The 1982 movie ‘White Dog,’ about a dog trained to kill black people.
I have a dear friend, one of my oldest, actually, who called me in a bit of a panic: he was worried that one of his two dogs was racist. Apparently, Herman (his name has been changed to protect a potentially innocent canine) barks and shows his teeth when he sees people of color. My friend (white) wanted to know what he should do since Herman’s antics are embarrassing to him. Plus, Richard is petrified that everyone in the world will think he’s an Archie Bunker, since a bigoted dog must be picking up those attitudes from his owner. The bad news is that, yes, folks may think he’s racist. I took a very unofficial poll around the office and virtually everyone (12 to 15 individuals, of both genders and of varied races) thought a racist-seeming dog equalled an Archie Bunker owner. Only problem is, Richard (His name has also been changed to protect a certainly innocent owner) isn’t racist, or I think I would have sussed it out at some point over the 25 years he’s been my buddy. So for the sake of my pal’s reputation, I vowed to get to the bottom of Herman’s behavior.
As it turns out, this isn’t the kind of question that can be easily answered by Wikipedia. Most of the information available online is of the urban myth or genuinely racist variety, but there was one newsy piece—in April of this year, a 58-year old African-American, Andrew Owens, stabbed his employer’s German shepherd because he felt the dog was racist. The dog lived, and Owens was charged with aggravated animal cruelty (and fired.) But weirdly no one seemed to disagree that the dog was racist. “The dog reacts to black people, Hispanics, anyone who is not white,” the dog’s owner, Paul Tocco, told reporters at the time. “She always barked at him. He [Owens] was well aware the dog didn’t like him, and he knew to stay away from her.”
But here’s the thing—dogs can’t be racist because they’re dogs. To be racist is to harbor a belief that a group of people have abilities or personality traits solely because of the color of their skin. Stereotyping works in a very similar way, but racism is also accompanied with a sense of superiority. The statement “Black people are good at basketball,” is a stereotype. So is: “Asians are good at math.” But “Black people are less intelligent than other races” is racist because it makes a value judgement. Dogs don’t act on belief systems or value judgments and they don’t understand the abundant stereotypes in our society. Dogs are wonderful creatures, but they simply don’t have the intellectual capacity to develop derogatory judgements about whole groups of people. That’s in humans’ wheelhouse. As I have said many times, race insinuates itself into all aspects of American life, from the sacred to mundane. Racism and its byproducts (slavery, Civil War, Jim Crow) play a dominant role in our nation’s history. So while it’s probably natural for us to see racism as Herman’s motivation, it’s just anthropomorphism.
Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know and head of the dog cognition lab at Barnard College, believes that what we call racism in dogs is simply fear of the unknown. “Dogs will respond differently to people who are unfamiliar to them, or smell or look different than those to whom they are accustomed.” So while I sometimes believe that racism in humans could be defined as fear of the unknown, dogs are simply responding instinctively to people who are different than the ones who love and feed and care for them. “I don’t think dogs are uncomfortable with groups of people,” Howowitz continued, “They might notice all sorts of distinctions between individuals—some of which might overlap with the racial or [an]other distinction that we notice.” And neither does Horowitz believe that dogs can “pick up” racism from their owners. “It behooves dogs to be sensitive to what is familiar and known, and to what is unfamiliar and unknown. That, viewed from our anthropomorphic perspective, is often called a lot of things that don’t well represent what it means to the dog.”
Which is not to say that dogs don’t “discriminate,” in the sense that they can tell things apart. Canines have an amazing sense of smell (hundreds of times better than ours) and can distinguish between layers of chemicals we don’t even know exist. Some scientists are even hopeful that in addition to drugs, bombs, and lost children, dogs will one day be able to detect disease. They are also extremely cognizant of posture and movement and can be trained to get help if their owners have a seizure or otherwise fall ill. So no matter how many people of color a dog snarls at, it’s impossible to say that it is race a dog is cueing on since they are receiving much more information than simply skin color.
And think about this. Say you were me, raised with cats and a little skittish with dogs (because I used to think some were racist) and you approached every dog with anxiety. That’s going to put the dog on edge because they always notice that kind of thing and they bark or show their teeth. Which, of course, further convinces you to be afraid of dogs, and so the cycle continues. It’s crazy, right? But it makes a whole heck of a lot more sense than racist dogs.
It is impossible to know what a dog is thinking, despite what all those crazy dog owners say. What is known is that dogs can be trained to be more accepting of things or people that make them uncomfortable. (It’s not always skin color, some dogs bark or are aggressive with babies or tall white men or ceiling fans.) So, Richard, you are off the hook as a racist, and Herman can no longer be renamed Bull Connor. But if you really want Herman to stop barking at people of color, you have to use the same techniques that got him to stop peeing on the floor. As Horowitz told me, “The same way [dogs] learn to associate, say, the sound of the leash and collar with ‘going for a walk,’ they can learn (or unlearn) many other associations. Just as humans do, too. Essentially one just needs to pair the object of interest (say, red-haired girls) with getting a reward.” So I volunteer to spend some more time with Herman—it’ll teach me to relax around him too. But can we both get a reward?