Are some dogs racist?

March 19, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I don't have a dog, but I do have a toddler, which means I spend a lot of time hanging around parks and sidewalks. I've witnessed many incidents of dogs with white owners barking, growling, or otherwise being extremely aggressive towards African-Americans. I'm sorry to say my parents' dog does this too. Since they live in a fairly white area I used to think maybe it was a function of not having much experience with black people (their dog once met a white guy who was almost seven feet tall and barked at him too). Are these dogs racist? Are they picking up on deep-seated racial anxiety their owners might not even be aware of?

Cecil replies:

One of your knottier questions, giving rise to acrimonious disputation here at the Straight Dope. Let's take it from the top:

  • The hostility of some dogs to black people has been widely remarked on. For example, we found a 2003 Slate article entitled "Can a Dog Be Racist?" A query along these lines on the Straight Dope Message Board likewise drew numerous affirmative responses. (More on both matters below.) In 2002, a councilwoman in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, attracted national attention when she accused Dolpho, the borough's police dog, of preferentially attacking blacks and demanded he be put to sleep.
  • Tales abound of human racists trying to instill prejudice in their dogs. The boerboel, or South African mastiff, was associated with violence against blacks in the apartheid era. A dog trained to attack blacks was the plot vehicle in the 1970 short story "White Dog" by Romain Gary, adapted for film in 1982 by Samuel Fuller; Gary claimed the underlying facts were true.
  • The belief that dogs could be trained to target ethnic groups led the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps to establish an experimental "war dogs" program during World War II. Dogs underwent training at Cat Island, Mississippi, to sniff out Japanese soldiers and kill them. This charming procedure involved having a Japanese-American soldier in padded gear beat a dog bloody, whereupon the dog's handler would order it to attack the soldier. The results weren't impressive. After 90 days of such abuse, the dogs still couldn't reliably distinguish ethnic Japanese.
  • The idea of detecting ethnicity based on scent isn't totally nuts. Research indicates some Asians produce less sweat from the apocrine glands than most Europeans while some Africans produce more. Apocrine sweat tends to be smelly, so the dogs could differentiate that way.
  • After asking around for weeks on the Straight Dope Message Board, we eventually got roughly 80 reports of the form "My dog dislikes people having characteristic X." These included people with sunglasses, obese people, hat wearers, men in hoodies, women in saris, individuals wearing jingly things such as keys, men who hunted, smokers, people on bicycles, Mormons, white people in general (2 cases), bearded men (2), Asians (3), people in uniforms (4), Hispanics (4), and the Lipka Tatars of Belarus (1).

Only two groups were cited more than ten times as targets of canine hostility: men, sometimes specified as white men (12 cases), and black people (40 cases). In other words, of 80 dogs who seemingly had it in for some subset of humanity, one in eight didn't like men, and fully half didn't like blacks.

  • The Slate piece offered the following theories from dog behavior expert Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary professor at Tufts: (1) some dogs are unaccustomed to black people and so regard them as threatening; (2) other dogs may have had a bad experience with a black person; (3) dogs sense some black people are afraid of them, which reinforces their hostility; and (4) some white dog owners fear or dislike black people, and the dogs pick up on that. Dodman's own investigation found owners of black-hating dogs tended to be the anxious type. When we contacted Dodman he reiterated the above but acknowledged research hadn't advanced further.
  • Writing up these findings, I observed that if Dodman's explanation were sufficient, we'd expect to hear of black-owned dogs who didn't like whites, but the absence of such reports suggested something more was at work. Straight Dope copy editor Jim (taking up the cudgels for the momentarily quiescent Una) riposted that this conclusion was worthless, as it rested on a dangerously iffy data set — for one, we didn't know how well black dog owners were represented among the SDMB readership. Nettled, I went back and specifically requested reports from dark-skinned dog owners. Eight wrote back: seven said their dogs exhibited no preference; one said his dog disliked Asians until trained out of it.

Conclusions: (a) I sure hope global warming research is more reliable than this, but (b) I'll concede that the core Dodmanian hypothesis — dogs bark at the unfamiliar — may largely explain the facts.

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References

Hart, Robert. “Human Body Odor” Nexus 1 (1980).

History Detectives: War Dog Letter: http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/pdf/701_wardogletter.pdf

Jeffery, Clara. “Can dogs be racist?” Slate 26 February, 2003: http://www.slate.com/id/2079214/

Romain, Gary “White Dog” Life (09 October, 1970): 56-74.

Siemers, Eric. “Official says dog targets blacks.” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review 11 June, 2002.

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