It was common in the deep South of my youth in the 1960s, and long before, to hear white people tell other white people their dog didn’t like (the expletive word used for African Americans).
Whites would laugh. Blacks would alter the route to their destination, sometimes permanently.
In late 1943, the very first Marine Dog Platoon attached to the Second Marine Raider Regiment was sent to Bougainville. The platoon consisted of 55 men and 24 dogs. Three were German shepherds, the rest Dobermans. These dogs would come to be known as Devil Dogs.
Trained for various tasks, the dogs were absolute lifesavers for Americans and death to the Japanese. The commanding officer of the regiment wrote that the war dog platoon had been an “unqualified success.” Among the successes he recounted was: “Not one Marine was killed while in a Marine patrol led by a dog.”
The use of dogs in conflict probably stretches back to the first time an unknowing human walked up on the fire and camp of another. They were likely confronted by a snarling, vicious wolf/dog defending its human food provider.
So, can dogs behave negatively to other races? With qualification, yes.
In a recent report, exactly that question was investigated by Carlee Beth Hawkins of the psychology department at the University of Illinois Springfield and her co-author, Alexia Jo Vandiver. The study was summarized by Stanley Cohen, writing for the Sept. 16, 2019, edition of Psychology Today.
The research involved two Internet-based studies, both were nearly identical and with similar results. Cohen focused on the second study because it had a much larger sample size and included a few additionally important questions.
Study 2 involved 2,439 dog owners who reported their race as white and 201 black/African American dog owners. Hispanic and Latino dog owners were excluded from the study.
The study authors hypothesis was, “dogs are not born with any innate predispositions toward disliking any particular race. Rather the problem rests with their caregivers, who might have conscious or unconscious racist attitudes that the dogs respond to and imitate.”
Through a survey, the participants rated how much they did or did not like members of the other race. A second part asked participants to associate different faces with so-called “good” or “bad” ideas such as joy, love, and peace, etc. versus terrible, evil, nasty, etc.
The next part looked at the pooches’ behavior. How often did the dogs show good behaviors versus bad against members of the other race in the past six months? The behaviors were spelled out in detail.
The bottom line — for the sake of space here — was that white people’s dogs were friendlier to other white people than to blacks and vice versa.
Most importantly, the magnitude of the difference was related to the strength of each owner’s racial bias.
There are qualifications on the limited summation here, such as perhaps members of one group socialized with like members and thus their pets were less exposed to the other group. Perhaps they reacted to the opposite group more as an intruder and less like a person of another race.
Research of the last decade says dogs learn to mimic their owners for both good and bad behaviors. That guilty look they give you when they get in the garbage and get caught is one you subconsciously taught them when they observed your actions. As a dog, they don’t actually know the emotion “guilt” any more than the meaning of the word quilt.
Dogs will behave, or become weaponized like their owners, good or bad.
Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service