Can Pets Be Racist?

Once a month, I meet up with a group of girlfriends for a ladies’ night in — we rotate hostesses, but we often wind up holding it at my friend Samantha’s house since it is a central location for most of us. There’s just one problem: Her dog might be racist.

I realize that is a loaded statement, so let’s jump back a bit and get some context.

The group of women we meet up with every month is pretty diverse across the spectrum (age, race, etc.), and that includes two black women: Diana and “Q.” And while Samantha’s hound mix seems to have absolutely no problem with anyone in the group, her German shepherd seems to have an exaggerated reaction to Diana and Q. To be clear, the German shepherd does not have the same reaction to everyone else.

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When approaching Diana and Q, the dog’s hair stands up, she growls, she barks somewhat ferociously… admittedly, if you weren’t afraid of dogs, this might do the trick. So much as Samantha hates the implication, Q’s running joke is that Sam’s dog is racist.

While Q says this largely in jest, it does make me wonder: can pets be racist?

After all, it’s not as though the experience in our monthly ladies’ night is an isolated one. The idea of pets being racist has been fodder for comedians for years, even surfacing in a Key and Peele sketch.

However, we all know that with humans racism is not inborn — it is a learned behavior. Is it even possible that dogs could “learn” to be racist or have certain “feelings” about a specific portion of the population?

According to dog psychologist Linda Michaels, not exactly. In an interview with Gawker, Michaels explained, “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: No. 1, insufficient positive associations in early socialization to people of all races. No. 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.”

So what humans may perceive to be racist behavior from a pet is simply reactionary behavior based on something that is either unfamiliar or tied to trauma.

Another theory presented in the Gawker interview is that vision issues could have something to do with it.

“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,” speculated Renee Payne of Walk This Way Canine Behavior Therapy.

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Payne also tendered a theory that makes a lot of sense to me given my limited experience with this conundrum. She suggests that the dog could be reacting to a fear response.

“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 going to generalize,” said Payne. “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.”

Since neither Diana nor Q were raised around dogs and afraid of them to begin with, this theory certainly seems to fit in our specific situation.

What doesn’t make sense within the context of our situation is something called “social referencing,” whereby a pet picks up on very subtle behavior cues from its owner to form what appears to be a bias.

This theory was explored recently by a team of researchers at the National Center for Scientific Research at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France, using 72 dogs as subjects — all family pets, none aggressive toward anyone.

The experiment consisted of having the dogs’ owners act in three different ways when approached by an unfamiliar person: to step toward the person, to stand still or to step backward in retreat. The dogs’ reactions were gauged to each response.

What the researchers discovered was that the dogs picked up even on nearly imperceptible shifts in their owner’s behavior. So while a pet owner may not even realize they are acting insecurely or uncomfortably around a certain group of people, it’s possible they are doing so inadvertently… and their pet is building a prejudice based on that behavior.

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However, the general consensus seems to be that pets do not possess the cognitive capabilities to form a racial bias the way a person might. Rather, if your pet seems “racist,” they are likely just responding to someone who is unfamiliar from their “pack” (which includes you).

Although some experts contend this behavior is hard to break if early socialization isn’t emphasized, it is possible to teach your pup to be more inclusive through obedience training.


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