I want to get rid of my irrational dog racism. How?!
October 13, 2014 4:39 AM   Subscribe

I admit it, I am afraid of many large dogs. Mostly, this includes boxers, rotties and pit bulls, sometimes even great danes if they're loose in yard. What can I do to alleviate this? Dogs can tell that I am afraid, I know. I feel adrenaline shoot through me when I encounter people with these dogs or dogs in a yard. I suspect that my fear is socially conditioned, and I feel bad about being a "dog racist."

I worry that I am influenced by bias towards certain large dog breeds that is not realistic. I wouldn't accept feeling a certain way towards people based on hype and stereotypes. When I see this type of dog I suspect that they are predatory and shrink back. Once I screamed and backed up--which isn't a smart move--it was instinctual almost.

I am allergic to dogs or at least some dogs. Is this a mental process that I can work through on my own or should I find a way to interact with my phobia? Are there videos about dogs that would help with this? I am not okay with this fear, especially since I belong to a minority ethnic group that faces discrimination. I feel shitty when I react with fear and dislike towards an innocent animal that I don't know.

My past experience:
I interact with my friends' dogs, and they do seem to enjoy playing with me and being petted. Sometimes overstimulated dogs bother me, but I do give dogs attention and dogs never avoid me. Aggressive dogs have chased my mother, bitten my father and lunged at me, but I've never experienced a traumatic incident with them. I grew up with an Akita, and he was a sweet, friendly, but stubborn guy. My friend has a pit bull and she jumps on everybody. I would like the dog if she didn't jump on me, I'm a tiny bit afraid of her because she is hyper.
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
So, there seems to be a couple of different dynamics going on here. Your fear of certain breeds and your aversion to misbehaving dogs.

The fear of certain breeds would probably be best dealt with by utilizing someone who could walk you through a desensitization process, just as you would go through for any phobia, this can be overcome. You could undertake this yourself but a bit of guidance might speed the process and keep you on track with it. That said, it's perfectly alright to have a healthy fear of any dog you don't know, especially breeds that can be dangerous when aggressive. I tend to avoid any off-leash dog (or dogs on-leash being handled by someone who is obviously not in control of the animal) that I don't know, especially larger breeds, it just makes sense.

As for the disobedient, jumping on you, types of dogs. Inform the owner that the behavior is problematic for you and ask how you can help in preventing it (walking out of the room or turning your back when the dog is jumping, etc). You can be part of the solution and develop a healthier relationship with that particular dog.

And, I understand your use of the word "racist", but I wonder if the use of that word impacts on how you're approaching the solution to your fears. Try using the word phobic instead of racist, it puts the solution into a scientific realm and you don't need to deal with all sorts of guilt in the process.
posted by HuronBob at 4:55 AM on October 13, 2014 [11 favorites]

I agree with HuronBob that labeling this as a version of racism probably isn't helpful. It's smart to be especially cautious with large, muscular dogs that you don't know, but it's also very helpful to learn to recognize the way dogs behave when they're genuinely aggressive. If there's a popular off-leash dog park in your area then you might spend some time there. You will see dogs of all sizes behave well and badly in all sorts of ways. Dogs exhibit plenty of physical cues when they're fearful or aggressive. If you learn to recognize those signs, it might make dogs seem less unpredictable.
posted by jon1270 at 5:28 AM on October 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

I am a semi-professional dog trainer who has been bitten once by an Akita. It took me a while to get over my fear of being bit by larger dogs, but this is what helped me.

Spend as much time as possible with comfortable, well behaving dogs. Try to get as close to your fear-dogs profile as possible. For me, it was spending time with my friend's husky.

I don't think videos will help you. Right now, the fight-or-flight response is well-wired with you for those bigger dogs, and only through repeated desensitization will you ever be comfortable around them again. The more you avoid them, the stronger that response will be in you.
posted by bbqturtle at 5:29 AM on October 13, 2014

It's not "dog racism" to have an aversion to certain breeds of dogs. Seriously. Don't feel bad about it. A little fear of big dogs is probably good, because they do have the potential to be more dangerous if not trained properly. And a lot of people don't train their dogs properly.

It's probably worth working through this phobia if it will help your own quality of life. I can imagine that being scared of all big dogs is a bit of a pain, especially if the dogs you're scared of aren't dangerous. But don't feel bad about being wary of big dogs. I really do not think that it's the same as human racism.

