Can dogs be racist?

Better ideas.
Feb. 26 2003 11:06 AM

Can a Dog Be Racist?

The case of the prejudiced pit bull.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

To be an American is to receive a continuing education on race. But one does not, perhaps, expect to receive lessons from a dog. Then along came Percy, a young pit bull friends of mine found in Brooklyn's Fort Greene park last summer. The couple had little dog experience between them, but Percy appeared at that point in a relationship when increasingly large gestures of commitment are required (the engagement would come five months later), and he was taken in on a probationary basis. He proved to be sweet-tempered, if excitable, goofy and energetic, easily house-trained. In balance, a lot of fun. There's just one problem: Percy is a racist.

His prejudice was revealed in dribs and drabs. The first clue came a week after his adoption when, while on a Brooklyn beach, he eyeballed and growled at two fishermen a hundred yards away. They approached, lugging buckets of fish, and he began ferociously barking and lunging. As the men gingerly passed by, we could see that they were Hispanic.

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A lone incident would have been dismissed, but Percy targeted my then-boyfriend—also Hispanic—for similar treatment. And he was prone to lashing out at black men, too. Teased for taking in a racist dog, my friends—who are white—initially objected. He was a good dog, a sweet dog, people are already biased against pit bulls, don't call him a racist. Not all men of color were targeted, they pointed out. And indeed, the odds seemed to increase if the man was carrying bags or luggage, or if his clothes were particularly baggy. But as Percy now resided just off a main shopping district, and in the heart of hip-hopping Fort Greene, these distinctions provided little solace.

Most dog owners and people of color will admit (bashfully or forcefully, depending) that dog racism exists. Many non-pet-owners (and Cartesians) will sniff disdainfully. Racism requires malice aforethought, they'll say. Dogs can't think, therefore they can't be racist.

Nonsense, says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and author of several books on animal behavior, most recently If Only They Could Speak. "Any behavioralist knows that dogs don't like subsets of people," he says, and though the most common subsets are broad—strange men or little children—"sometimes it can be quite specific. It could be tall men, or men with beards. It might be men who are wearing big shoes, might be as subtle as men who smoke cigarettes—which can be hard to pick up on—but it can also be black guys."

Dogs can be trained to discriminate. Some Jamaican resorts feature dogs that chase blacks off the beach while leaving white frat boys to fry like bacon. South Africa's apartheid government bred "Boerbuls" by crossing Rottweilers, Dobermans, bloodhounds, German shepherds, and even wolves to create very aggressive dogs for its security services. In the 1980s, the Herstigte Nasionale Party advertised such animals as "racist watchdogs" created "especially for South African circumstances." In his 1982 film White Dog, director Sam Fuller explores the socialization of racism by having a black man attempt to retrain a dog taught to kill blacks—a so-called white dog—only to have the dog attack whites instead. Paramount found the film disturbing enough to block its release for more than a decade.

Barring human intent, however, what turns an otherwise sweet dog like Percy into a bigot? Typically, such behavior indicates that the dog was not exposed to the people it now targets during its developmentally "sensitive time"—weeks 3 through 12—when its understanding of the world was formed. "If you take a dog who has never encountered a black man, or someone who has a funny walk, who uses a walker, or has a gimp or a limp, and he sees the first one in his life when he's six months old. … it's going to be a shock," says Dodman. "He's going to think 'Jinx! That's pretty strange! What the heck is that!' They might hide—that's the more fearful type of dog. But if they're a little bit macho"—known in the trade as "fear aggressive"—"they might try and go for it, to try and drive it away. And it's because they're unfamiliar."

But even if unfamiliarity breeds contempt, how does this explain Percy? Whatever the circumstances of his early life, being abandoned in Fort Greene indicated that he was, if not raised by, at least exposed to people of color. In such a case, a dog probably has had a bad experience at the hands (or feet) of those it doesn't like. This does not necessarily incriminate Percy's previous owner. In The Dog Who Loved Too Much, Dodman profiles a dog who developed a mysterious hatred of white-bearded men late in life. Eventually Dodman determined that the owner's white-bearded ex-boyfriend, left alone with the dog just once, was the likely culprit. "A dog's memory is like a photographic plate," Dodman says, "whatever happened, it just took a snapshot of that person and logged it in its long-term memory as 'bad'." (In the same vein, dogs can develop an aversion to certain breeds, sizes, and colors of other dogs.) Extreme trauma can even cause a dog to exhibit the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Whether it's bad experience or lack of experience that turns a dog into a racial profiler, the habit is hard to break. If the dog barks and the person recoils, the dog registers a victory. (Such "positive" reinforcement goes a long way to explain dogs' fixation on mailmen: He comes, I bark, he leaves.) And even if the person doesn't recoil or show fear visible to the human eye, the dog's sharp eye and sharper nose can sense fear in a tiny gesture or a whiff of sweat.

And given the Percys out there, maybe people of color are more likely to be afraid of dogs. According to a national Purina poll, people of color account for less than 15 percent of all dog owners in this country. Historically, dogs have been used to suppress blacks, and those who now live in inner-city neighborhoods must contend with the Rotts and pits gangbangers use to instill "respect." Unfamiliarity fortified by bad experiences could generate a disproportionate number of fearful responses.

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.

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.

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