Almost as soon as I walked into Boomer’s house, I could tell his owner was nervous. This isn’t all that unusual when meeting a new client for the first time. I always have my new clients put the dog in another room so we can get acquainted with each other and have some time to chat without being distracted.
Very often, the clients are uneasy during these initial consultations; I’ve grown accustomed to it. After all, often they have agonized over acknowledging their dog’s issues and their decision to call in a professional. But after a few minutes, I could tell there was something more. I’d been called to help her dog with his reactive behavior. She related that he lunged and barked at some people as they walked by. During our discussion, she seemed unusually pensive and was having difficulty making eye contact with me. So I pressed, “Is there anything else you need to tell me? Whatever it is, you’re safe and can tell me without fear of judgment.” She finally looked up at me and whispered, “I think my dog is racist. He hates black people.”
Race is a touchy subject and most of us try to avoid talking about it. In this case, though, the dog owner was left with little choice. I’m African American, and since I’d be working with her dog, she knew she needed to be up front about it from the start. I responded, “Is that all? I was expecting something bad!” We both started to chuckle, albeit a little nervously, but I felt it was important to try to lighten the mood a bit.
What she didn’t know was that it was far from the first time I’ve heard people describe their dogs as such. In fact, it’s a lot more common than I’d like to admit. But is it true? Can dogs be “racists”?
Racism is an ugly concept and an ugly word associated with an ongoing, systemic problem in our society, deeply rooted in history. True racists generally believe that some races are superior or inferior to others, which is why I’ve always felt the term is used way too loosely even when describing human behavior. People might have prejudices and biases, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are “racist.” More often than not it means they are fearful of, unsure of, have had negative experiences with, or haven’t been exposed to enough of the type of person they are concerned about. And this goes for dogs, too!
Dogs gravitate toward the familiar and seek out experiences that have formerly resulted in positive, beneficial, and/or pleasurable outcomes. They also tend to avoid situations and other beings who look (or even smell) deeply unfamiliar to them. So, in my view, it’s only natural that they can be biased toward or against people of a particular race, nationality, culture, and/or gender. Of course, as understandable as it may be, their fearful or defensive behavior around people who look very different from those they have more experience with can be difficult and downright embarrassing when it manifests.
What can you do about it? Here are my suggestions:
Confront it head on.
It’s understandable to want to just avoid the subject entirely, especially if it’s rare that your dog will come across a person of that particular race. But therein lies part of the problem. We all know the importance of socialization and acclimating our dogs to all kinds of different people, places, and things.
A dog who repeatedly shows fear or reacts negatively to persons of a particular race has probably not been well socialized with people of that race. If you’re fortunate enough to adopt the dog before this issue arises, the most beneficial and proactive thing to do is to make a concerted effort to socialize your dog or puppy with people of every different race or nationality you can think of.
Many dog trainers are familiar with Margaret Hughes’ “Puppy’s Rule of 12s,” which addresses introducing your puppy to 12 different people (outside of family) including children, adults (mostly men), senior citizens, people in wheelchairs, walkers, with canes, crutches, hats, sunglasses, etc. Although the “etc” implies taking it even further, since it doesn’t directly emphasize people of different races, nationalities, and cultures, it’s easy for that to be overlooked, especially if you don’t routinely run into people who might fit into any of these categories. That means you might need to go out of your way, and out of your own comfort zone, to ensure your dog makes friends with a virtual rainbow coalition of people!
Stop using the “R word.”
There’s too much stigma attached to the word. How many times have you heard people say their dog doesn’t like men? Well, they don’t go on to describe their dogs as “sexist.” There are a lot of dogs who also don’t seem to like children, people wearing hats, people in uniform, etc. Dogs have all kinds of biases, and racial/cultural biases are just like any other and should be treated as such. There shouldn’t be anything taboo about this or anything to be embarrassed about.
Don’t assume abuse or mistreatment.
Particularly when dealing with rescue dogs, people often assume that if a dog reacts fearfully or aggressively toward certain people, he must have been abused by people who resemble the ones who triggered his reaction. I would hazard a guess that this is only rarely the case. More often than not it is more a lack of association and positive interactions, not mistreatment.
The problem with this assumption is it excuses the behavior – a disservice to your dog – and inadvertently places blame on the person your dog is apprehensive about. So unless you know with absolute certainty that your dog was abused, don’t attribute his behavior to this.
Seek professional help.
As a canine behavior counselor, the number one dog problem I deal with is reactive behavior, regardless of the trigger, and I’m sure other canine behavior experts would likely say the same. Research shows that reactive dogs can be helped through behavior modification and counter-conditioning exercises, but these exercises take time and a lot of repetition. A behavior professional not only can develop a customized program for your dog, but also can be your extra set of hands and eyes, giving you feedback, tracking progress, and tweaking the program when necessary. She can also facilitate a more predictable environment to work in; this is especially valuable if your dog (and you) are already scared. The last thing either of you need is an unwelcome surprise at any given corner.
Be patient and give your dog time.
Reactive behavior does not disappear overnight. Accept that it’s going to take some diligence and perseverance to see progress. I always advise my clients to expect to take two steps forward, and sometimes one step back, but to keep working. These methods are time-tested, and you’ll be moving full speed ahead again before you know it.
Confront your own fears and possible biases.
I think one of the other reasons people are so reluctant to talk about their dog being “racist” (there’s that ugly word again) is they feel it could imply they, too, are racist. Well, let’s talk about that for a minute.
A handler’s fears, apprehensions, and emotions can travel right down the leash to her dogs, so if you’re harboring some fears of your own about people of certain races, your dog could certainly pick up on it and react. Does that make you a bad person? No, it makes you human.
A very nice lady once told me that her dog wasn’t racist, but he “didn’t like criminals.” I asked how she knew that, and she related how, when she and the dog waited in the car while her husband ran into a convenience store, he always growled at the “young men wearing hoodies walking into the store.” When I asked her how her dog knew those kids were criminals, she couldn’t answer. Obviously the dog doesn’t know anyone’s “rap sheet,” but if she was uneasy when those young men were around, her dog would most certainly pick up on it.
Again, this is nothing to be ashamed of. What will make the difference is if and how you address it. You have a couple of choices. You can shrug it off and act like it’s no big deal, but know that this is not a problem that is going to go away by itself.
Depending on where you live, it’s quite possible you could carry on with life in a vacuum without running into anyone of that particular race or nationality for a while. However, if we take a look around, we can see that the world is getting smaller and our society grows more diverse by the day.
There may come a time when it won’t be so easy to keep your dog in that protective bubble; then what? Preferably, you’ll try to help your dog alleviate his fears, so he can walk with confidence in the world and enjoy all it has to offer. Who knows? If your dog is able to make new friends, you might, too!
Canine education specialist, dog behavior counselor, and trainer Laurie Williams is the owner of Pup ‘N Iron Canine Fitness & Learning Center in Fredericksburg, Va.