Is It Possible That a Dog Could Be Racist?
Subtle behavior on the part of a dog's owner can develop prejudice in a dog.
Posted Feb 10, 2016
"I think that my daughter's dog may be racist," said a woman who had dropped by our dog club to chat with me. She went on to explain, "I recently visited my daughter in Boston. She has a dog, which is a kind of German Shepherd and Collie mix. It is a friendly dog, at least with most people, however when we went out on a walk he acted in a racist manner. Whenever anyone who was black approached, the dog would act in an insecure way, crowding close to my daughter, and then growling as we passed the person."
It is not pleasant to think that the animal that may be humanity's best friend can have such negative, stereotyped, attitudes, such as those that we associate with racism. But the truth of the matter is that sometimes people complain that their dog is sexist as well. These complaints usually come from a female owner who claims that her dog doesn't like men, or is fearful of them.
I have also heard of dogs who are ageist and don't like elderly people, and other dogs who seem to have specific antipathies to people who wear uniforms, such as those associated with the police or military.
We know that in human beings, racism, sexism, ageism and other prejudices are not inborn, but are usually the result of upbringing, traumatic experiences with certain types of people, or exposure to an environment in which negative attitudes toward specific groups are common. So my first inclination was to look for something significant in her daughter's history. Therefore I asked, "Has your daughter had any negative experiences with someone who is black in recent years?"
The woman thought for a moment, then said, "Yes, there was an incident in which a young black man in a hoodie snatched her purse. He not only stole it, but when he grabbed it he pulled so hard that she was knocked to the ground and sprained her wrist. But my daughter has gotten over it and she doesn't have any negative feelings toward black people in general, as far as I can tell. She recognizes that this was just one bad person who happened to be black."
The fact of the matter is that there is recent research that shows that very subtle behaviors on the part of a dog's owner can influence the dog's behavior and its attitude toward other people, perhaps enough to result in the development of racism or sexism on the part of the dog. A recent study published in the journal Animal Behaviour* provides an example.
A team of researchers headed by Charlotte Duranton from the Laboratory of Cognitive Psychology at the National Center for Scientific Research at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France, tested 72 dogs. All of the dogs were family pets who normally got along well with people. The experiment involved recording how the dogs behaved when they were confronted with an unfamiliar person who approached them in a neutral (neither friendly nor threatening) manner. The owners were instructed to act in one of three different ways, which involved only minor differences in behavior. In one condition the owners were instructed to take three steps toward the stranger, while in the second condition the owner was to stand still and make no movement toward or away from the stranger, while in the final condition the dog's owner was to retreat three steps away from the stranger. That was it! No huge drama, no vocal sounds, no expressions of pleasure or distress, just a minor movement toward or away from the approaching stranger.
What the researchers were investigating is what psychologists call "social referencing," where individuals read the behaviors of others in order to determine how they will respond to a situation, person, or object. What they found was that the small difference in an owner's behavior—approaching versus retreating from a stranger—made a difference. Although these scientists looked at a number of different variables, their major finding was that when the owner retreated from the stranger, the dog showed signs of insecurity. The dog would gaze more intently at the stranger, and alternate its gaze between its owner's face and the stranger. The dogs would hover more closely to their owner and took a considerably longer time to make any motions toward approaching the stranger than they would if the owner approached the individual.
The effects were the same whether the owners retreated or stood still. The investigators suggest that when a dog sees its owner standing still, without any reaction to a nearby person, this is somewhat unnatural, and this behavior might be puzzling or negative for the dogs. After all, freezing in place is a common strategy used by many animals to cope with an approaching threat.
It is easy to see how such a subtle set of behaviors can begin to build in behaviors that might be seen as prejudicial to certain types of people. This woman's daughter might not have become overtly biased against blacks because of her mugging, but it would be completely natural for her to hesitate, stand still, or even take a step back should she encounter a black male wearing a hooded shirt, while walking down the street with her dog. If the dog reads those subtle emotional cues, and these occur frequently enough, it might be quite natural for the animal to develop a dislike or distrust for such individuals. This is not racism, but simply a reflection of their owner's insecurity.
In a similar way, a woman who lacks confidence around men might hesitate or back away from them in casual social encounters, thus building up an apparently sexist dislike of males in her dog. It is easy to extend that to other situations involving the elderly, people in uniform, or even esoteric groups such as clowns.
To confirm my thinking on this matter, I asked the woman whether her daughter's dog reacted negatively when it encountered a black woman in the streets, or a black man in a business suit. She thought about it for a few moments and then agreed that the dog's "racism" seemed to be focused on young black males, which would be consistent with the hypothesis that her daughter is simply acting a bit insecurely around individuals who looked like the person who mugged her. Thus we would have to conclude that the dog is not racist at all, but rather a good reader of his owner's emotional responses.
Other research has shown that dogs can read your emotions and also attach them to specific objects and situations. Read more about that here.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books, including The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; and more.
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.
Charlotte Duranton, Thierry Bedossa & Florence Gaunet, (2016). When facing an unfamiliar person, pet dogs present social referencing based on their owners' direction of movement alone. Animal Behaviour, 113, 147-156.