Jul 03, 2023
Help! I think my dog is racist
What turned my usually friendly terrier into a growling hellhound? A man in a hoodie on same stretch of footpath as us. As much as I don’t want to admit it, I think my dog might be a bit of a bigot.
What turned my usually friendly terrier into a growling hellhound? A man in a hoodie on same stretch of footpath as us.
As much as I don’t want to admit it, I think my dog might be a bit of a bigot. She doesn't lunge, or snap, but if surprised by someone with their hood up, she will growl and shrink back as if they’re a threat.
Was she harmed by a hoodie wearing hooligan before I rescued her at the pound? Or are some dogs just a bit prejudiced?
“The first thing I’d say to you is, you’re not alone,” says recently returned, New Plymouth based dog behaviourist Mat Ward, author, founder of petbehavioursorted.com and co-star of UK dog behaviour show Dogs Might Fly. "Reactivity is probably one of the most common types of behaviours I help my clients with."
A very quick straw poll of my fellow pet owners backs him up.
“I have had two small female dogs that hate men, especially ones that wear hi-visibility clothing, like tradies, but also those dark blue overalls,” one said.
”Dog hates sunglasses, hoodies and face masks and then embarrassingly she does not seem to like people with disabilities or those with darker skin… just awful,” said another.
“We suspect our dog is racist,” another admitted.
While it might seem like your dog has prejudices, or may be suffering from PTSD due to some past trauma, Ward says it is more likely that your dog is reacting to something that doesn’t match her usual experience.
It isn’t uncommon, but many clients who come to him with this issue are deeply embarrassed by it.
"In many ways, it’s very normal dog behaviour, in that it makes sense to not feel comfortable about novelty, because the unknown can potentially be a threat.”
To understand why, you have to go back 50,000 years, to the proto-dogs, the wolves, says behaviourist and author Mark Vette, founder of Dogzen.com, and another Dogs Might Fly alum. Vette studied wolves in the US to better understand the ways dogs’ minds work.
"What the wolf does in its social development is, it hunkers down for four months."
The whelps first bond with mum, then the pack. By they time they are four months old, however, that openness closes down, and the whelps become more territorial.
"As adults, they will continue to consolidate those pack bonds and guard their territory from other wolves. It's exactly the same as the dog.
"If you don't do the right thing in that formative [0-4mth] period, then your problems come from there, particularly this one of discrimination. They're going to discriminate who their family is."
In the wild, discrimination is sensible – nothing good will come of trying to make friends with a snake, or a bear – but at the dog park, or on a suburban walk? Not so much.
Ward agrees. “The most critical period is the first few weeks or months of a puppy's life where they simply get wired up as to what's normal." About 80% of the dog’s brain is wired during that sensitive period.
It means that if dogs are limited in their experiences during those first four months, they will likely become territorial and reactive to anything they don’t expect to see in their environments, whether it’s a pile of leaves, a cat, a hi-vis jacket, or a person of a gender, age, or skin tone they are not used to.
That doesn’t mean old dogs can’t learn new anti-discrimination techniques.
"The good news is, it's very treatable," says Vette. It just might take a little longer, and need repeated positive reinforcing.
Clicker training, which uses positive reinforcement to encourage your dog to focus more on you than the surroundings, or desensitisation techniques, which experienced trainers such as Ward and Vette can help with, should be conducted when the dog is relaxed, and happy.
"It's a case of taking a longer term approach and thinking how can I work to improve the way she feels about people she feels threatened by," says Ward. There are three golden rules there, the first is you want to avoid pushing your dog too far.” Ease off if she gets stressed and reactive.
“The second is, you want to have tolerable exposure. If there's a way for her to safely spend time around the types of people that she's uncomfortable with, that can help.” Perhaps your local training school or Facebook group has meet-ups, or can help with arranging these kinds of opportunities.
“And the third and final golden rule is, if there's any way to couple positive experiences with the types of people she's worried about that can really help." That means clicker training, and positive reinforcement with “really smelly, meaty treats she doesn't usually get”, or her favourite toy.
Over time, your dog will associate new experiences with good things coming to her, and be able to bounce back from frights or stressful encounters quicker, and behave in more predictable ways
In the interim, you might consider a muzzle – more to encourage people to keep their distance – or a head collar, which can give you more control if something happens suddenly, "rather than trying to haul them away physically".