I love pit bulls and other dogs like that, but I also can't handle badly behaved dogs. Would your friend be receptive to encouragement to get her dog some training? A lot of people are scared of pit bulls, so if hers jumps on people - even if it's not out of aggression - her dog is going to get a bad reputation really quickly. When I was a child I was knocked over by a dog and hit my mouth on a table. It was traumatic. The dog in question wasn't at all aggressive, just very excitable.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 5:31 AM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm a dog owner and a dog lover, and I think it's perfectly rational and sensible to be wary of strange dogs, especially large dogs that could potentially injure you badly or even kill you. I never assume that a dog will be friendly unless I have had experience with that particular dog, or have taken some time to evaluate their body language and demeanor and feel pretty sure they are friendly. Tail wagging doesn't always mean "happy," and eye contact doesn't mean "let's be pals" (in doggy communication, bold eye contact is more often seen as threatening and aggressive). A dog licking its lips / nose or yawning may be very nervous, and a nervous dog could snap at someone coming toward them, especially if they feel cornered. Dogs that are trying to show they aren't being threatening will usually try to approach another dog (or animal, human, whatever) from the side or from behind, rather than head on, which is seen as more dangerous or aggressive.

So given all this, the discrepancies between how humans and dogs view interactions between strangers mean that it can be easy for misunderstandings to occur. Most Western humans feel like approaching directly, head on, with hand out, and making eye contact shows that you mean well and are honest, friendly, unthreatening, whereas for dogs it's pretty much exactly opposite!

Between dogs and humans, dogs are usually the ones that adjust themselves to this odd and scary behavior from people, but not all do all the time. If a dog is in pain or has been traumatized in some way, or poorly socialized, or badly trained, they might snap or bite or even attack if there is a territorial or protection issue (some dogs will be perfectly friendly, but then get aggressive when their owner is near, or if you are close to their food or toy), so absolutely go ahead and reserve your perfectly sensible right to wait and see how a particular dog will behave. There's no reason to try to make friends prematurely.

I'm always amazed at the parents (who don't know me or my dog) who will try to get their young kids to pet my dog, which I think is incredibly reckless. My dog looks adorable, but she could be short tempered and snippy, snappy, or bitey... She's not, but maybe some day she will be, either because she doesn't feel well, or gets older and eyesight worse, etc. I don't encourage this, and usually put myself between my dog and little kids.

But people can be weird. I've even had full grown adults expressing affection for my dog by repeatedly hitting her on the head! Okay, these are not hard hits, but what? This is so nuts.

So, yeah, again, as a dog owner, I would not be the least bit insulted if you were wary of my dog. Be friendly with friendly dogs you know and trust, don't worry about trying to be buds with strange dogs right away, and maybe study up a bit on dog body language and behavior via internet resources, videos, etc., so you can tell a bit better if a dog is feeling hostile, frightened, friendly, playful, etc. This isn't anything like being racist, it's just good sense.
posted by taz at 5:32 AM on October 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

It might help you to identify a goal beyond just not having fears. For instance, do you want to be able to socialize with your friend without the dog being an issue? Maybe work on that by telling your friend how you feel and trying to address it while you are visiting.

I don't think trying to get rid of your initial reaction of fear is that necessarily that realistic or worth your time. Objectively, a strange dog can be a threat. I say this as a dog and sometimes horse owner. I'm not scared of animals but am aware that they can and do injure people and other animals. Big dogs seem scary because they are bigger. As far as pit bulls, specifically, your friend's pit is likely no more aggressive to humans than the next dog. I was interested to read that of Michael Vic's 22 confiscated dogs, only one ended up testing out as human-aggressive-- as opposed to dog-aggressive, which is something those particular dogs (not the breed) were bred, selected and trained for.

Blaming yourself or criticizing yourself for having fear? Not really productive. It's not like you are being completely irrational. The part where your fear is getting in the way of your life is the part you need to address, in my opinion.
posted by BibiRose at 5:34 AM on October 13, 2014

I am not a "dog person" whatsoever. I am both wary and disinterested in larger dogs, even more so misbehaved and/or hyper dogs. I am giving you permission to be TOTALLY okay with feeling the way you do.

Why specifically are you wishing to make yourself feel less guilty about not digging them? I can see wanting to get over it if there's a situation where you're dating someone who owns a big breed, or if your neighbors have one and you are stricken with terror every morning when you walk by their yard, but it doesn't sound like that's what's going on here. I am guessing (possibly incorrectly) that some dog owner made you feel guilty for not wanting to play with their big fur baby, which is something I definitely get mild grief for sometimes, here in pitbull-loving Philly. Don't beat yourself up trying to be super-extra-open-minded. Just chalk "I don't really like or trust big dogs" up to a personality quirk you have and be cool with it. It's no different than "I don't like ketchup" or some other silly thing.

Edit: I re-read your original question and missed where you mentioned that you once screamed and backed away from a dog. You should focus on developing a healthy fear RESPONSE rather than eradicating your pointless guilt over the dog breed "racism".
posted by ElectricGoat at 6:07 AM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's a difference between "I don't like ketchup" and " I feel adrenaline shoot through me when I encounter people with these dogs ".

