What Do You Do With a Racist Dog?
June 9, 2011 5:08 PM   Subscribe

I'm convinced my dog is a racist. He dislikes dark-skinned African-Americans and Asians, up to and including barking and lunging at them. Strangely enough, he will not bother light-skinned African-Americans. The dog is an 18-month-old basenji-rat terrier-Italian greyhound mix who we got from a shelter last October. We know the dog originally came from Georgia, but don't know much about its origin otherwise. How do we deprogram a racist dog?
posted by jonp72 to Pets & Animals (30 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Mrs. Machine is Asian. Our dog likes Asians and White people, but does not like anyone with darker skin and will bark at them ferociously. I suspect that this is just based on the people that the dog is around; scents differ, appearances differ, and the like. Dogs are pack animals; anything that says "this person is different from my pack" is likely to make them standoffish.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:15 PM on June 9, 2011

Well when I lived in LA, whenever I walked around a black neighborhood, the dogs would bark and snarl at me like crazy. If I got to know a dog, that would stop.

If you have any dark-skinned friends, beg their indulgence with this and have them give your dog treats until the dog learns to like those individuals. . .that might help.
posted by Danf at 5:16 PM on June 9, 2011

Sorry to double post, I just want to note that the dog also likes darker-skinned people after he has a chance to sniff them and they pet him. If your dog is being aggressive, you may need to have a trainer work with him; after that, give him the opportunity to be around dark-skinned friends (and encourage them to pet him).
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:16 PM on June 9, 2011

Nothing new there. Dogs like people that look like their owners. Get some black friends and have them come over? (I'm serious).
posted by 2bucksplus at 5:17 PM on June 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have the same issues with my dog and used to joke that he was a racist. Here's an article for you.
posted by gman at 5:25 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

uh, your dog isn't racist. he is reacting to features he hasn't been exposed to and had a neutral/positive experience with. the very first time my dog saw me in a large floppy hat, he was got very suspicious because he was used to seeing me in a certain way (sans hat) but as soon as he checked me out, determined it was me (someone he's known and had positive experiences with), the next time he saw me in a hat, it didn't phase him. that's why it's important to socialize your dog to as many new experiences and situations as possible. you do this by exposing him to a new experience, allow him to investigate and determine the experience is not harmful, and then reward him, whether with praise or a treat.
posted by violetk at 5:30 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

When you see random people on the street, especially darker skinned or Asian people, give them some treats your dog loves and ask them to toss him some. You don't need to have them close--just far enough so the dog isn't reactive. It's preferable they don't look the dog in the eye or try to touch him in the initial stages of deconditioning him--dogs find such gestures generally intimidating from strangers. Use a happy voice and seem like it's the funnest thing ever when you see these strangers. You can also ask them to have him sit for the treat as well--this usually works wonders. Explain to them the dog is fearful of strangers and you're trying to show they aren't scary.

After you do this enough times, your dog will be less reactive, and eventually, either excited or indifferent about strangers who don't look like his past owners.

Good luck!
posted by The ____ of Justice at 5:51 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

violetk is spot on. You have two chores, socialize him to all sorts of people, clothing, machines, situations as often as possible, while working with a trainer as to how to respond when his response is negative, how to redirect that behavior.

My husky has been going to work with me (at a school) since she was 8 weeks old, is socialized to a very diverse population of people... and noises, chaos, crowds, basketball games, running kids, yelling kids, etc... doesn't phase her.

Like any other behavior change, it will take a bit of time, and you have to stay with it. You do NOT want a dog you can't take out in public due to the possibility that it will be agressive in some manner.
posted by tomswift at 5:52 PM on June 9, 2011

I just wanted to add that I once knew a dog who lived in Peru but was mostly around white tourists at home, and was aggressive toward Peruvians. He was raised and cared for by a Peruvian, and was cool with the many Peruvians that he knew, and he would wander around town all day so he was certainly used to peruvians, but he would react aggressively to strange peruvians in a way that he didn't toward strange white people.

So at least in that case it wasn't just getting the dog used to seeing dark-skinned people, or even making sure he had a positive experience with a few people (some of his favorite people were peruvian but it didn't change his opinion of peruvians at large, apparently).

