Why you should care

Because you shouldn’t judge a book — or a dog — by its cover. 

Mary Ladd lives in San Francisco and stress-eats chocolate mendiants and cheese. She is working on The Wig Report, a humorous book and website, and her work has appeared in Playboy, SF Weekly, 7x7, and KQED.

I think my small rescue dog, Nilla, is racist. Ruh-roh. While on a walk in the park, she lunged at an African-American cop but paid no mind to his white partner. At work, she bolted across the room to bark at an African-American man, running past the handful of folks in the office who were not Black. Nilla’s behavior stresses and shames me and competes with unpaid medical bills as reason to ruminate and worry in the middle of the night. It’s a surprising dilemma, because most of the time, Nilla is snuggly and sweet with a diverse group of friends and family (the human kind).

I’ve been showing off my new body on Nilla walks, courtesy of major plastic surgery and weight loss from breast cancer. My husband, Oscar, and I blithely call it the cancer diet. Nilla is a 13-pound terrier with short cream fur, large brown eyes and long triangle ears like one of the mogwais from Gremlins. Small and low to the ground, she doesn’t so much walk as puff her chest out and march. Usually when we walk together, I smile because it means a chance to be outside and away from my laptop. But when she barks or otherwise reacts aggressively to people of color (she even barked at a very short Latina), I wish I could do better than blurt out a sincere and shocked “Sorry!”

“We’re animals,” said his friend. They guffawed and elbowed each other. “He’s an animal!” pronounced Niners cap.

 

Anything I can offer to prove she didn’t learn this from me (that my grandmother was Kwakiutl, my husband is Mexican-American, that I work on community-service projects for underserved communities) potentially sounds lame. As a left-coast liberal, I feel overly sensitive about inflicting any injury to fellow humans and animals — meaning Nilla is pushing my emotional buttons, big time.

A few weeks ago, two white guys in their 30s were outside a bar near my home. They were leaning against a brick wall, waving their arms at each other, talking in a friendly way. As we walked past them, one man bent down to pet Nilla. Soon, she was barking at him. I backed away and dropped food on the ground to give Nilla some space and quiet her. (Like me, she is motivated by food. When we adopted her at the shelter on Mother’s Day this year, that was one of the reasons I felt a connection to Nilla.)

The men, who were drunk, were confused at the barking. “But we’re white,” one of them said to me. He had rheumy blue eyes and was wearing a Niners cap. “So it’s cool.” All the time, Nilla’s eyes were darting up at the men and all around us. This “scanning,” I would later learn from a shelter-animal expert, is a sign of her anxiety rising.

“We’re animals,” said his friend. They guffawed and elbowed each other. “He’s an animal!” pronounced Niners cap.

The sports-fan partiers seemed to be giving the theory of a racist dog further traction. Or at least more questions for me to spin as I tried to understand and of course alter Nilla’s behavior.

In popular culture, the idea of racist dogs is not new. There’s Samuel Fuller’s 1982 cult-classic film White Dog. In 2012, comedians Key & Peele did a skit on the potential backstory of a dog named Max (get it?) who barks and lunges at the duo in a park. When they tell Max’s white, blond and fit owner “Don’t worry about it,” it is visibly clear they are in fact experiencing discomfort, irritation and more.

Key & Peele assure her and say, “We don’t think that your dog’s racist,” with uncomfortable laughter. The skit wraps with a flashback sequence showing Max as a leader of a KKK-like white-power clan of canine breeds that are all 25 pounds or less and on the smaller side. Miscegenation and racial purity are key woofing points for Max and his dog pals as they sit under a burning cross, and after a fade to black, the onscreen message is “Don’t adopt racist dogs.” Actually, Nilla technically isn’t racist, since that is more of a learned and institutionalized human behavior. Right?

A one-on-one session with a trainer from the shelter helped me sleuth and come up with tools to get Nilla to try alternative behaviors. Turns out Nilla has a problem with folks under 5 feet 2 inches (both men and women). Looking back on our shared history, this all makes sense, given she is living with a family of giants and feels comfortable with us tallies. Ever the food hog, unless I redirect Nilla with food, she will be prone to barking and reacting to dark-skinned men or androgynous women who wear baseball caps. Males or females who talk loudly and wave their hands will also get a rousing woof and show of (scary!) bared teeth. Basically, anyone making a lot of noise or movement gets her attention in the wrong way.

I now know how to keep Nilla calm, by choosing sidewalks and paths that do not have so many people walking on them — when they get too close to me, she goes into protective mode. Sure, doing shrink work on an animal that can’t even talk is not the best use of our time together, and it’s definitely not living in the present reality. While I will never know how her earlier life went, I still wish she could just give me a straight answer to the question of “What’s going on with you and people of color?”

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