Can Dogs Be Racist?

By Sarah Jeanne Terry

One of my roommate's dogs is a beautiful yellow Lab, who loves to play fetch and lie in front of the AC vent in the summer. But she also loves to bark. Like a normal dog, she barks at the mail person, delivery people, and most of our friends who come to the door. Usually, when those friends come in, she becomes the sweet, affectionate dog we're used to. But with some of our friends, she gets a little too aggressive, and those friends tend to be of a different race.

Barking labrador dog sitting outdoor in snow, winter season.
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While we enjoyed joking about how the dog seemed racist, it did raise the question if she really was. Can dogs be racist? Or are we just imagining it? We delved into the science and psychology behind the reasons dogs act the way we do to find the answer to this surprisingly common question.

Yes, your dog can see a difference between races.

Even though your dog doesn't understand what "race" is, it can definitely tell that people come in different colors.

People Community Diversity Crowd Concept
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Suzi Schaefers of the Canine Psychology center explained to Gawker that dogs don't automatically "hate" people of a certain race, but they do "react to the immense differences in the human races." Dogs can see and smell differences in humans such as gender and race, and they will learn to generalize based on those differences.

Those differences can be as broad as a dog who doesn't like men or as specific as a dog who reacts to tall, bearded men. But, that means that a dog can also generalize and react just to people of a specific race. And that's where things get awkward. Because if our dogs learn to dislike people of a specific race, that reaction has to come from somewhere.

A dog's racism often comes from their owner, even if it's just unconscious bias.

Dog on lead on walk with his owner
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Our dogs pick up on every tiny signal that we convey, and many of them are totally subconscious. In a study conducted by Charlotte Duranton from the Laboratory of Cognitive Psychology, at the National Center for Scientific Research at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France, 72 dogs were tested for their reactions to people. All of the dogs were family pets that got along well with people. The dogs were tested by approaching strange people with their owners. The owners were instructed to react in one of three ways to the approaching strangers — to take three steps toward the stranger, to take three steps away from the stranger, and to stand still.

The researchers were investigating the "social referencing" between dogs and their owners, in which dogs pick up on subtle cues from their owners to tell them how to react. Taking three steps away and standing still both caused the dogs to show signs of insecurity. Either pausing or retreating communicated to the dog that the stranger was suspicious. So basically, our subtle movements teach our dogs who to be suspicious of.

Cute barking dog not aggressive on leash
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Now, when we translate that to the world we live in, it's pretty clear to see that if our dogs can pick up on such subtle cues, we might very well be translating racism to them. Even the most unconscious of biases against people who look a certain way might cause us to pause for a moment while walking. It might cause us to tense or back away. Other humans might not notice this behavior at all, and it certainly wouldn't seem to qualify as overt racism.

However, even that subtle behavior immediately signals to our dog that this person is different and should be feared, and we're transmitting our insecurities into an animal that is not so good with subtlety. Suddenly, we've got a dog that barks ferociously at people of a certain race. Then, once we notice that our dogs tend to react in a "racist" way, we might start pausing or retreating JUST because we're embarrassed that our dog might bark, which again just reinforces our dog's belief that the person is worrisome.

Another factor that contributes to a dog's racism is if it was exposed to people of all races early in life.

multiethnic girls and boys playing with labrador puppy at home
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Early puppy socialization between the ages of 3-12 weeks of age sets dogs up for the rest of their lives. Not only is it important to introduce puppies to other dogs at this time, but also to a wide variety of people. If a dog was not socialized around people of a particular race, then that might cause a fear response around them later in life.

Also, a bad experience with a certain person can cause a dog to generalize based on that person's appearance.

portrait little puppy
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Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, explained, "A dog's memory is like a photographic plate. Whatever happened, it just took a snapshot of that person and logged it in its long-term memory as 'bad'." And that definitely makes sense. Shortly after my family adopted my childhood dog, we realized she was terrified of magazines. We had never hit our dog with a magazine, but when my dad rolled up a magazine to smash a fly, our dog cowered in abject terror. She had clearly learned that magazines were scary, and she remained terrified of them most of her life. And that kind of generalized fear can be applied to any type of objects or people.

So what can be done about a racist dog?

The best way to eliminate a negative association your dog has developed is to replace it with a new, positive association. Expose your dog to people of many races to help create positive associations with all different types of people. If your dog has a truly negative reaction, you may want to enlist the help of a trainer, hopefully, a person of a different race that might trigger your dog.

Luckily, dogs can learn not to fear people that look a certain way it just takes a little work. And it also takes a realization on the owner's part that certain subtle signals can be making the problem worse. Because as usual, a well-trained and well-behaved dog is usually the product of a well-trained owner.

Are you interested in learning more about what you're reading? Then scroll through this article about what it means when your pet doesn't remember you. Also, like us on Facebook and join our newsletter to learn more about your pet's behavior.