But, yeah, agreeing that it is a serious issue, as occasionally that dog would bite people for no apparent reason and it was a really a bad situation. But I think that's partially because his owner didn't take it seriously initially.

Good luck!
posted by geegollygosh at 6:24 PM on June 9, 2011

My first dog was really intolerant of black people and small children. The Iranian family next door was worthy of suspicion, but the dog came around.

3 racism-free dogs later, I think it was just that particular dog.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 6:29 PM on June 9, 2011

My little guy was about the same age as yours when I got him from a shelter and he used to go nuts around darker skinned individuals. So I asked the darker skinned people I know to toss him treats. It took a few months but worked wonders.

Now we live in a very diverse apartment building and the little attention hog loves everyone.

(picture, please?)
posted by ladygypsy at 7:01 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

We rescued an Australian Cattle Dog who is a sexist. I imagine he must have been abused by a male in his first 6 months. He bonded with me immediately, but other men need a positive introduction, while women are universally accepted. He is 15 now, and still requires due diligence... a small price to pay for a most wonderful companion.
posted by lobstah at 7:28 PM on June 9, 2011

My roommate's dog is basically the opposite. She LOVES black guys, the darker the skin and the larger the guy the more absolutely batshit insane she goes for their affection. We got her when she was about a year old, during a follow-up visit with the rescue group we got her from they showed us a picture of her with her former owner - an extremely large black guy. He had loved her but he died in a car accident. I tell this story because you rescued your dog as well. It could be she was hurt by someone of dark skin before you got her or it could be that she isn't accustomed to them at all. I agree that socialization is the key.
posted by magnetsphere at 7:29 PM on June 9, 2011 [9 favorites]

Critters have weird and idiosyncratic recognition algorithms. When I was a kid my horse was fine with most people unless they were wearing a hat in which case he would put his ears back and start fussing. It took him a while to get used to my wearing a hat. Fast forward to now - my gf's dog loves women and MTF TGs but dislikes almost all other men except for me and the propane guy (who is smart - bribed him with treats). He knows and likes two (dark) black women.
posted by jet_silver at 7:42 PM on June 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've known dogs that dislike bearded men, and cats and dogs that dislike all men. Prejudice is a fairly basic fear reaction that is rooted in self-preservation (if not in the best interests of human society at large).

Try gentle steps to desensitize your dog. They should begin with you, the Alpha, warmly greeting a very unthreatening person in the target group (a woman, or a child, perhaps). Expand it slowly to more of that group.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:52 PM on June 9, 2011

Yep, there is a guy who used to bring his dog to my local bar. The dog barked at every black person who walked through the door and never at white people. It got so contentious the dog was eventually banned from the bar.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:18 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

this was the subject of White Dog
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:01 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

My wife's dog is racist as well. It's too bad, she's the sweetest, most lovely little blond dog that hates black people and mexicans. When I originally told my wife, she said "no way, not possible." She then observed it herself and was horrified.
posted by TheBones at 9:02 PM on June 9, 2011

All of the dogs in my (rural Japanese) neighborhood will bark loudly and aggressively at non-Asian foreigners. When I make a routine of walking past a certain dog he will get used to me, but the behavior will resume after any extended absence. Hopefully your problem can be fixed with repeated positive socializing.
posted by Muttoneer at 9:30 PM on June 9, 2011

Your dog isn't racist. That's attributing human feelings and behavior to it. What your dog is doing is reacting to the unfamiliar. You probably don't have a lot of darker-skinned folks in your (or your dog's, at least) every day life. Get your pup around a diversity of folks, and he'll figure it out.

