I was chatting with a woman at a dinner party a while back and when she found out what I did for a living she commented that, as one of the few people of color in the town where she was raised, she was convinced that most of the dogs she encountered were racist. They would growl, sometimes bark and sometimes back away from her, not interested in engaging with her whatsoever.
It got me to thinking. If we combine what studies have shown about the cognitive abilities of dogs as roughly equivalent to a 2 to 3 year old human child, with the fact that racism is a human social construct, for a dog to believe that a person has abilities or personality traits solely because of the color of their skin isn't plausible. Could it be the owners that were racist and the dog sensed it? Could it be that my new friend was scared of dogs and the dog sensed it? Had either one of them had a bad experience at some point?
Questions like this come up all the time. I have heard my clients say, "Oh my dog hates the elderly/people of color/the postman" ... the list goes on. While I can't tell you what was actually going down in that small town where the woman at the dinner party grew up, I can tell you that a dog (and a human) can display a fearful or averse reaction to people and things they find unfamiliar; that past traumatic experience can trigger a fearful or aggressive response, and that dogs take most of their cues from their owners. If the owner has a conscious or unconscious shift energetically, physically or emotionally when they come across another human, the dog will most likely pick up on that shift and interpret that person as a threat. Breed can also play a role in what some call "stranger danger" as some dogs such as Shepherds can be prone to an inherently more apprehensive approach when it comes to people. I encourage you, human, to be mindful of your own response to the different people you encounter while out with your dog.
The best approach for modifying fearful behavior in dogs is one of mindful, positive reinforcement. By creating positive associations with the source of the fear, a calm, confident dog can be achieved. As with any behavior modification in human or animal, this takes time, patience and care.
To read a bit about Positive Reinforcement Training click here.
If you think your dog is exhibiting extreme aggression or fearful behavior, I suggest you seek an evaluation from a qualified veterinary animal behaviorist or certified positive reinforcement trainer in your area.