appearances on late-night television and prompted multiple children’s books. President George W. Bush’s pooch, Barney, a Scottish terrier, became an early Internet sensation with his dog’s eye view videos of the White House.
First dogs have also helped with functions such as state dinners and presidential transitions, Pickens noted, as well as with campaigning. As early as 1928, thousands of photos of King Tut, President Herbert Hoover’s Belgian Malinois, were spread across the country.
Biden’s campaign was not shy about doing the same.
Earlier this month, amid Instagram videos of Major making sure his human had “no ruff days on the trail,” the campaign posted a more explicit appeal to dog lovers at the polls.
“Let’s put a dog back in the White House,” it said.
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