Why Is My Dog Racist – And How Can I Fix It?

is my dog racist sad scared

“He’s a bit racist,” the woman explained, clearly embarrassed, as her dog barked and lunged at just one person at the park.

The woman was white, the man her dog was barking and lunging at was black.

Her conclusion seems logical, right? The dog only barks at people of a certain race, so he must be racist. Right? RIGHT?

Well… let’s break that down. We’ve already talked a lot about why dogs bark and lunge, but let’s go a bit deeper into the problem of dogs that appear racist.

Your dog may be reacting to factors that are related to the systemic oppression of BIPOC, your own fear of non-white people, or cultural differences that he’s not used to seeing.

We also have a whole e-book about fixing aggression issues in your dog. Check it out!

Can A Dog Be Racist?

Being racist (as an adjective) is defined as “Showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or believing that a particular race is superior to another.”

Lately, we’ve also been talking a lot about systemic racism. This is more insidious, because both you and your dog are part of a racist world no matter what you do.

Your dog probably doesn’t believe that one race is superior to another. Your dog probably doesn’t really feel discrimination against a race, either. But your dog might show discrimination to a given race by:

  • Flinching
  • Hiding
  • Barking
  • Lunging
  • Growling
  • Other tension-related behaviors

Does that make her racist?

Given the cultural weight of a word like racism, I don’t think it’s wise to call a dog racist. This kind of downplays the issue.

Instead, it’s might be more accurate to say that this dog displays a certain set of behaviors in reaction to a given race, but not in reaction to others. I know. Racism is a much easier word. But it’s not accurate!

Your dog is also probably undersocialized, but that’s not the end of the world.


If It’s Not Racism, What Is It?

For example, my dog Barley barked and hid behind me when he saw his first Sikh men (and yes, I know that Sikh isn’t a race – it’s a religion). We were staying at an AirBnb in a very diverse Vancouver neighborhood, and Barley kept growling or barking when he saw the Sikh men watering their lawns and doing other normal things. He’s not normally that jumpy – so what was going on?

Their turbans, robes, and long beards probably threw Barley off. But I didn’t throw my hands in the air and declare my dog racist. Nor did I assume that Barley had once been abused by a Sikh man.

Barley used to have a similar reaction to people with canes, people on bikes, people with backpacks, people with trekking poles, etc. I’d worked through his fears of each of those things, but he hadn’t yet been exposed to people wearing robes and turbans.

Dogs who act “off” with people of different races were probably not abused by a different race.

Neophobia, Socialization, and When it Goes Wrong

What I did assume was that the Sikh men were different to Barley. I even don’t remember the last time I’d seen someone in a turban and all of a sudden we lived in a neighborhood that seemed to be about 20-40% Sikh. To dogs, different is generally scary.

Dogs that react one way to one race and another way to other races are probably undersocialized.

Adult dogs are generally naturally “neophobic,” meaning they’re scared of new things.

If your dog was not exposed to people of a variety of races as a young puppy, she’s much more likely to behave in a way that we might call “racist.”

Dogs can also learn that just one person is “OK” without automatically feeling comfortable with all people of another race. So if you have one black roommate but never introduce your puppy to any other people of color, you’re probably not off the hook.

This is especially true if the people your dog seems suspicious of people who dress, move, sound, or behave differently from you. It’s not their skin tone that has him on edge – its the fact that they’re new to him.

My guess with Barley is that he’d just never seen someone in robes, a turban, and a long beard before. When I first got him, he also used to bark and lunge at people in wheelchairs, walking with canes, carring umbrellas, walking with trekking poles, wearing floppy hats, carrying large objects… you get the point.

Neophobia is really, really common. It’s the root of many of the behavior problems that I deal with on a daily basis. It’s too late to go back to your dog’s critical socialization period.

Your Dog Might Be Scared Because You’re Tense

Finally, your dog might act racist because you get nervous when you see someone that youperceivee as scary. Tension can travel down the leash, and if that person at the end of the street makes you nervous, that can make your dog nervous as well. Our dog’s behavior is often a mirror of our own, and it’s not always flattering.

How Can I Fix My Dog’s Racism?

What you really should do if you think your dog is racist (he’s not, but he still needs help) is get help – but don’t worry, I’ll give some solutions here as well. I’m a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, and I offer one-on-one dog behavior help to people anywhere in the world. You can check out my options for phone, video, Whatsapp, and email support here. No matter what’s going on, I can help you make it better.

Having a racist dog can be really embarrassing (again, he’s not racist, but he does need help). The problem can even become dangerous – so let’s not ignore it. For this explanation, I’ll use the word “stranger” to describe the person that makes your dog uncomfortable. You can use your friends, as long as they’re of the race that your dog struggles with.

When trying to make a dog feel more comfortable around people of other races, I use two main approaches in tandem:

  1. Teach the dog to look at the stranger in exchange for a treat. Every time your dog notices the stranger, she gets a treat. If your dog won’t eat, you’re too close to the stranger. Reset and try again. The stranger can just stand far away, not looking at the dog. They can use the body language demoed here. We don’t want the stranger trying to calm the dog, call the dog over, or otherwise soothe the dog. We’re just teaching the dog that people who are different races make treats magically appear. This is called classical counter-conditioning. For a video demo of the “look at that game,” click here.
  2. Teach the dog that the stranger can also produce treats. Now, we’ll use the training method known as “Treat and Retreat.” Start this once your dog can tolerate being within about 10 feet of the stranger while calmly and happily taking treats. Now, have the stranger toss a treat to your dog when she looks at him. Be sure that the stranger tosses the treat behind your dog, so your dog moves away from the stranger to get the treat. This relieves social pressure.

