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?


30 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.

    • It seems to me that you are the the racist or you have no idea the thought process of the animal. Smells sounds and sights unfamilar to the animal cause that reaction not racism

      • 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.

  8. Really now? This is some of the silliest assumptions I’ve ever heard. If dogs were intelligent enough to tell who was Black,Asian,White, or Hispanic they’d be voting in the next election not to mention paying some of these high assed taxes around here. God already knew humans were going to create enough problems amongst themselves why would he burden the poor canines with our ignorance of each other? Most dogs are brown or muli colored anyway,how or why would they feel compelled to dislike Blacks? Sounds like we have some racsist dog owners.

  9. Greetings,

    The animal behaviourist, Dr. Roger Mugford, in his book “Dr. Mugford’s Casebook”, noted that when he was in South Africa during the time apartheid was being dismantled, Afrikaaners (white South Africans) consulted him concerned that their dogs were “racist” because they appeared to be targetting blacks despite not having been trained to do so.

    On questioning the owners, he found that the dogs strangely seemed to leave some blacks alone but were aggressive towards some whites – regardless of whether they were known to the dog-owners or not.

    After a number of tests, It turned out that the key factor was culture – specifically diet.

    Afrikaaners, being Dutch descendants, tend to be “meat-and-two-veg” types, whereas Africans use spices extensively in their foods.

    Dogs brought up in meat-and-two-veg households accepted other meat-and-two-veg people – regardless of ethnicity – but tagged “spicy people” (again, regardless of ethnicity) as “not-one-of-us”, and vice versa.

    This was why the Afrikaaner-owned dogs were not targetting all blacks but some whites – the minority of blacks left alone turned out to be meat-and-two-veg types, whilst the minority of whites were predominantly eating spicy foods.

    In one interesting test, he asked one of the Afrikaaner owners to go out and buy spicy foods and bring them home – the dog treated the owner like it did blacks.

    Kindest regards,


  10. I’ve never seen or heard of black peoples dogs acting aggressive towards whites. The truth be told is dogs tend to bark more at blacks for the same reason they are more aggressive against other animals. Blacks are less evolved and emanate as more animal that human.

  11. Pro dog trainer here with 45+ years experience. I’ve also observed dogs being “racist” against blacks. It’s not uniform but common enough to take note of.

    Adding that to other comments, it’s apparent that dogs prefer races with more Neanderthal genes (Europeans, east Asians), while tending to reject races without same (Africans). I wonder if this is instinctively recognising Neanderthals as allies, and non-Neanderthals as predators. (Consider that a mapping of civilization and intelligence will directly overlay the known remnants of Neanderthal genes… my guess is that Neanderthals also first domesticated dogs.)

  12. I adopted my dog from a shelter recently. This is what I observed. I’m a black woman, and he is used to me and comfortable with me… and he tends to perceive all black women he meets in a positive light. It’s based on his interaction with me. He will go up to black women more frequently than other groups. He is wary of only some young black men. But the thing is, that is how I am, because of my personal experience of young black men, which has been a mixed bag. My dog does have discernment, however, and he does seem to reach his own conclusions about people as well. I think his previous owners were Indian, because he will go up to Indian families with curiosity and a sense of familiarity. So I do think that dogs perceive ethnicity, as well as gender, pretty easily.

  13. How strange it is for some commenters to be so obsessed with “blacks”. Saying dogs don’t like “blacks”. I am Nigerian American and my dog will go up to people who are black and female like myself. He views them positively because he views me positively. He is not as friendly to some males, probably because of my own prejudices towards certain types of men.

  14. I agree people of both black and white races have been heard saying things like you smell like a white boy or you smell like a negro do if humans can smell the difference surely dogs can however they also smell fear and may be apprehensive about and you or the smell of another person if they had never been around them this would cause growling barking fearfulness but does not mean the dog is a racist.

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  16. I have a dog and I’m black but have the opposite problem. My dog barks very loudly at whites and gets very aggressive when they are around. I think a lot has to do with the dog associated kin ship with those that appear to look like their owner and the more the other parties look differs, such as in skin color, the more likely the dog will perceive them as a threat. You could be a different race but share the same skin color and the dog won’t view them as a threat. My dog is very friendly towards south Asians as long as they are darker in complexion.

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