It is not uncommon for a dog to have unusual reactions to people of different races, men, bald men, or someone wearing a uniform… is this discrimination?
You might sometimes hear certain dog owners say: “My dog is so embarrassing. Everytime we cross a black person in the street, he growls at them”.
Confused because their four-legged best friend, who is so soft and gentle, suddenly lashes out at certain people, these owners tend to think that their dog is racist, sexist or simply... strange.
Dogs copy their owners
This behaviour can be explained. On the website Psychology Today, Stanley Coren, psychology professor and famous author of a number of books about dogs, suggests the following: dogs know what we are feeling. Our dogs can notice if we act differently, even if it is almost unnoticeable, around certain people. The professor uses the example of a woman who has been assaulted by a young black man, who knocked her over when taking her handbag. Since this experience, even if the woman does not develop any prejudices, the dog will become aggressive towards those that remind her of the experience.
According to the professor, dogs are capable of discerning subtle behaviours. It’s impossible to lie to a dog. All it takes is for an owner to look or move unusually and a dog can detect insecurity. Because of this previous incident, Stanley Coren suggests that, the woman may hesitate when passing another black man in the street. Despite not being racist, she can still feel some kind of apprehension. Her dog perceives this immediately. From here, the aggression begins. The dog is not racist and neither is his owner, but having such a great capacity for empathy, his behaviour reflects that of his master.
The same goes for dogs that do not like men. They can feel their owner’s fear of men (which is sometimes unconscious), if she is wary around them and/or has been traumatised by a man. The dog’s aggression is the physical manifestation of the female owner’s internalised suspicion.
A traumatised dog
On the other hand, due to their own negative experiences, the dog could have linked a particular kind of person to their own traumatic events. For instance, a dog could be aggressive towards all bald men because he was once beaten by a bald man.
He could equally seem to hate firemen, police officers and postmen because he was never introduced to people in uniform during his early period of socialisation. That being said, if your dog shows signs of discrimination, it is not the be all and end all. Solutions exist, which consist of counter-conditioning. Call on a behaviourist or dog trainer to help.