Can dogs be racist? Can they judge? Can they use their nose? These are some of the questions addressed in a new book by two leading dog behaviourists called Dogs, Racism and the Law.
The book, which is written for lay people, offers advice on how to avoid dog racism and how to report incidents of dog abuse when they do occur. The authors, Dr Mark Bekoff, a well-known author of animal behaviour and Dr Ian Dunbar, a professor of dog behaviour, are also in the midst of a campaign to introduce a new law to prevent discrimination against dogs.
The authors explain how humans are “not quite the same as dogs” but that the differences are not as great as many people assume. They write: “Humans are just not quite the same as dogs. They are not entirely rational, do not respond in a similar fashion to the same thing, they do not reason like we do. This is a common misperception that causes many of us to believe that we are a lot like dogs and so we have some rights to apply to them as well as we do to our own kind.”
The authors make clear that in general terms the law and legal definitions of human discrimination are not the same as those applied to other species. “Dogs do not have the same legal rights as humans. The same actions that can be lawful in human society can be unlawful in dog society. For example, if I kick a dog on the street and the dog bites me, I could be legally liable for damages. If I kick a human on the street and they bite me, I cannot be liable. If my dog attacks another dog and a human is involved, I am not legally liable, and this is because the dog is not a legal person. If the dog is a legal person, that is, if it has the rights of a person to be equal to a human, then I have some degree of responsibility for the attack.”
But if a human commits an act of discrimination against a dog, is that action unlawful?
Dr Bekoff explains: “In a country like the UK we have a specific law that covers this kind of thing. People have a legal responsibility to not commit hate speech against a minority group. That is, people are forbidden to make speech that promotes discrimination or hatred. This includes speech that would treat one minority group differently from another. If I am talking about my favourite hobby horse, the right to discriminate against dogs, I would not be able to do that. This is called hate speech, and we have a law against it.”
However, he concedes that in many cases the law will not reach to apply to other species: “In the UK, if I am in a public place and I kick a dog or yell at a dog I can be prosecuted. If a dog bites someone, I am not prosecuted unless that person is a member of a minority group. If the dog is a member of a minority group and bites someone of that group, then I am not prosecuted for the attack. In general, in the UK, if I am walking down the street with my dog and a member of another minority group bites me, I would not be prosecuted. If I am walking down the street with my dog and a dog of another group bites me, that is an attack and I would be prosecuted. This is known as the ‘bite defence’.”
So the law will not always stop people from discriminating against their pets. What about other countries?
“The law is different in different countries. In many countries, it is unlawful to attack a dog, regardless of what it is. For example, in most countries, it is unlawful to attack a dog with a machete. But in most countries, there is no law against attacking a dog with a fist. So, for example, if I kick a dog on the street, and the dog bites me, I can be prosecuted for the attack. But if I kick a dog on the street and the dog bites someone else, I cannot be prosecuted for the attack.”
In a country such as the UK, it is important that we treat our animals like fellow citizens: “We should apply the same legal principles and concepts to both humans and dogs. But when we say that we treat dogs the same as people, we have to apply a different set of legal principles to dogs. In other words, dogs do not have the same legal rights as humans. And, in general, the law will not always reach to apply to animals.”
Dr Dunbar also explains: “You can say that we treat dogs the same as people in a lot of ways but in one important sense we do not. The main reason is that they are not rational. Humans can reason and decide whether or not to do things. But dogs do not have that ability. This is an important distinction because if we treat dogs the same as people, this means that dogs can make the same decisions we can make. We can also have the same rights and responsibilities as they do. This is something we should not do because we should not assume that dogs can make the same decisions we can make, nor should we assume they can have the same rights and responsibilities we can have.
“Humans can reason and decide whether or not to do things. But dogs do not have that ability. This is an important distinction because if we treat dogs the same as people, this means that dogs can make the same decisions we can make. We can also have the same rights and responsibilities as they do. This is something we should not do because we should not assume that dogs can make the same decisions we can make, nor should we assume they can have the same rights and responsibilities we can have.”
Dogs also have some physical limitations. “If you compare the body of a person to that of a dog, there are differences that are significant. For example, dogs do not have the ability to talk and so they cannot explain what they are feeling. If I have a problem and I yell at my dog, I am not going to have a response. I can