The series of blogs, “How Dogs Can Change the World: One Lesson at a Time” will combine the knowledge gained after 15 years of dog training, experiences from living with PTSD/TBI/Suicidal Ideation, and the unimaginable benefits gained from 4-legged angels…and then, use this information to create positive change in the world we’re living in. Additionally, live updates will be provided from time to time on how the start-up for P.A.W. Service Dogs (my destiny as a result of these experiences) is progressing. These updates are meant to provide an additional inspiration to those who have a disability, have experienced trauma and hardship, or are facing challenges that seem impossible to overcome.
Black History Month is a time to reflect and recognize the historical achievements made by African Americans. Unfortunately, the heroic individuals celebrated every February cannot be fully comprehended without including the tribulations caused by prejudiced attitudes and discrimination. Ignoring the prejudiced beliefs which led to discriminatory actions against those being remembered will result in repeating history and a failure to learn from it.
Sometimes, the underlying beliefs which lead to acts of discrimination are not obvious to others and sometimes, unrealized to the individual themselves. This could be caused by a deficiency in education, an isolated living environment, media bias or cultural upbringing.
Understand that a dog breed-human race comparison is feeding into biased and hateful beliefs mirrored by racist fanatics. That is not the intent of this blog. However, an implicit prejudice against a human race or ethnic group has similar characteristics to how a certain dog breed may be prejudiced. We cannot change the world unless we are able to change ourselves first. In order to change ourselves, we need to conduct a soul search and realize if we have implicit prejudices.
A dog isn’t born aggressive. The environment or lack of environment a young pup experiences creates the belief that aggression, reactivity or nervousness is the proper coping mechanism for whatever situation it is currently facing.
Newsflash for everyone, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, American Pit Bull Terriers (Pit Bulls), and Rottweilers are NOT born aggressive. We create this perception for a number of reasons including: Some breeds perform better with specialized training such as police or security dogs, some breeds are considered better “fighters” than other breeds and are therefore trained to fight, and some breeds have physical features that are intimidating for people.
There could be several causes for a dog to react in a negative or aggressive manner. It might be scared, nervous, desperate, feel challenged, or believe that’s the correct reaction for the situation it’s encountered. Regardless of the present stimulus causing an undesired behavior, a dog’s negative actions are almost always caused by human error. Whether intentional or not, humans cause dogs to become aggressive through lack of socialization, cruel punishments, absence of attention, encouragement of negative actions, improper training, or a similar scenario from the past that resulted in a bad experience for the dog.
WE FEAR THE UNKNOWN
I grew up in a small town in Indiana where your last name matters more than anything. A town where employment opportunities, high school sports, and reputation aren’t always determined by ability, knowledge, achievements, or personality. Sometimes, those benefits are “earned” by who you’re related to. Throughout my entire childhood and early 20’s (I left Indiana at the age of 23), a grand total of one African American resided within 5 miles of my home. This lasted for one whole year – when I was in 7th grade, he was in 8th grade.
When I made the decision to play college football at a small college in Ohio, the thought of being around anyone who wasn’t white never crossed my mind. I had no concerns one way or another and didn’t feel any form of spite or hatred towards any race or ethnicity. I was raised by my parents to respect authority and treat everyone as an equal—I was good to go!
Fast forward 6 months. I was eating at a fast-food restaurant by myself and minding my own business when suddenly, I realized that I was the only white person there. I instantly felt a cold sweat begin to form on my forehead and felt my heart begin racing like I was running sprints. After approximately 60 seconds of sitting down, I got up and took the most direct path out of that restaurant. I left my food and an empty cup that I didn’t fill up yet right there on the table. As soon as I got in my car, I locked my doors and went straight back to campus. What just happened? I thought, “I was good to go!”
I feel the rolling eyes from everyone reading this and wondering what my story has to do with the challenges faced by the African Americans we are celebrating this month or an explanation as to why Pit Bulls aren’t allowed in neighborhoods with an HOA…sometimes a lack of knowledge or limited experiences manifest into a belief, perception, or attitude we didn’t even realize we had.
I would’ve never imagined that my reaction inside that restaurant would’ve been what it was. I escaped from a perceived threat that was all in my head. When a dog reacts in an aggressive manner, a lot of times it’s considered to be in a ‘fight or flight’ frame of mind. The actual reasoning for why a dog is being reactive may be oblivious to its handler. Sometimes, the dog itself isn’t sure why it’s so stressed. An example is a dog barking at a mirror when it sees an image of itself. It instantly reacts in a way that is unexpected, because it’s never experienced that situation.
Understanding that breed-type doesn’t cause aggression in a dog is the first step in guarding against preconceived beliefs of different dog breeds. Being aware of proper socialization, positive reinforcement training and guarding against negative environments are examples of what a dog owner can do to help overcome these historical views.
When a dog becomes reactive or aggressive, it can be because of a learned behavior or due to unfamiliarity caused by lack of socialization. A dog being raised in an apartment by a single woman who never has visitors would be unfamiliar with other humans, especially males. If a male approaches the dog and its female owner in a tight hallway of the apartment building, there is a possibility of the dog reacting due to being forced into an unrecognized ‘fight or flight’ situation.
Similarly, when a human has an implicit prejudice against a different race, the causes could be the exact same. Most people wouldn’t consider my actions of leaving that restaurant as a sign of prejudice or a precursor to future discriminatory actions. What if someone (African American) was waiting outside with a weapon and prepared to rob the next person who left the restaurant? My “innocent” and unknown beliefs may have turned into a realized hatred towards African Americans due to a moment of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
For us to improve as a society, we need to focus on the “why” and take a hard look at ourselves before expecting everyone else to change. A discriminatory action is never acceptable regardless of the underlying causes of prejudice. But if we want to change as a whole, we need to understand the “why” and start there. A puppy isn’t born aggressive, and a baby isn’t born a racist.
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