You might sometimes hear certain dog owners say: “My dog is so embarrassing. Every time we meet 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. However, dogs are the product of their environment, and will make judgements based on their familiarity with specific people and events. This means that if a dog has never come across a person in a wheelchair, or a person who looks different to others they have met, they may behave fearfully.
Can dogs really be racist?
To assume this would be incorrect, since we have no way of explaining a dog’s concept of ‘race’ - however we do see dogs react fearfully around other dogs, as well as people, when they have had limited experience. We also see dogs behave with anxious body language around situations where their owners themselves are worried. If the owner is racist, and behaves in a certain way that worries the dog, perhaps this could generate the issue.
If it’s not racism, what could it be?
Dogs need to be socialised from a very early age so that they learn to normalise all kinds of people and events in their lives. Dogs that are kept away from this, or that never meet children, old people, bald people, and so on, simply react with uncertainty when they are older until they get to know that these situations are completely non-threatening and indeed, normal.
Can dogs be trained to be racist?
A dog will also learn to react in a certain way depending on the outcomes from past experience - so for example, a dog that was punished for jumping up at a person will remember this in future and may learn that certain types of person mean the dog will get told off. All of these experiences make sense when you realise that dogs, just like us all, want to survive, thrive and be safe. If they think there will be a problem, they will react defensively, but that problem may not exist and there may be no threat.
A dog’s everyday experience from their caregivers
Research from the University of Illinois (Hawkins and Vandiver, 2019), indicated that dogs are not born with any innate predispositions towards disliking any particular race. Rather, they indicated that if a person has biases against a group of individuals, they will not socially interact with them and thus the dog will not have an opportunity to have effective socialisation towards this group.
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.
The dog 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, this is the dog’s attempt to survive, and is a result of learning which of course can be changed.
Solutions exist, which consist of counter-conditioning. Call on a behaviourist or dog trainer to help.