(And I suspect this has nothing to do with Georgia or any craziness about a black person beating your dog. It's just a socialization thing.)
posted by bluedaisy at 9:33 PM on June 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

One of the ways to tell I'm traveling in an area that doesn't get a lot of tourists/foreigners is that the local dogs go batshit. Nthing the socialization.
posted by cyndigo at 9:41 PM on June 9, 2011

I know it's not kosher in the Cesar Millan world to attribute much to breed, but having a whippet/basenji/dingo cross myself, I know that those breeds together can create a defensive, sensitive creature. Mine is also sensitive and sometimes defensive around Aboriginal folk. It is attributable to less social interaction with black folk in my immediate circle, and part of the naturally defensive aspects of the breed. Basenjis are notoriously difficult to train and are very protective dogs overall, in my experience. Socialising your dog with treats and reassurance is the way forward.
posted by honey-barbara at 4:27 AM on June 10, 2011

What color is the vet tech who gives your dog its shots?
posted by PSB at 5:12 AM on June 10, 2011

Well, not a dog, but my Congo African Grey parrot was racist during his early years because my husband and I are pale as all fuck, and I think most animals are extra-skittish about anything different when they're young. He would be terrified of our minority friends the first few years, but we just kept having them over, let him see we were comfortable and not frightened, and now he likes them and will climb on them and such.

Birds and dogs are both pack animals, so it really can help if you've established yourself as the leader because they look to you for their cues for who's safe and who isn't. Just remember that it will take time. Animals from shelters sometimes also have negative psychological associations with past owners, so it's also possible he is reacting to people who share characteristics of their old owner; again, this requires patience and modeling a demeanor that these people are not threatening. One of my friends has a rescue dog that reacts strongly to white men wearing hats, and we suspect her old abusive owner was a white guy who wore hats. She has gotten better with more walks and exposure to situations where nothing bad happens, but there's no telling how long it will take to undo the damage. Just be patient.
posted by Nattie at 7:28 AM on June 10, 2011

(fwiw, I don't think anyone is using the term "racist" as a literal analogue to human behavior; I've only ever heard people use it in a tongue-in-cheek way that gets the idea across quickly. But a few of the same root causes play into human racism -- either not being familiar and being reflexively wary, or being wary because of bad luck with past experiences that make you terrified of acquiring the necessary experience to balance out the prejudice. Humans just add a bunch of twisted logic on top of that that make them feel justified and harder to shake out of it with contrary experience.)
posted by Nattie at 7:42 AM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, and incidentally, there's this idea that a lot of dogs who are scared of particular things or people because they've been abused or hurt by such.

I would like to dispel this idea. While this might be true for some of them, MANY, MANY dogs are simply undersocialized or have nervous genes. Many dogs in general are said to gravitate towards females because of their less threatening, higher pitched voices, whether or not they've ever been abused. People in hats, with canes, people who move slowly, and people who look different than their owners...these are all things that are known to scare undersocialized dogs. It is not simply true that they need to have been hurt or abused by such to be afraid of them...the simple quality of being different is cause for intimidation alone.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 10:35 AM on June 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've seen this with lots of dogs and I've always heard it was because dogs have a harder time "reading" the eyes of people with dark skin because their eyes blend in more with their face. Somewhat ironically, this is also one of the reasons cited for why black dogs are adopted last from shelters -- people claim they can't see their eyes.
posted by jrichards at 10:45 AM on June 10, 2011

I've always heard it was because dogs have a harder time "reading" the eyes of people with dark skin

I can't say that I absolutely know that this is wrong, but this sounds like a really complicated explanation for something that's really not so complicated.

My dog has grown up with black people and white people and being exposed to brown people and probably orange and purple people too. You know who he barks at? Dogs. Not people. No people at all.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:12 PM on June 11, 2011

My rescue silky terrier turned out to be a bit of a racist when we got him. He would bark at pretty much any darker skinned person of any race we passed. Luckily we live in an apartment complex with a wide range of races living in it and while he's still not super friendly to strangers, he now is antisocial on an equal opportunity basis.

My rescue Rat Terrier on the other hand loves everyone, just hates big puffy coats & joggers we were so glad when winter was over because the coats all went away. . .then all the joggers came out, we have a lot of work to do still with that guy.
posted by wwax at 2:32 PM on June 12, 2011

BTW by antisocial I meant he doesn't bark at anyone anymore, but would really rather people he didn't know didn't try and pat him.
posted by wwax at 2:34 PM on June 12, 2011

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