Can animals distinguish between human races?

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences notes:

Elephants are able to differentiate between ethnicities and genders, and can tell an adult from a child – all from the sound of a human voice.

…Elephants can reliably discriminate between two different ethnic groups that differ in the level of threat they represent, significantly increasing their probability of defensive bunching and investigative smelling following playbacks of Maasai voices. Moreover, these responses were specific to the sex and age of Maasai presented, with the voices of Maasai women and boys, subcategories that would generally pose little threat, significantly less likely to produce these behavioral responses.

It stands to reason that if elephants can distinguish between various African ethnic groups, they also should be able to distinguish between larger racial groups as the cues demarcating larger racial groups are less subtle.

Can other animals? I have often wondered whether dogs can differentiate between human races.  I have anecdotal evidence for such a claim, but before I give it let me say I often find anecdotal evidence about dogs to be lacking, sometimes even comical (such as people who want to claim that pit bulls are not more genetically violent than other breeds because they know someone with a gentle pit bull).  That said, every dog I’ve owned (often living in larger multiracial cities) seems to distinguish between races, that is they seemed to be friendly around white people and more wary of blacks.  Of course, many things could be going on here.  Blacks (and mestizos to a lesser extent) seem to be more wary of dogs and certainly won’t dote on them as whites do, and dogs could pick up on these cues.  Or it could be something else.

Do the scents of human races differ and dogs pick up on them? The keenest sense for dogs is smell — which is 10,000 – 100,000 times more acute than humans’.    We’ve recently learned for instance that different races have different oral bacteria, so it is not entirely unreasonable that different races project different odors and dogs pick up on them?


15 thoughts on “Can animals distinguish between human races?

  1. My dog is very “racist” toward blacks…won’t let blacks pet him….. but oddly docile and friendly toward North Asians although he has barely been around North Asians.

  2. I have definitely heard stories about dogs able to distinguish among races. Although I never saw this myself, my parents told me that the dog we had when I was a teenager would bark viciously at black men, even men walking down the sidewalk when he was in a car stopped at a light with the windows up (which would seem to eliminate the sense of smell). He never had any problems with my mother’s black cleaning woman. My parents attributed this behavior to the fact that the garbage collectors, who would bang the garbage cans around which would get him all worked up, were black.

  3. Dogs are so racist against blacks it gets really awkward sometimes.
    I was once at a somewhat crowded beach and I saw a dog barking only at the black dude selling popsicles. The guy didn’t have the slighest criminal swag.

      • I have the book that illustration is from. He also illustrates a couple of Newark’s books on the ancient Celts. Similar stuff – very cool.
        Osprey Publishing is releasing a book on Charlemagne’s campaigns against Widukind in August but I don’t think McBride is doing the illustrations.

  4. I have noticed that in the South some dogs are white and some black. I think the races smell different to them, both slight differentiation due to genetic differences but probably mostly because of different diets and personal hygiene products. Can’t you smell the difference between the ethnic hair care products aisle and the general hair care products aisle at your local big box store? There are also other identification cues like depth of voice that are different in general between the races. Anyway to get back to Southern dogs, white dogs belong to white people and they bark insanely at black people. Black dogs belong to black people and they bark insanely at white people. I’ve seen it a thousand times and am sure others have noticed this phenomena.

  5. I grew up in the diverse south. Has anyone noticed that the movie “Cujo” about a rabid St. Bernard has achieved almost folklore status among blacks? I noticed this as a child in the public schools and I saw this again a few years ago when my Newfoundland got loose and ran up to the neighbors’ (black) son. He started screaming “Cujo!” and jumped onto his car.
    The only person she was ever aggressive towards was a black guy we saw in an apple orchard on vacation but he seemed to be giving off suspicious body language so I don’t know if it was because he was black.
    I had a beagle years ago who would bark at black people but also at black things e.g. garbage bags.

    • The Cujo thing is from a 1983 horror movie of the same name and adapted from a novel of the same name by Stephen King. I suppose that movie resonated with many of them.

  6. My German Shepherd and Golden Retrievers pet dogs like pale-skinned white and Asian people with fine features. They didn’t like the darker races, such as Blacks, Australoids and Amerindians, who all scared or repulsed them.

  7. When I lived in South Africa and South West Africa (Namibia) many of the white families I knew had Boerboels–large mastiff-type dogs–guarding their compounds. These dogs, I was told, had been bred to be wary of only blacks and not whites. Unfortunately I did not get to see them in action.

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