The first is a passive statement of no consequence, the second is a statement reflecting significant anxiety/fear that occurs during a rather normal occurence (short of never leaving the house the OP is likely to encounter large dogs on a fairly regular basis in just going about his/her daily life). The OP expressed that he/she would like to overcome this type of response. I don't think referring to this as a "silly thing" is helpful for the OP. I respect his/her desire to deal with this.
posted by HuronBob at 6:17 AM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

OK the opening sentence of this might not help, but please keep reading as it is setting up the advice that follows.

When my brother was 8 he had half his face ripped off/open by a neighbours dog. I am talking a serious attack not just a dog bite and after several weeks in hospital was justifiably terrified of dogs when he got out. My father spend months working with him to get him over the fear. He would take him for walks & point out all the dogs being good, he would pat friendly dogs, never forcing my brother to go near the dogs, just patting them casually and talking to my brother about them. Explaining how to read the body language, how to tell a friendly dog from an angry dog over & over until my brother could read a dogs body language. This gave him the confidence that now days as an adult he owns at last count 2 pitbull crosses and a small fluffy white dog.

There is nothing wrong with being wary of dogs you don't know though. But like my brother you might feel more confident if you knew more about dog body language and what they were thinking.

I recommend the following books.
The Other End of the Leash.

Calming Signals. This is a good book to learn not only when a dog is signalling you that it doesn't want trouble & is peaceful among other things but because the signals work back the other way. Which if a dog makes you nervous would be good for you to keep in mind as you can say to the dog in it's own language. I'm no threat, I don't want to make trouble etc, which will calm it down. A nervous person sending out mixed signals makes the dog nervous.

I could recommend a tonne more but they are good beginner friendly books to get you started.
posted by wwax at 6:27 AM on October 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

I am not okay with this fear, especially since I belong to a minority ethnic group that faces discrimination. I feel shitty when I react with fear and dislike towards an innocent animal that I don't know.

I think your anxiety about large dogs is being hugely exacerbated by your anxiety about 'being a dog racist,' as if you are perpetrating a moral crime on the same level as KKK-level hateful racism against human beings.

You have a phobia of large dogs. That's all. You are not a bad person, you are not a 'dog racist,' you are just a person with a phobia. I have a phobia about heights but I'm not 'elevation racist.' Go easy on yourself.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:52 AM on October 13, 2014 [11 favorites]

Look, I love big dogs and everything, but they're not people. You shouldn't feel guilty for being "racist" against them. If you don't like big dogs, you don't like big dogs. You're not hurting anyone by having this opinion. Especially if you're allergic to dogs, since it sounds like you don't have interactions with dogs much at all. Hyper dogs are annoying, and big hyper dogs that jump on people are, like, beyond the pale annoying even for people who like big dogs.

I used to be uncomfortable around big dogs, because most of what I knew of them was the hyper/jumping/powerful enough to knock you over sort of thing (I grew up in a culture where people tend not to train or exercise their dogs at all). I got over it by hanging out with friends who have big laid back dogs -- so I knew it was possible -- and ultimately by getting a big friendly lazy dog of my own.

I personally think you're entirely right to dislike big, hyper, ill-trained dogs, and right to be wary when you meet a large dog that it might be that sort of dog.
posted by Sara C. at 7:40 AM on October 13, 2014

I'm wary of every dog not on a leash which I don't know well, regardless of size.

I'm wary of dogs that "jump on everyone" and aren't well trained, regardless of size.

Being lunged at or nipped can be traumatic.

It's smart to exercise caution with dogs you don't know. It's smart to be wary of any dog who is poorly trained.

Tell your friend with the "jumper" she needs to lock her dog in another room when you are around. If you feel weird requesting this, then just don't go to her house.

You're not weird.
posted by jbenben at 7:51 AM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think it's smart to be cautious around all dogs, and even more so around big ones. People like to trot out the "chihuahuas bite more than pit bulls" line, but I have been bitten by a Rottweiler and I own a chihuahua, and there's just no comparing the damage each can do. I have known nice dogs and mean ones and until I know which category a specific dog belongs to, I skip saying hi to them. And I looooooove dogs. Love them. A lot. There's nothing wrong with you!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 8:02 AM on October 13, 2014

I worry that I am influenced by bias towards certain large dog breeds that is not realistic. I wouldn't accept feeling a certain way towards people based on hype and stereotypes.

