When I adopted this cute, scruffy little Terrier who hid under benches and flinched whenever a hand was lifted because he had been abused, I never dreamed behind all that adorableness lay a very embarrassing problem that would become clear in the next few months.
My dog was racist.
Anyone who was not white he had a problem with, especially if they were men. He would bark. He would lunge. He would basically make me look like a complete jerk. I found myself surprised that he had actually bonded with me on our first meeting, since I did not meet his skin color of comfort, so to speak.
Racism in dogs is a controversial subject. In 2013, Gawker polled multiple dog experts in an attempt to answer the question. Similarly, around the same time The Huffington Post also covered the subject with a live discussion.
The consensus? Dogs are not racist. They just appear to be.
Despite a Key and Peele tongue-in-cheek sketch about the racism in pups, the experts all agreed that what may seem to be racism from canines was either the result of improper socialization, or a history of abuse from someone who had a similar look.
Raina Kelley in a Newsweek article that also addressed this issue further explained, “Dogs can’t be racist because they’re dogs. To be racist is to harbor a belief that a group of people have abilities or personality traits solely because of the color of their skin.” Dogs, she went on to write, don’t have the intellectual capability to establish sweeping, derogatory judgements on a group of people based on an arbitrary characteristic. She further quoted Alexandra Horowitz, head of the dog cognition lab, who explained that yes, dogs might have a fearful reaction to people who look and/or smell unfamiliar. As she says:
“I don’t think dogs are uncomfortable with groups of people. They might notice all sorts of distinctions between individuals—some of which might overlap with the racial or [an]other distinction that we notice…It behooves dogs to be sensitive to what is familiar and known, and to what is unfamiliar and unknown. That, viewed from our anthropomorphic perspective, is often called a lot of things that don’t well represent what it means to the dog.”
What is interesting to note is that although dogs can’t truly be racist against groups of people, it appears people are racist against certain dogs. Judging “bully” breeds like Pit Bulls and American Staffordshire Terriers are common, so much so that some management don’t allow certain stereotyped breeds to live in their buildings. Additionally, there is something called Black Dog Syndrome, which, in effect is the fact that statistically, people tend to overlook or not adopt dogs with black coats in shelters and rescues.
So is my Terrier racist? Apparently not. And with his history of abuse, I’ve worked with him with a trainer in order to help him be better socialized (and he has immensely improved). Does that make me feel better anytime we walk down the street and he backslides by going off against a person of color? No.
But I guess I should remember that judgement is, after all, a human quality. And not necessarily a good one.
For training tips on dogs that need socialization or to curb problematic behaviors, contact your local ASPCA.
Note: The below video will still play, despite the “Image Expiration” message. 🙂