On January 20, Biden will become the President of the United States and take up residence at the White House. But when he and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, move in, they won’t be alone. They’ll have a couple of four-legged housemates along with them.
With Biden’s election, the U.S. also welcomes a new pair of First Dogs, two German shepherds named Champ and Major. And while it’s exciting to have any animal in the White House, there’s something historic about Biden’s dogs in particular: Major will be the first rescue pet from an animal shelter ever to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Curious about Major, how the Bidens came to adopt a shelter dog, other White House pets, and how you can own a rescue pet, too? Read on to learn everything you need to know about our new favorite First Dog.
How Joe Met Major (and Champ)
During the 2008 Obama-Biden race for the White House, the Bidens didn’t actually own a dog. But Joe had had many German shepherds throughout his life, and Jill promised that after a hard-fought campaign, they would get a puppy. And so, in 2008, the Bidens purchased Champ from a breeder in Pennsylvania.
The pup’s name was chosen by the Bidens’ grandkids, but it also carried a special significance for Joe — when he faced tough challenges, his father would tell him, “Get up, champ.” It’s a line he also used during tough moments in his campaign.
The Bidens felt that Champ needed a playmate, and they planned to get another puppy. But being second-in-command to the President of the United States is a lot of work, so it wasn’t until 10 years later, in 2018, that the Bidens finally found their second furry friend.
Major: The First Shelter Dog to Live in the White House
When the Bidens purchased Champ from a breeder, they were criticized for choosing to shop, rather than adopt. That probably played into their decision to look to a no-kill animal shelter in Delaware for their next pet, because that’s where they found Major.
He was one of six puppies who were brought into the Delaware Humane Society “after being exposed to something toxic” in their previous home, the shelter has told reporters. The Bidens first fostered Major, and then officially adopted him in November of 2018. Major was 10 months old at the time.
A Brief History of White House Pets
Biden’s dogs represent the return of pets to the White House after four years — Donald Trump was the first president in over a century to have no pets.
You might remember the last furry residents to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: the Obamas’ two Portuguese Water Dogs, Bo and Sunny. Bo was the first canine member of the Obama family, after Barack Obama promised his two young daughters that if his bid for the presidency was successful, they could have a pet. Sunny joined the family four years later, in 2012.
There’s a very long history of White House dogs — at least 30 presidents, including George Washington, have had canine companions.
But dogs aren’t the only pets who have called the White House home. 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has been the official residence of alligators, tigers, opossums, a kangaroo, and more.
The First First Dogs
George Washington loved dogs, and had many of them at his Virginia estate, Mount Vernon. While it’s not entirely clear which of his many pups (if any) lived in the White House with him, we just couldn’t pass up this opportunity to mention Washington’s hound, Sweetlips, his dalmatian, Madame Moose, his French hounds, Tipsy, Mopsey, Truelove, and Ragman, or his beagles, Drunkard, Taster, and Tipler.
The First Rescue Dog in the White House
While Major will be the first shelter pet to live in the White House, he’s not the very first rescue dog to live there. President Lyndon B. Johnson had a beloved terrier mix who was found by his daughter as a stray at a gas station, rescued, and gifted to the president.
Talking (and Swearing) Birds
There have been a number of parrots who have lived in the White House. Martha Washington kept one, though it’s not known whether it could talk. William McKinley had a parrot that could whistle “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” But the most surprising bird resident at the White House might be Andrew Jackson’s talking parrot, who was removed from the president’s funeral after letting loose a string of profanity.
The First Pardoned Turkey
Ever wondered how the tradition of a presidential pardon for a Thanksgiving turkey came about? It started with Abraham Lincoln, who was sent a turkey for his and his wife’s Thanksgiving dinner, but became so attached to the bird, he kept it as a pet instead. For years, it lived happily on the White House lawn with Lincoln’s many cats.
Alligators in the Bathtubs (Yes, Really)
It might defy all logic, but more than one president has tried to keep an alligator as a pet in a White House bathtub. John Quincy Adams received his alligator as a gift from a general, and kept it in the bathroom of the then-unfinished East Wing (which would later become the official Presidential residence).
Herbert Hoover’s son had two alligators that lived in a bathtub, but were known for escaping and causing havoc. As the First Lady’s secretary Philippi Harding put it in a letter in 1921, “Beauty and the Beast are not congenial.”
Is Anything Too Wild for the White House?
Thomas Jefferson kept a pair of grizzly bear cubs on the White House lawn.
Calvin Coolidge kept a racoon, two lion cubs, a pygmy hippo, a wallaby, a black bear, and an antelope in his presidential menagerie.
Theodore Roosevelt’s children were known to be animal lovers, and collected guinea pigs, hens, a badger, a laughing hyena, and a barn owl while living in the White House.
But apparently there are limits to presidential pets. When Martin van Buren received two tiger cubs as a gift from the Sultan of Oman, Congress forbade him from keeping them at the White House. He fought to keep his exotic pets, but ultimately, they were placed in a zoo.
How Major Biden Could Advocate for Shelter Pets
There’s a long history of presidential pets influencing public trends. After the Obamas debuted Bo, online searches for Portuguese Water Dogs spiked, reflecting a sudden public interest in the breed.
Because of this, we think having Champ and Major in the White House will drive interest in German Shepherds. But we really hope that it also drives interest in adoptable shelter dogs.
Animal shelters have already reported an increase in adoptions since the COVID-19 pandemic began. When Joe Biden takes his place as Commander-in-Chief, will adoptions rise even more? We hope so.
Are You Considering Adopting a Shelter Dog?
If you want to follow in the Bidens’ footsteps and adopt a shelter dog, congratulations! Saving a pet’s life is a joy — but it’s also a lifelong commitment.
In order to make sure you’re giving your new pet the best life possible (and setting yourself up for success as a new dog parent), check out all our resources on pet adoption and ownership.