Can dogs be racist?

Better ideas.
Feb. 26 2003 11:06 AM

Can a Dog Be Racist?

The case of the prejudiced pit bull.

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Apprehension on the human's side and ignorance on the dog's can lead to a didactic encounter that reinforces prejudice and fear on both sides. The personality of the owner can make matters even worse. Dodman recently completed a large study of the personality profiles of owners whose dogs are fear aggressive and—no surprise—the owners tend to be somewhat fearful and awkward themselves. "If you are nervous around people, the lead becomes a telephone line going straight to the dog," he says. "As you tense up on the lead, the dog will pick up on the tension. He might glance at you and see the expression on your face and then he is keyed and ready to go. Cocked and loaded."

Add race to the equation, and the potential for ugliness deepens. If a white owner is apprehensive about say, blacks, the dog could manifest that apprehension, which could encourage blacks who encounter that aggressive canine to fear dogs and dislike their white owners. Even owners like my friends, who I'll posit didn't come into the situation with prejudice, now find themselves tightening the leash or crossing the street when they see someone Percy is prone to bark at coming their way. And while they do this to avoid a bad situation, it could reinforce the very qualities they wish their dog didn't possess.

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It is possible to mitigate such behavior, through a sort of doggie diversity training, whereby the pet is gradually exposed to what sets it off. But it can be hard to persuade your black or white-bearded friends to participate in such cultural immersion exercises. (My friends had serendipitously hired a black trainer for Percy, whose behavior has since improved.) And even careful training can never totally eliminate the possibility that a trigger too similar to the traumatic event could cause the dog to lash out.

Some will argue that what dogs display is not racism, but something more akin to cause-and-effect conditioning. Really, though, is there a difference? Consider that many people become prejudiced by being raised in a very insular way, in their own enclave of whites or Hispanics or blacks, largely ignorant of people who are different. Humans, too, fear the unfamiliar and use a bad experience or two to tar a whole class of people. The difference between dogs and people is that people are supposed to be smart enough to recognize the logical fallacy of such a reaction and a dog is, well, just a dog.

Clara Jeffery is deputy editor of Mother Jones.