Well, I suppose I didn't expect to wade into all of the controversial topics all at once, but here we are!
I've worked as a trainer for several years, and have worked with dogs in professional settings since I was 16. In the 16 years I have worked with hundreds of pet owners, and have noticed a very disturbing pattern. Given our current climate, I want to talk about the notion that dogs can be "racist" at no fault of their owners. Yes, I know I'm fueling the fire, but sometimes you gotta burn it down to rebuild.
Dogs are more often than not, a chaotic neutral about all types of people. Certainly they are drawn to folks, have quirks, personality traits and life experiences that shape their reactions to humans. BUT- the primary place that dogs get their information on how to react to anything- is from their human companions.
Swanson, our border collie, is probably the most adaptable and flexible dog I have ever met, other than a fellow trainer's dog, my good friend Cassie- who has an aussie named Looba. Looba makes Swanson look like an ill-behaved cartoon dog devil. To be fair to my little dude, Looba has many more years of practiced chill. As a puppy- Swanson was nervous, anxious, and a bit reactive to things. He was also loyal, pliable, work-driven and desperate for guidance. The training methodology that I use for all dogs- and all fears- is gentle but consistent leadership. We use counter conditioning (food and praise) when a dog tackles any fear- for example, Swanson used to be terrified of the electric fences on the farm after he brushed one while learning the ropes as a pup. It took months of praise and food rewards to get him to understand that he could be near to the fence without being injured, and in fact could do his herding job without ever touching the electric line. What we don't do is say in a sing-song voice "it's ok" or reward fear based behaviors. The dog's brain can not understand the nuance of your soothing- instead they hear reinforcement of their fear- justified or not. Comforting dogs means that in situations where you want them to become calmer and more reliable, you give them an alternative to a fear based behavior. So, you may ask for eye contact (and reward it) or you may walk over to the scary thing and call them to you, happily. You may confidently walk them past a construction site at a very very quick pace, all the while encouraging them (yay! let's go! walks are fun!), and then slow your pace multiple times until hanging out near all of those sounds isn't so scary. It takes practice and persistence- and given the emotional genius of dogs- you have to be rather confident and assured. Sympathy and over infantilizing can turn a moderate discomfort into full blow anxiety in a dog at warp speed. This doesn't mean we "force" dogs to do something scary, or move them too quickly through a phobia. Nor does it mean that a dog can overcome ALL of their natural distrusts of certain objects or scenarios (notably, Swanson will still lay totally flat in an elevator, and even Looba- the wonder pup I mentioned earlier won't walk over a street grate readily). Instead, we use incremental progress to help the dog re-wire their aversion, and become more comfortable (or, in dog-training slang- counter conditioning and desensitization).
Objects, scenarios- are one thing- but what about people? One of the shockingly more common things I hear in behavior assessments when I ask about a dog's aversions or fears is "I don't know why, but my dog hates black people". I have heard this exclusively by white clients. I think that this issue, not to get overly political in my dog training site- is vastly more about owners, then it is about the dog. I'm not just talking about rescue dogs whose history is unknown or *maybe* troubled. I'm talking about folks who have had their pet since the pup was small, and are flummoxed as to how their dog has ended up with this peculiar or even reactive behavior.
One very likely answer is that some of these owners are walking around with their own, deeply buried, socially conditioned responses to people and communities of color. While many, if not most, of these folks likely have friends, co-workers and community members who are members of a race other than their own- but unconsciously- what does their body and mind do when they are racially uncomfortable?
Dogs are constantly reading us. They know when we are angry, they know when we are depressed, they know when we are sad. They smell hormone changes, understand voice pitch changes, and read facial expressions. I have often helped a client fix their entire dog walking experience just by getting them to take large, deep breaths, loosen up on the death grip on their leash, and adjusting their posture. Seriously. That's the miraculous thing about dogs. They know us, in many ways, better than ourselves. They have evolved with us for thousands of years, and show us just as much about our own evolution as their own.
