How We Transfer Our Attitudes To Our Dogs
Have you ever suspected your dog of treating people differently according to their ethnicity? Or perhaps you saw a comedy skit or blog post that detailed the type of behavior that could only be described as “dogs being racist”? If so, you aren’t the only one wondering if those skits are telling the truth.
In this study, two researchers from the University of Illinois decided to investigate if dogs behave differently towards people of different ethnicities, using reports from their caregivers as a basis. Perhaps more importantly, the researchers wanted to know if guardians’ attitudes towards different people had an effect. Although explicit racial bias of European Americans towards African Americans has decreased over the past century, implicit racial bias is still present in people’s minds, and in both subconscious and conscious behavior. While there may be fewer European Americans who report negative stereotypes against African Americans, they may unconsciously prefer white over black Americans, as measured by The Implicit Association Test.
According to previous research, dogs understand human nonverbal communication and will often change their behavior to comply with their guardians’. Humans also influence dogs’ behavior by controlling their exposure to other animals and people, and by specific cues they are providing to them. If dogs show racial bias, they likely learn it from their guardians.
The results of this research showed that a lot of European Americans have both explicit and implicit preference for white people over black people, and report similar preferences in their dogs’ behavior. Those surveyed said that their dogs behave more positively toward white people than black people (including petting allowance or licking). Meanwhile, negative behavior (including barking or growling) was directed toward black people only slightly more often than white people.
Meanwhile, the African Americans surveyed reported explicit personal preferences for black people, but no implicit one based on the Implicit Association Test. They reported that their dogs behave more positively towards black people than white people, but they didn’t see any difference in negative behavior towards black or white people.
The study also found that explicit personal preference predicts positive dog behavior, meaning that the more someone prefers black people over white (or vice versa), the more their dog will treat those people positively and the others negatively.
The researchers noted that some of the results can be explained by the number of interactions between dogs and people of a different race than their guardians. In other words, dogs whose guardians are black were reported as having more interactions with black people and vice versa. Thus, negative behavior to either group could be a product of a lack of interaction.
Overall, the study shows that our companion animals are individuals, whose experience of the world is very much mediated by how guardians allow them to move through it. In the same way that people say that there are no inherently more aggressive dog breeds, just dogs with poor upbringings, this study suggests that there are no “racist dogs,” just dogs whose behavior is informed by past experience and mediated by their guardians. For advocates, this is another example of how we need to be mindful of the lessons we teach our companion animals, whether consciously or subconsciously.