Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Are Dogs Prejudiced?

Are dogs prejudiced? Short answer: No. Long Answer: No — but your unconscious racial bias might be influencing the way your dog interacts with people of different races.

A dog out for a walk.

How you react to others directly influences your dog. Photography by angi71/Thinkstock.

Why do people assume that dogs are prejudiced?

Living in New York City in a diverse neighborhood, my dogs are comfortable engaging with all kinds of people. So, I get frustrated when I hear other dog parents excuse their dog’s unfriendly behavior to others by saying that their dog is “racist” or “prejudiced.” This issue is not about the dog — it’s about a dog responding to his parent’s conscious or unconscious discomfort, prejudice and racism.

“Dogs cannot be racist,” says Maria DeLeon, Director of Training at Smart Hund. “They can notice physical differences between people but they aren’t capable of using those observations to assign dangerous ideas, generalizations, stereotypes or any other ideas of worth or value to a population of people.

How dogs learn behaviors from their humans

Our dogs are watching us all the time and picking up on the subtle and not-so-subtle cues that we are sending them about how we feel in any given situation.

The idea that your dog is looking to you for emotional guidance on how to respond to a situation is something called “social referencing.” Scientists have found that the emotional cues being given by their owners influence how dogs will respond in new situations, which could include meeting a stranger. In a study conducted at Tulane University Medical School, researchers found that “adult dogs, like young children, may benefit from the ability to assess people’s reaction to novel situations/stimuli and act accordingly. Preliminary evidence also suggests that dogs, besides using gaze for requesting purposes, look at their owners to monitor their reaction to a strange object.”

In short — how you react to a seeing a stranger impacts how your dog reacts. If you are uncomfortable when you see a person of another race, your dog is going to pick up on that, and unfortunately react accordingly.

How to socialize dogs appropriately

Appropriate socialization when dogs are young is important. Puppies should learn to be comfortable with all kinds of people: children, teens, adults, the elderly, people of different races and genders, people with beards and people wearing hats or sunglasses, as well as people who use canes, crutches and wheelchairs.

Don’t know diverse people to help socialize your puppy? Think more about what you can do to broaden horizons for both you and your dog. Great places to socialize puppies include dog-friendly businesses and parks in different neighborhoods. Have lots of treats on hand and ask friendly strangers to give treats to your puppy. This will help your puppy learn that meeting new people is positive.

Have an older dog that isn’t comfortable in new situations and meeting new people? It’s never too late to start socializing. Help your dog develop positive associations with new people and places by going slow. Don’t push your dog beyond what he can comfortably handle — it’s a good time to enlist the help of a professional dog trainer!

The bottom line:

Dogs inherently love unconditionally, but they look to us to help make sense of the world. No matter how well socialized your dog is, if you are uncomfortable meeting people of other races, your dog is going to pick up on that and may respond negatively. In order to make our dogs better citizens of a diverse world, we must work on our own prejudices first.

Thumbnail: Photography by Shutterstock.

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Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author. Her novels have been honored by organizations ranging from the Lambda Literary Foundation to the American Library Association. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Trainer, and assists with dog agility classes. Sassafras lives and writes in Brooklyn with her partner, a senior Chihuahua mix, a rescued Shepherd mix and a Newfoundland puppy, along with two bossy cats and a semi-feral kitten. Learn more at

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