Consider this scenario- Fluffy is walking along in her neighborhood, accompanied by her white owner. They take a turn down a block that is primarily occupied by families of color. The owner, considers themselves to be not racist. But they stiffen, start scanning the neighborhood (an unconscious decision) and maybe there is some kind of hormonal change, a mild release of one of our stress or fear hormones. We have been taught to fear communities of color (this is not up for debate, there is a plethora of research and data that shows the long history of racism and defamation around communities of color). Fluffy doesn't know that her owner may be working really hard to override that social conditioning, or family background, or personal beliefs. Or, her owner isn't even thinking about that, because that's not part of their daily considerations, or they don't think they need to do that work. But what Fluffy does know is that the owner has changed position, and gone into a mild or moderate *alert mode*. And as they are traveling together, Fluffy must do the same, and, if their communication is unbalanced or incomplete- take it upon herself to control the situation and ease the owner's security fears by "pushing" the perceived threat away. After a few of these instances, it becomes a pattern for the dog- and the owner becomes then anxious ANY time Fluffy meets a person of color- thus reinforcing the behavior.
Not just that- but what if Fluffy and her owner pass a person of color who is afraid of dogs? There is a good deal of recent research that shows that law enforcement have disproportionately used police dogs in communities of color, and for some folks, that may translate into a very charged fear of dogs. I've worked in neighborhoods on multiple occasions as a dog walker where children would scream and cross the street with terror after an incident with law enforcement and working dogs. I have a great deal of love for dogs who have jobs, and will be talking more about this as time goes on, and am certainly not implying that there shouldn't be police dogs. But, how and when we use those dogs is important, and subject to review just as we constantly review the uses of all law enforcement tools- from speed checking devices, to tasers, to pepper spray, to guns. Or, it just may be run of the mill, "not a dog person" vibes coming off. So now Fluffy knows 2 things- 1. Her owner's vibe has changed, maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously. 2. She isn't being received in the expected way of someone welcoming a dog.
Either of these two pieces of information can be enough for Fluffy to become reactive, when otherwise she is a perfectly leash trained, happy to greet dog. Fluffy is not inherently a racist. Fluffy most likely did not develop these behaviors based on being attacked by a person of color. More likely- is that there is work to do on Fluffy's ability to "check in" with you before making decisions about how to react, and is going on her gut. The impact of our current culture and the incomplete nature of how we, as white people, address our internalized racism, have created a seemingly racist Fluffy.
One of the hardest parts about learning to work with your dog, is understanding how you accidentally, or consciously feed their actions based on your emotional response to things. When working to train your dog, keep this frame work in mind:
1. Your dog reads your emotional state probably better than even you do.
2. When your dog encounters something new, different, or unexpected, train them to give direct and sustained eye contact based on a light verbal cue such as their name, or just by looking at them. Praise the eye contact, and then maybe give an alternative command (ie: stay, sit etc) to control before a reaction.
3. Work very hard to realize that because your dog is ALWAYS looking for your cues, we have to address our underlying assumptions about new scenarios or even communities other than our own.
There are scenarios where a dog has a past that would predispose them to be vastly distrustful of a category of people. But that shouldn't be our starting place assumption. Instead, we need to be thoughtful and thorough about how our own beliefs impact a dog's reaction, and strive to be the leaders our dog's need so that they can flourish and behave around communities different than those we belong to, be it based on race, age, gender, style etc. I've included photos from our two dogs work in a nursing home- because much like I hear "my dog hates black people", I often hear "my dog hates wheelchairs"! The first cue on how to behave is coming from us. And, in our efforts to be better dog leaders- we will likely overcome more of our ingrained oppression behaviors to become better allies.
So thank you, Dogs, for teaching us once again, how to be better versions of ourselves- we owe you an endless debt of gratitude for your lessons on compassion and change. Thankfully, you take debt payments in the form of dried liver and a nice long walk.