Dogs and the Collateral Damage of Systemic Racism

Like most of the internet, I love dogs. But, no, this is not a post about how we in the US randomly vilify dog breeds because we happen to associate them with Black people at the moment. This is a story about neighborhoods and dogs and patterns of fear.

When we got our dog, my husband and I lived in Houston. Since then, we’ve lived in several different states and types of places and neighborhoods. So, my experience of walking my dog has been fairly varied. One of the ways I get to know my neighbors when I move to a new places is by walking the dog, in fact. I have always known that there are people in the world who don’t like dogs, of course. But, until recently, I operated as if liking dogs is the default because, in my experience, it was.

Then, I moved to a Black neighborhood in Detroit. My dog is about 11 years old, around 70 pounds, and looks something like a Jack Russell or Beagle wrapped around a Lab. She has floppy ears, tends to gently wag her tail while we walk, has a graying face (aka is obviously old), is quite well-behaved on a leash, and is a very calm presence. Like most dog owners, I am convinced that she is the Best Dog (TM). But, objectively, other than her being big-ish, there is nothing about her visually that might indicate aggressiveness. (For more on why floppy ears equal safeness, check this out.) And yet, I quickly noticed that, in my new neighborhood, many people were afraid of her. Grown men would be visibly shaken if we surprised them, parents would tell their kids to get away when we came near, and people would cross the street to avoid us. Suddenly, afraid of dogs was the default and I was baffled. I quickly got in the habit of keeping her on a short leash when we approach new people and asking about their comfort with dogs. But, I was still baffled.

As I got to know my neighborhood more, I started to notice a pattern. It seemed like big dogs got defined as guard dogs while small dogs got defined as pets. Many of the big dogs in the neighborhood are guard dog type breeds. They are clearly in their yards for “security” (though most are less guard dog and more dog of a certain breed that is allowed to bark at anyone who walks by), and so people steer clear of them. Small dogs, on the other hand, seem to be treated as “safe” by default. People who say they are afraid of dogs and might turn out to own a Pomeranian. People stop and pet small dogs, owners let them out in the yard to potty without a leash, and passing kids are not told to avoid them.

My first theory about this pattern was that the culture around guard dogs developed both in response to actual crime trends of the past and as part of larger cultural trends surrounding big/scary dogs being a kind of status symbol of masculinity. I suspected that people didn’t have a lot of experience reading big dog body language because they were treated as “guard dogs” and so the cycle of being afraid continued. This may be true, but I quickly learned that there is a much more complex history at play.

My dog has a theory – anyone on a porch might feed her. This is because, well, people on porches have fed her in the past. You know, dog logic. That means that, when the weather is nice, she will attempt to make friends with anyone who is sitting on a porch and I get to talk to my neighbors a lot. Eventually, I started noticing that right after a “oh, I’m afraid of dogs” would come a “I [or relative or friend] was bitten by a police dog.”  Read that again. Bitten. By. A. Police. Dog.

That’s when it all started to click for me. The civil rights protests of the 60s in Detroit weren’t actually that long ago. Many of my neighbors were there or had parents or friends or relatives that were there. And by there, I don’t mean necessarily literally at a protest or march. I just mean living in Detroit at the time and being in public. The history of the Detroit Police Department using dogs as weapons is long and complicated and has hurt an incalculable number of people (and dogs) in incalculable ways. Obviously, this is where the systemic racism comes in.

Though it is currently fairly respectable, the Detroit Police Department has a checkered past. It may not need saying, but that past contains a lot of white cops doing horrible things to Black people who “stepped out of line.” The oppression of Black people in the US has, of course, done immeasurable harm in immeasurable ways. But, through the use of police dogs, the ability of pet dogs to be racist and not well-controlled by owners, and a million other symptoms of oppression, one of its casualties has been the easy enjoyment of dogs for surprisingly large swaths of people.

This may seem like a minor concern compared to the wealth gap or life expectancy gap or any of the other ways in which Black people’s lives are proscribed by generations of oppression. But, think about the amount of joy that dogs bring to people. It’s such a simple thing that can have such a profound impact on someone’s life. Think about how owning a dog increases well-being and lifespan and helps kids learn various things. And now, imagine missing out on all of that.

I’ve said this before and I’ll probably say it again – oppression isn’t something that happens in the abstract. It manifests in the most mundane of ways and has daily effects on the shape of people’s lives. Once you get in the habit of looking, you may see its effects everywhere.

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