It’s a phenomenon that people try to sweep under the rug, laugh off, or simply pretend isn’t happening; then it gets whispered about in embarrassed tones afterward. Namely: your dog gets along just fine with other dogs, mailmen, skateboarders…then barks and lunges quite obviously at black or darker-skinned people. “My dog is racist!” is the embarrassing admission.
Is it possible for dogs to be racist? If so, why does it happen? And how can we stop it? Gawker and Huffington Post recently contacted me to comment on this phenomenon.
This video clip from AOL/Huffpost Live is my opinion of the most important lesson to take away; if you’ve been keeping up with my blog posts you’ll notice a similar theme to a lecture I gave recently at a FIDO/Brooklyn Bark seminar. Below are my full written thoughts that I submitted to the Gawker reporter for his article, covering a broader view of possible causes and other questions.
Of course this is a loaded and controversial topic. I welcome all thoughts and opinions, and I’d love to hear yours!
Anthony Newman, Calm Energy Dog Training
First let’s refine your question: 99% of people who say their dog is “racist” really mean their dog doesn’t seem to like some dark-skinned people, e.g. african-american/black. Very few cases of dogs tending to dislike light-skinned people are reported – historically and in the literature, to the limited extent the issue has been researched; as well as in my experience working with over 800 different dog owners. There’s even a historical case of an attempt to train army dogs to attack Japanese people, but after repeated efforts the dogs weren’t able to reliably distinguish the race.
It is helpful to have a clear understanding of what a dog is trying to do when he barks/lunges at people in the way these owners’ dogs do: they are trying to protect their pack, primarily their owners but also themselves, from a perceived threat, an outsider. Though no one really knows how exactly dogs began their domestication from wolves, the most plausible and best-evidenced story to my mind is that between 20-40 thousand years ago, wolves developed a symbiotic relationship with nomadic tribes of people: the wolves would guard the perimeter of the campfire, by howling and alerting the people to approaching predators and also scaring them off; and when the tribe picked up and left, the wolves reaped the spoils of leftover food and bones. Nowadays this behavior routinely manifests as barking at doorbells/knocks on the door (the doorbell is associated by experience with a stranger appearing; the dog barks both to alert and to protect), barking/lunging at dogs and other perceived threats that pass too closely on the sidewalk (the sidewalk forces approaching predators (i.e. other dogs) to walk in a straight line toward one another, which is an aggressive act in the canine world. Dogs making friends tend to approach in curved arcs, coming up from behind to sniff the rear end). Relevant to your question, this guarding/protection applies not only to interlopers but also to characters who don’t fit in or appear importantly different from the rest of the dog’s pack. This is a major reason dogs tend to hate mailmen (they carry big bulky bags), plumbers and workmen (they wear giant boots, clanky tool belts, and scary-looking hardhats). Notice that these differences aren’t just noticeable, they’re also important from a self-protection/safety perspective: the differences are loud, big, scary, threatening.
Which really leads us to the question: Why does it seem, anecdotally at least, that a noticeable number of dogs tend to perceive dark-skinned or black people as importantly different from the rest of their pack? The psychological concept of “mirroring” has been proposed before, and it certainly is a real phenomenon in dogs: mirroring means taking emotional and psychological cues from someone else, and dogs have evolved an amazingly empathetic capacity for this with their human owners. If you are tense, scared, or on edge, your dog will know it in a second – not only from your body language but also by the scent of your adrenaline and sweat – and will take this as a cue that there is something to be scared of. Perhaps the people who report “racist” dogs have similar (unconscious) thoughts of their own; the dog is simply physicalizing an emotion their owners are too civilized or intellectualized to show. Obviously there has been zero research or data to support this theory, but I do know that IF the owners of these dogs tend to notice skin color, their dogs will as well. A second reason, one that I’ve never seen explored, is that early dogs/domesticated wolves originated in lighter-skinned societies. Conflicting genetic and archaeological evidence suggests that dogs began to be domesticated in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. If during the formative times the indigenous peoples of those areas tended to be lighter skinned than african-americans, this might explain some tendency of modern dogs to perceive blacks as outsiders. This second theory, however, is controversial not only because of the speculative geography, but also because if you push the connection between dogs and wolves too far nowadays trainers get all in an uproar. Basically, although dogs were once wolves, the behavioral connections between the two species is hotly disputed and no doubt overemphasized (in particular with respect to “dominance”-related behaviors). Finally, a third undoubtedly relevant reason is that dogs are so visually oriented. Their primary means of communication among one another is by body language; a dog will tell another dog from far away what its mood is, whether it is calm or excited, wary or trusting, and so on by subtle positionings of the ears, tail, head, paws, and mouth. The “black/white” (dark/light) skin color distinction is certainly a visual one; so the fact that dogs can pick up on that while they might leave other racial distinctions aside is fairly predictable.
This is the truly important question, and I give it a resounding “Yes!”, based on years of experience training dogs out of protective/aggressive behaviors to every kind of perceived threat. The simple (though not necessarily easy) solution is “counterconditioning”. I do this every day, with dogs of all shapes sizes breeds and sexes, who are fearful of and protective/aggressive toward men, other dogs, skateboards, plastic bags, buses, subway grates, leashes, veterinarians – you name it. The recipe is as follows:
1) Don’t avoid behavior triggers! Avoidance at the very least postpones the problem (you cross to the other side of the street whenever a fluffy dog appears, or distract your dog by stuffing his mouth with treats until the dog passes); and at worst it reinforces/exacerbates it. Basically, your dog gets tense when it sees/senses the threat; you then make like a prisoner and bust; so the anxiety/protective reaction worked! As far as your dog can tell, his mental/emotional reaction caused the threat to disappear. Be certain he’ll rely on it next time as well!
2) Disallow/correct the disrespectful and mistrusting behavior. A snap; a clap; “Hey!”; “Tsshh!”; blocking with your body; getting in the dog’s visual field; backing him up; turning and walking the other way…these can all communicate to your dog that this behavior isn’t admissible. A solid foundation in obedience training is essential for a dog to take these cues from his owner, as is consistent leadership – when you walk your dog, you should be the one leading the walk, not him. When he’s in front, pulling on the leash, it’s his prerogative as well as his responsibility (so the geometry tells him) to decide who is a threat and who isn’t. When you’re out in front, your dog obediently following, you’ll be much more effective at stopping misbehavior before it erupts. Something not often noticed here is that fear behavior – like running away – is equally unacceptable and just as much part of the cause of protective aggression as barking/lunging toward the threat. Fight and flight are two heads of the same coin; neither is balanced, peaceful acceptance; and both should be discouraged.
3) Make the situation positive. This is the “counter” in “counterconditioning”: we’re taking a situation the dog is wary or scared of, and turning it into a calm, peaceful, happy, joyous, delicious, and fun experience! Treats are the obvious go-to here; but don’t forget verbal praise, bellyrubs, running, playing, and sniffing.
The big reason any dogs REMAIN “racist”, no matter what initial cause of the behavior, is that not enough time is spent on counterconditioning. This is understandable for a number of reasons, probably top on the list being that most owners don’t particularly want to go out and embarrass themselves and anger or annoy complete strangers by going out regularly every day and tracking down dark-skinned people their dog will react to and bark/lunge at. This is much easier when the dog is reactive to buses or skateboards; you’re really not going to hurt the bus driver’s feelings, or even the skating kids (I’ve always found them wonderfully helpful!); and our society as a whole doesn’t tend to devalue and ostracize buses or skateboards the way we’ve been know to with melanin-rich citizens.