Several years ago, my veterinarian gave my husband and me advice on how to raise our pit bull puppy to be friendly.
He told us that it was very important to let the puppy mingle with adults, children and people of color. Even though I had often been around dogs that reacted differently to people of color, it had never crossed my mind that, maybe, dogs could be racist.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor at Tuft University School of Veterinary Medicine, says, “Any behavioralist knows that dogs don’t like subsets of people.” Subsets cover a wide range — adults, children, men, men with beards, people of various ethnicities. (Dodman has written several books on animal behavior, so I assume he knows his stuff.)
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If you want to get technical, dogs aren’t really “racist,” per se. What we sometimes observe is more like cause-and-effect conditioning. But it can certainly feel like racism.
Uh-Oh, Is This Dog a Racist?
So what can make an otherwise sweet canine turn into a “bigot”? Dogs raised in solely white neighborhoods may show fear and be weary of people of color, while dogs raised in homes of people of color may react the same way toward white people.
If the puppy has not been exposed to different races during his developmental stage (three to 12 weeks of age), some people may look a little strange to the puppy when he finally encounters them a few months down the road. He is fearful of the unfamiliar. Cultural differences, such as tone of voice or body language, can be intimidating as well.
Another possible cause of perceived bias is that the dog had a bad experience with someone who looked different. A canine’s memory is pretty awesome — once he has been mistreated, he may retain a mental image of the person who treated him badly.
Picking Up on Fearful Vibes
Being afraid of dogs is only natural for some people who do not themselves keep dogs as pets. According to a Purina survey, people of color account for less than 15% of all dog owners in the United States.
A pet owner can make the problem worse by appearing to be nervous or fearful around other races. The dog picks up these vibes and jumps into “security” mode.
What Can You Do About It?
Whether it is from a bad experience or from not being exposed, this sort of “racial profiling” in dogs can be tough to conquer.
Many pet owners are embarrassed when their pet chooses certain people to bark and snarl at. They do not want anyone to think this is a reflection on them.
Alleviating the behavior may be possible by using a little doggie diversity — if it is black people who trigger the behavior, try hiring a professional trainer who is black. If white people trigger the behavior, try hiring a white trainer, etc. Over time, your pet may be conditioned to ignore his previous behavior.
Be it “racism” or merely cause-and-effect factors, my husband and I have no problems with Bunker on this front. Thanks to our veterinarian’s advice, we have raised a non-discriminating dog. Bunker, now 8, loves everybody, and everybody seems to love him. Our neighbor, who is black, has been our dog-sitter for several years. He and Bunker enjoy each other’s company and look forward to spending time together.
- Slate Magazine: Can a dog be racist?
- The Straight Dope: Are some dogs racist?
- Paw Rescue: Importance of socializing dogs
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