Of course, this is a very general overview of these two training methods. Even in the best-case scenario, these two training methods will only help get your dog comfortable with passing strangers. But what if your dog is racist towards your new boyfriend or neighbor?

If your goal is more than just tolerance from your dog, you probably should get help from a professional – like me.

Comments 12

  1. I keep the blinds open so the dogs that my grandson brings over can peer out into the world while they are with me when he works. I was resting on the couch, and suddenly one dog jumped up and lunged at my large living room window trying to get out at two little black children about five years old! I am very upset!! He did come from Pima animal care Center. He’s a Labrador mastiff mix. He’s the sweetest, calm, most down to earth dog I’ve ever been around! What the hell was that? I need some experienced advice here. What kind of dog would do that-these were children!? Very upset!

  2. I’m not sure it makes sense to radically separate racist dog behaviour from racist human behaviour, in that I think the core reasons behind racist human behaviour are similar neophobia. We dress that core fear up with ideas only after the fact. I also think that if a human is has positive encounters with a variety of people at a young age it will significantly reduce their tendency to have (open or otherwise) racist fears and aggression.

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      Author

      It’s possible, I’m definitely no expert on the origins of human racist behavior. But human racism does seem much more entrenched and complex (ie, it’s a superiority thing) versus just neophobia. But structural racism can lead to housing segregation, which leads to less exposure for dogs, which might result in neophobia… it’s all connected to a degree.

  3. My OES is 8 months old and every since he was a pup he has always barked at colored people on the TV. I’ve been working with him to get him to stop. Today we had him out for a walk and a colored man walked towards us and my dog freaked out. Barking and lunging. Normally he is very friendly and wants to say hi to everyone. I don’t know what to think about this or how to change this behavior.

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      Author
  4. Hi I have a yellow Lab whose 7years old. My children made friends with the neighbor kids who were over playing the other day and my dog charged after them and would not stop barking. Daisy (my dog) has never reacted like that before with any stranger that has came over. So now it’s been over a month and everytime Daisy sees this kids we have to put her inside so she doesn’t do what she did before. The only thing I could think of that’s she’s prejudice against them. They are African American and I don’t recall ever having one of our friends that is that race over our house, so since Daisy has never been around an African American she doesn’t know how to react. How can we get her used to that race in a calmly fashion. These 2 children are the sweetest and I don’t want them to feel scared everytime they come over. My daughter who’s 9 says thar when she’s over at their house and Daisy comes over she doesn’t react the way she does when they are at our house. Not sure what to do and need help figuring this out.
    Thank you

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      Author

      Hi Jackie, I’d try playing “Treat and Retreat” around the kids to help your dog learn that the kids = treats and also teach her that moving away is a perfectly fine response. I think that’ll help!

  5. Hi! I have a pit lab mix who was in fact abused by a black family. He has always acted aggressively towards people of color to the point where I don’t let him around my black friends because he will hurt them. Now I’m about to move, with the dog, and a potential housemate I will have is black. How can I make sure he doesn’t actually attack her? This at the moment is my only option.

  6. Hi,
    So my 2 dogs bark at my roommate who is a 6’3 black man. He’s lived here over 6 months now and still thy bark at him when I’m home. Apparently, they are fine when I’m not home. I want them to bark at anyone trying to come into the house just in case but once they know it’s him how can I make it stop? I’m not sure I want them easily distracted by food?! Granted they are chawinnies and not very scary.

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      Author

      Hi Emily! I’d basically do a little treat scatter every time your neighbor walks by. Teaching the little guys that his presence = food will really go a long way to making them feel relaxed around him!

  7. Hi. My boyfriend and I adopted a 7-month-old Black Mouth Cur from an high-kill South Carolina Shelter 3 months ago. We live in Pennsylvania. He is white. I am the only black person in the household. He has 2 adult sons, one who lives with us. Well, things have not gone so smoothly with Daisy Mae. And as a lifelong dog parent and puppy lover, I am crushed,

    She has acted aggressively towards
    me many times, sometimes through overactive play, then just repeated all out attacks when I’ve taken her for walks. She has drawn blood several times- even through coat layers. One attack where she lunged at me repeatedly lasted for 15 minutes. I was petrified that I would lose her or end up seriously injured.

    Twice, when I’ve tried to introduce her to my mother, she growled at her and bared her teeth. Then when my bf and I took her to the vet, a black vet tech came to our car to take her inside. Again, she barked and growled at him upon sight.

    I am worried that Daisy may have had previous experience w/ someone who did not treat her well and may have been African-American.

    How can I address or ameliorate this situation? I’ve never given up on a dog before and don’t plan to now.

    Thanks,
    Rhonda Bell

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      Author

      Hi Rhonda, I’m so sorry you’re struggling with this! It does sound like a challenging situation. I’d be happy to give more in-depth advice over phone or zoom, or connect you with a local trainer in your area. Would you like me to reach out and connect with you over email?

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