Why Are Dogs Racist? Canine Experts Speak

Dogs: why are they so racist? You know the type: prancing along as merry as can be until a human of a certain skin tone walks by, and then—bang!—all the barking and snarling and biting. It's been a source of uncomfortable comedy for years. Some dogs are just racist. But why? We turned to the real live dog psychology experts to find out.

WHY are dogs racist?

Linda Michaels, Dog Psychologist and Victoria Stilwell Dog Trainer:

Although a dog may appear to be "racist", that's not possible. Racism requires complex thinking and other higher cognitive functions that canines simply don't possess. A dog may react in fear-based aggression to a person of color for two reasons: 1. Insufficient positive associations in early socialization to people of all races 2. A traumatic incident with a person of color that has now generalized to all people of color. Dogs can learn to love people of all races. Ultra-socialization of puppies to people of all races one may encounter should begin at 8 weeks of age, if possible.

Renee Payne, Walk This Way Canine Behavior Therapy:

The general consensus is that it's because the dog wasn't properly socialized as a puppy, and wasn't exposed to people of all races and ethnicities — or that the dog was abused by someone who "looked" a certain way.

I have a couple of other opinions, and I'm not so sure about the first two mentioned...

There are certain breeds of dogs that I've noticed don't see well at night, and react poorly to people with darker skin (day or night). I believe that with these dogs, there must be some vision problem, and if a person has slightly darker skin, it can seem as though they appear out of nowhere.

Also, certain cultures and demographics don't have dogs as pets, or at least aren't as familiar and exposed to dogs as companion animals — and this can mean people from the islands or people from China, as examples. When a dog walks past a person and gets a fear response from the person, and then continues to see people who look similar in some way (in the dog's opinion) and he continues to get a fear response, he's going to generalize. "All people who look like that are afraid, so there must be something to be afraid of." Dogs smell fear and interpret it as "danger" so that it would make sense that after a number of encounters, he would start to react defensively.

Crista L. Coppola PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist:

Dogs are not born racist. Some will however be reactive towards a certain "look" of people if they were not socialized properly to that "look" when they were pups and/or they have a bad experience with people that "look" a certain way...

Not all dogs will respond the same way to the same situations, experiences and socialization, that is the where genetics has an influence.

Suzi Schaefers, "Colorado's Own Dog Whisperer," Canine Psychology Center:

Dogs are not 'racist'! They do not purposely 'hate' other races like humans do, potentially killing them just because of what they look like. Dogs do, however, react to the immense differences in the human races. Just like a great many of the dogs I work with are aggressive only to men, but love women; sometimes the other way around. Also, each of the races of humans literally smell, act and look differently from one another and the energy we give off is almost always different from one another. The same thing applies to the man vs woman thing - just because we cannot literally smell the testosterone or the estrogen doesn't mean animals can't.

If an African-American family owns a dog and rarely spends time with 'white' folks, those 'white' folks are going to seem very strange to the dog, even considered a threat. Especially if the dog does not view the owners as TRUE pack leaders (most humans make very weak pack leaders according to animals anyway). Usually, a dog that reacts aggressively to or fearfully of different races is an insecure dog to begin with.

Anthony Newman, Calm Energy Dog Training, NYC:

THE QUESTION
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.

WHAT THE DOG IS THINKING
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.

SOME ANSWERS
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.

HOW can we stop dogs from being so racist?

Linda Michaels:

If a dog has already developed fear/aggression, a program of systematic desensitization is in order. Develop positive associations with people, and avoid any negative experiences. Aggression is a serious problem and one should employ the services of a non-aversive positive reinforcement behavioral consultant to create a safe treatment plan.

Crista L. Coppola:

Yes, it can be overcome in some situations, through systematic desensitization and counter conditioning to the "look".

Suzi Schaefers:

It cannot be 'fixed' without some serious work on the owner's part, since each of the human races are unable to change who they are enough to be viewed as NOT different by the dog; or as a threat or whatever. If a Mexican-American family were to choose a 'white' dog trainer (sending the dog away for training versus the trainer coming to the home) then the dog would be exposed to the 'white' trainer and his/her staff/family and would 'get used' to 'white' people and would more than likely not react when it saw 'white' people any longer....or at least not react aggressively any longer. However, if that same family had a 'white' trainer come to their home the dog would more than likely view the trainer as a threat every time he/she entered the dog owner's home and the training would be a waste of time and money. Again, especially if the dog does not view the owners as TRUE pack leaders.

My own dogs do not react aggressively toward any race, because many races have come to me over the years for help with their aggressive dogs and my dogs not only have become accustomed to many different looking, smelling and 'feeling' people in MY home, but my dog views me as the pack leader and does not make the decisions as to who is a threat and who isn't....I make that decision!

Something as simple as petting your dog when HE wants you to lowers your status as pack leader and/or authority figure. Not only is the dog being praised for demanding your attention, but the dog's pushy, nosey, demanding state of mind is being nurtured by you - this almost always causes a false sense of dominance over you. Also, your personal space is being invaded by the dog without invitation and he/she is being praised for this disrespectful behavior. So, if your dog does not view you as a TRUE pack leader he/she will not trust your judgment, your decision making ability or your ability to control your surroundings, which include other people...... no matter the race. The dog will learn to follow instincts instead of your wishes.

Anthony Newman:

CAN IT BE FIXED?
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.

UPSHOT
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.

[Thanks, JRL. Image by Jim Cooke]