Can Dogs Be Racist?

Like children, dogs may pick up prejudices from their caretakers.

Posted Sep 17, 2019 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

In August of 2019, an interesting story appeared in the media originating from Collierville, Tennessee. It involved the Catholic Church of the Incarnation and its priest Reverend Jacek Kowal, or more specifically his German Shepherd dog, Caesar.

LaShundra Allen (who is black) arrived with her coworker, Emily Weaver (who is white), for what was supposed to be her first day cleaning Reverend Kowal's rectory. Weaver was quitting the cleaning company and had come along to introduce Allen as her replacement. Both women were surprised when Alan was barred from entering the rectory by the church secretary who explained that "Father Jacek's dog is kinda racist". Allen sent a racial discrimination complaint to the Diocese of Memphis. After several weeks of consideration they responded that this was not a case of discrimination but was done for Allen's safety because, in the church's view, the dog was indeed racist and specifically hostile to blacks.

This image is public domain CC(0)
Source: This image is public domain CC(0)

Is it possible that dogs can develop prejudice toward a specific racial group? This is the question that Carlee Beth Hawkins of the Psychology Department at the University of Illinois Springfield and her co-author Alexia Jo Vandiver set out to answer in a recent report.

The research involved two Internet-based studies on this matter. Since both were nearly identical (with similar results) except that the second study had a much larger sample size and a few extra important questions, I will just focus on Study 2. It involved 2,439 dog owners who reported their race as White and 201 Black/African-American dog owners (Hispanic and Latinos were excluded from the analysis).

The basic hypothesis for these investigators was that dogs are not born with any innate predispositions toward disliking any particular race. Rather the problem rests with their caregivers, who might have conscious or unconscious racist attitudes that the dogs respond to and imitate.

For this reason, they took two measures of racial attitudes from the dog owners. One measure assessed explicit racial bias where respondents indicated how strongly they preferred Whites over Blacks or vice versa. This second measure was more subtle, looking for implicit associations where images of the faces of people of one race or the other would be more likely to be related to good ideas (joy, love, peace, etc.) or to bad ideas (terrible, evil, nasty, etc.).

Of course they also needed an assessment of prejudicial dog behavior so they measured how frequently the dog owners reported that their dogs showed positive behaviors (allowed petting, smelled or licked, or wagged their tail) or negative behaviors (barked, growled, or lunged or jumped) toward either Black or White individuals during the past six months.

Their findings are generally in accord with their initial guess. White people in the main reported that their dogs showed more positive behaviors toward other White individuals and more negative behaviors toward Black people. The effects were stronger in individuals whose explicit and implicit attitudes were more negative to Blacks. For Black dog owners, the results trended in the same direction (although they were statistically weaker because the sample size was only 1/10 as large). Thus Black dog owners reported more positive behaviors of their dogs directed to Blacks rather than toward Whites, and the magnitude of the difference was related to the strength of the owner's racial bias.

As the authors point out, part of this effect may simply be due to the fact that if a person has biases against a group of individuals, then it is less likely that they will choose to socialize with them. That means, for example, that a White person with negative attitudes toward Blacks will not socially interact with Black people very often and thus their dog will not have an opportunity to have effective socialization toward this racial group. Thus it may be that unfamiliarity with non-White people may result in fewer positive responses and more frequent negative responses toward Black individuals. This is comparable to a dog who has seldom encountered men with beards, and in the absence of socialization to them, responds negatively when a bearded man approaches them.

This idea seems to be confirmed by another aspect of the data. In the second study, the researchers included a measure of the degree of contact which the dog's owner (and presumably the dog) typically has with people of the other race. They found that the more social interaction there was between the owner and people of different races, the less likely the dog was to show any apparent racial discrimination in its behaviors toward strangers of different races. While people familiar with dog behavior are apt to view this as a simple matter of socialization, similar results are found among humans. People who interact more frequently with individuals of various races are much less likely to be explicitly or implicitly racist.

So, to answer the question, "Is it possible that a dog can be racist?" the answer seems to be "Yes," particularly if its caregiver has explicit or implicit negative attitudes toward other races and has limited experience interacting with them. In this case, as in many others, dogs, like children, are modeling their behavior after what they see in the actions of their caregivers. It seems that dogs watch us, read our emotions, and behave in a way which seems to be consistent with the way that we ourselves are behaving and reacting. This includes our attitudes toward individuals of other races.

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Carlee Beth Hawkins and Alexia Jo Vandiver (2019). Human caregivers perceive racial bias in their pet dogs. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 22(6):901-917. DOI: 10.1177/1368430218824656