Dogs are not people. How you interact with people does not have a 1:1 correspondence with how you interact with dogs, and vice versa. It is completely rational to be more wary of a 50-pound pit bull than a three-pound terrier just as one might be more wary of Andre the Giant in a dark alley as opposed to a toddler in a dark alley. That is just the simple risk assessment that every human does every day. (or should do if they wish to avoid injury)

If your friend's dog jumps on you, your friend is a poor master to his/her dog. I would recommend not socializing in your friend's home or other places where the dog might be.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:08 AM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're willing to throw a small amount of money at this, get a recommendation for a local dog trainer.

Yes, for you. That's who trainers actually train. Tell them you have big dog anxiety and want to learn some interaction skills. Because you are correct: they know. My dogs know from another room if I get wound up or upset about something, they are very, very good at reading people. Let a trainer walk you through the various physical and mental maneuvers they use and teach people to use with their own dogs.

Trainers are often really reasonably priced (we paid $70/hour, and you probably don't need more than an hour). And they tend to know what's going on in the community, so they could also point you to maybe some volunteer opportunities that would get you this training in return for some pen-cleaning and dog-walking.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:09 AM on October 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

I don't like big dogs either. They stink, they jump on you, they drool, they're ugly as fuck and they don't even have table manners!! And to make matters worse, big-dog-owners bring them all over the city and treat them like people.

Seriously, you're allowed to not like big dogs and you probably have reason to. They're animals and some of them are dangerous, not properly trained or not-trainable. But the owners think their dogs should have more rights than people because they're (cute?). I'm with you on the whole dog aversion thing and I have no intention of getting rid of it.
posted by winterportage at 8:30 AM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lyn Never gave the best advice in this thread and I'm considering taking a class or at least watching some YouTube videos on this subject, myself.
posted by jbenben at 9:30 AM on October 13, 2014

I love dogs - but it is important to note that dogs were bred for specific tasks. Many dogs were bred for violence (hunting, guarding, fighting). That includes all of the breeds you mentioned above. It also includes several small breeds too. Humans can not undo centuries of breeding, selecting violent and aggressive traits, just because we want the dog to be a cute pet today

Being cautious around unknown dogs is common sense.

Your friend who owns a pit bull that jumps on people and is hyper - as a dog lover, I would not be cool with this behavior from my friend's pit bull either. The dog is obviously not being properly controlled, and loss of control over the dog can lead to unexpected violent outbursts. Your friend is in the wrong here - not you for being wary of this dog.

That said, Lyn Never's advice above is excellent. A dog trainer will be able to help you handle dogs much better in a very short space of time.
posted by Flood at 10:08 AM on October 13, 2014

I grew up around large dogs as a child and today one of my very best friends is a hundred-plus pound dog. I am still wary to the point of seeming fearful of very large, unknown-to-me dogs, so I get you. I absolutely do not like hyper, ill-trained dogs. (Who does? Seriously. I do not understand owners who will not put in the time to train their dogs.) I try to avoid visiting people (no matter how close we are friendship-wise) who have dogs like this.

If your friend with the pit bull is open to helping you out, you might ask her if she would mind letting you borrow her dog to attend training classes. Of course she should also come along. If you can swing it, it might help you to see how dogs are trained and give you an opportunity to be around other dogs with an authority figure (the trainer) around to keep things in check. (I did something similar with a couple for whom I house-sit regularly. When they got two new blue heeler pups, I came along to their training classes with them so that the dogs would learn to see me as someone they had to listen to and I could learn the commands and expectations they were to follow.)
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 4:35 PM on October 13, 2014

I love my dog! But I don't love all dogs. Like a poster above who over-generalized about their dislike of big dogs, I dislike small dogs. They're loud, yippie, spoiled, ridiculously aggressive, and pee everywhere. It's a dislike based on a pre-judgement. I like small dogs that don't fit that criteria. But that's beside the point.

Desensitization is the way to go. There is nothing like time with the exception to the stereotype/your pre-conceived notion to teach you otherwise. Call up the local shelters & rescues and tell them your issue, ask if they have pibble or rottie puppies or other large breed puppies that could use some snuggles. Ask if they have a mild mannered, behaved dog you can hang out with. Offer a donation or to help out at adoption events.
Do you have acquaintances with well behaved big dogs? Your friend allowing her dog to jump on people is your friend's fault. It's right up there with people who let their children scream, run wild, and throw silverware at restaurants - it's the parents' fault for allowing it.
posted by Neekee at 6:48 AM on October 14, 2014

There's nothing "racist" about being anxious around large dogs. Dogs are not people, as much as people may love them. You don't owe dogs the same kind of opportunity to establish themselves as individuals as you would a person. You are allowed to have general feelings and apprehensions about particular sizes and even breeds of dogs.

(FWIW, I am speaking strictly of a right to your personal feelings. Not your right to make demands on people and their dogs based on them. That is not so much a thing.)
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:22 PM on October 15, 2014

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