Breed biases can make their way into the exam room.
I was recently reminded of an uncomfortable character flaw I possess: I harbor a mostly subconscious fear of German shepherd dogs. (Yes, really.) It’s a defect I’ve never been able to shake … not since I was a little kid and got chased down by a white GSD while riding my bike on a street in suburban Miami.
What I recall the most? The rainbow bruises ringing four decidedly canid puncture wounds on either side of my skinny 9-year-old thigh. That, and the brown bell-bottom cords I had so adored––ripped just high enough that they couldn’t be salvaged as cutoffs.
What’s interesting about the memory is I can’t recall that the dog ever inhabited my nightmares. What kept me up most (save the tragedy over the cords) was the fear of getting those rabies shots once it came to light that “Gypsy” (I’m almost positive that was her name) hadn’t been vaccinated for rabies by a licensed professional.
But the dog? Not so much. Not that I recall.
Yet nearly every time I see a GSD—in or out of the hospital—I have a hard time getting acclimated to the dog’s temperament. Sure, some of it is the breed’s innate stoicism, but if I’m honest with myself I’ll have to admit that I’m predisposed to fear them. It’s no wonder these dogs might not instantly warm to me.
In my defense, German shepherd dogs in Miami-Dade County are way different than the GSDs in Philly, where I commenced my veterinary career. Here in South Florida, the bulk of this breed’s members are bred for “family protection.”
They’re mostly trained out of the home for that purpose (with middling success in most cases) by one of a half-dozen or so pinch-collar academies in which Taser-training figures prominently.
Consequently, these dogs tend to come attached to a highly ineffective system that relies on what these poor misguided owners must have been informed is an ancient Teutonic dog training technique. But unfortunately, screaming in German while wielding the business end of a shock collar’s remote is unlikely to hold sway with a dog whose drive is better suited to the SS than to a 5-foot-2 lady who lunches (much though the latter type frightens me).
These dogs are treated as pets, of course, but these come with security “perks.” A dual-purpose pet, as it were, one that often fills the hospital with high-volume, fearful barks and very bad foreign accents.
Then there are the working GSDs I’ve cared for. After a five-year contract with the county police department, I learned one key thing about these dogs: Their handlers cannot control them as well as some of us would like to think they can.
These dogs are exceptionally high-drive animals whose aggression sometimes borders on the unmanageable. And that’s how they want them. Which I can understand … but still, you can’t expect me to get all cuddly with them.
Not that all clients’ GSDs give me pause. I have at least a double-handful I’ve grown extremely attached to. But I’ll be honest; it’s taken more time for me to sidle up to these than to most any other pet, feral cats included. (I do love kitties with spunk.) What can I say? It’s a barrier akin to any other personal peccadillo.
Now before you accuse me of racial profiling in my practice, let it be known that while I continue to make some headway in my GSD desensitization strategy, the predominance of bad actors among this breed’s owners means it’s unlikely I’ll ever completely control this innate bias. As with any other fear, continued sensitization to impressive scenarios works against the strides I might otherwise make.
So yes, I’ll admit it: I’m afraid of the big, bad wolf-dog.
But am I a racial profiler? Absolutely, if by “race” you mean “breed” (and I do). Which is why I will almost invariably muzzle a first-time German shepherd.
This brings me to the uncomfortable example of my breed bias I referenced at the outset.
Last month, when a GSD owner chided me for wanting to muzzle her stiff-tailed German shepherd dog, she pointedly asked whether I’d like being racially profiled at the airport. What could I say in the face of such a brutally apt comparison?
So I said nothing. But I muzzled the dog anyway.
Dr. Khuly is a small-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at PetMD.com/blogs/FullyVetted. She earned her veterinary degree in 1995 and her MBA from Wharton in 1997.