There are lots of animals out there with obvious prejudices against one type of person, or another. This is especially common in our pet dogs, because they’re so intimately tied up in our social lives. It’s very common for us dog trainers to meet dogs who particularly despise African Americans, or Asians, or Latinos, or toddlers, or people in wheelchairs or people who are otherwise differently abled. Admittedly, it’s a little funny to hear their embarrassed owners’ apologies and frantic explanations of how they’re sure their dog didn’t learn those values at home; but really, it’s something that we should work to prevent.
Here’s what’s really happening. Between the age of about 2 to 3 weeks, when puppies first open their eyes, to about the age of 16 weeks (or, 4 months), puppies have a critical socialization period. What this fancy term means is, during this period dogs greet brand new things, people, places, and objects with a hail-fellow-well-met sort of attitude; very rarely are they actually fearful, and if they are, they usually recover quickly and the fear is replaced by curiosity. It’s terribly important to expose puppies to all of the things they will encounter in their later life during this period, and if you’re doing a good job, you’ll also expose them to the things they’re less likely to encounter, too, like people of a different race than you. If you’re doing a really good job, you’ll make sure these early exposures are happy ones for your puppy, by offering lots of treats and play with toys in conjunction with the new thing, and avoiding any negative experiences, too. (Our Puppy Kindergarten classes are designed to help you to do just this.)
At about 16 weeks, this critical socialization period begins to close, and new things, people, places, and objects are met with a more adult attitude: of caution, suspicion, and even fear, until proven (to the dog) to be safe. This makes evolutionary sense: it’s why adult canines don’t walk themselves off of cliffs or trot up to the nearest larger predator and attempt to eat its food. But, it also means that if your puppy hasn’t seen enough new people, places, objects, and things, he’ll have difficulty adjusting to the unexpected in his life. Presto: you have a racist dog.
So what do you do? Ask for help. It’s our job to change your dog’s emotional reaction to people who look different from one of alarm, to one of happiness and comfort. Good trainers can do that. Call us or email us and we’ll get you started, or if you’re not in our service area, we’ll find you a referral for an educated trainer who is.
In the meantime, don’t be surprised, and don’t get angry, if your dog does the canine version of the pointing and staring toddler in the grocery store. We’re all mammals here.