Is your dog racist, or is it really you?
What should a dog owner do when a dog expresses a racial preference?
Sometimes dog walks can get frustrating, but not in the way you might assume. On some dog walking platforms, you’re unable to see the dog walking notes until after you accept the request. The notes usually talk about the dog being afraid of certain noises, other dogs, dietary habits or physical ailments. But I was not prepared for the owner’s notes that I saw after this job was accepted: “Must be a Caucasian female in order to walk this dog.”
Months later, I still ponder over that last line from the owner: “It is not my fault that my dog reacts badly.” Because, in my opinion, it is indeed the fault of the owner. A casual browse through the American Kennel Club’s A-Z index consistently has advice about one task for owners — socialize your dog.
Before I circle back to this particular owner, let’s explore legitimate dog biases and the hurdles I went through to train my own dog. For the record, none of these result in a pattern of racism against a particular type of person.
Training my own dog: The highs and lows
For dog owners who want guard dogs, it’s OK to make your dog only be around trusted individuals and skeptical of everyone else. That’s the intended goal of a guard dog. And for some dog owners, including myself, some dogs are just naturally that way.
My German Shepherd would bark at everything when it was on our property, and she once chewed up and swallowed the phone number of a guy who approached me. I guess she knew something I didn’t because she also growled and tried to lunge at him. Meanwhile her first introduction to another fellow I liked was to quietly drink water and just stare at him.
One of the easiest ways to curtail this behavior is to make a point of bringing the dog out into a more diverse community.
But when she was leashed and outside of our gates, she never growled nor barked at people I regularly spoke to along the way. She also never lunged or growled at any other human being when we walked, besides that one guy, in all nine years. Coincidentally, my mother was particularly annoyed when a neighborhood friend walked up behind me, and my German Shepherd barely glanced back. The reason? I talked to this same guy every single time I walked her, so she knew who he was. (My mother was never with me before when I walked this dog, so she had no idea the two knew each other.) Familiarity is key for any dog. The more the person/people you are around don’t seem like a threat to you, the more likely your dog will give this person a pass.
Recognizing a dog’s legitimate versus questionable biases
Of course, dog training is a much easier task if you’ve had the dog since his/her puppy years. It can become quite a challenge if your dog comes with a set of mental (or physical) issues before you were around. This is a common hesitancy for potential dog owners who shy away from kennels or puppy mills. You don’t know what that dog has gone through before it got to you.
I once met a Chihuahua who was brought in during Hurricane Katrina and rode a truck filled with dogs well into the 75–100 pound range. You can just imagine what it was like for a dog that small to be around that many ginormous, barking dogs. Needless to say, she was petrified of large dogs and clung to her owner. She also despised strangers and thought they were coming to take her away. What did I do when I first met her? I let her run around and get used to me. I sat next to her. I even let her put her nose on my nose, just to give her assurance that I trusted her. After that, she chilled out.
Of course, this is a much easier task if you’ve had the dog since his/her puppy years. It can become quite a challenge if your dog comes with a set of mental (or physical) issues before you were around.
Then there was the Shih Tzu/Maltese Mix who despised walking altogether. He would hide in the back of his crate. It often took me anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to get the leash on him. He’d hide behind tables, chairs, treadmills and couches — anywhere that his back could be against a wall and he could see his surroundings. If you lunged at him to try to put the leash on him, he would indeed try to bite you. (He never bit me. Once I found out he bit both of his owners before, I chose to ignore him and watch TV. Eventually he grew bored and hopped on the couch to sit next to me. Then off we walked.)
Your fault or not, your dog’s behavior is your responsibility
Now let’s revisit the owner I first spoke of, who preferred a certain type of walker. It is indeed possible that maybe this dog had a preference for white women. This could be as simple as the owner (who clearly had to be a white female) only had white friends or relatives around. If that’s what the dog sees, that’s what the dog is used to. According to a Psychology Today report, “People who interact more frequently with individuals of various races are much less likely to be explicitly or implicitly racist.” But just as children aren’t born with a racial preference, neither are dogs. That has to be taught.
One of the easiest ways to curtail a racist dog’s behavior is to make a point of bringing the dog out into a more diverse community. That way, the dog can see that non-white, non-female human beings are OK, too.
Now let’s just humor the idea that the owner isn’t the person who prefers to only have Caucasian females in her home when she’s not around. (FYI, most dog owners who request on-demand dog walks are usually not home at the time.) The problem isn’t just that the dog “reacts badly” to certain kinds of people. The bigger issue is that the owner has just shrugged this off. “Meh, that’s just how she is.”
Although our conversation did not go well, and I did indeed block her, the dog-walking company also wouldn’t tolerate this kind of bias. When reporting the owner’s notes, the company was completely professional and made a point of letting the owner know about the discriminatory language in the note section.
The post, and the dog’s profile, were immediately taken down. When her dog walking requests were published on the site again, the language was removed. While this same dog owner could still choose to accept/reject a dog walker’s request to enter her home and walk her dog — and technically be discriminatory based on the walker’s profile photo —at least potential dog walkers didn’t have to deal with reading stuff like this anymore.
In all fairness, any dog walker does indeed have a right to have who (s)he wants in a private residence. I get it. But should your dog have your hangups anymore than you have his or hers? The Chihuahua’s owner still insisted that she learn to not freak out around every stranger she encountered. The Maltese’s owners were determined that he be walked on a daily basis. And my German Shepherd knew not to act up when we walked, unless she truly felt I was in imminent danger. It is indeed the responsibility of the dog owner to check erratic behavior. Why? Your pet is a reflection of you.