It’s easy to love dogs. We can’t get enough of their playfulness, loyalty, and unconditional love. But a lot of people–specifically African American people–are also wary of dogs, especially so-called “police dogs” like German Shepherds. Tyler Parry, an associate professor of history at Cal State Fullerton, understands this anxiety particularly well because he’s been researching it for the last six years.
“The systemic use of dogs to intimidate, attack, subject, and brutalize Black people is well-documented in the historical record, and such knowledge is vividly recollected in Black oral traditions and American popular culture,” Parry wrote in a Feb. 9 essay for the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog Black Perspectives. “Formerly enslaved abolitionists often used the imagery of dog attacks to expose the inhumanity of American slavery, and after the Civil War fierce dogs were used for chase scenes in stage plays and motion pictures based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In other words, consumers craved the thrill of dogs chasing, and nearly capturing, Black people in a rural landscape.”
Parry, along with Professor Charlton Yingling at the University of Louisville, is currently working on a book about this. The use–or, rather, misuse–of dogs as tools to hurt African Americans happened during the earliest years of the founding of the U.S., as a means to catch runaway slaves, as well as during Jim Crow when police departments deployed dogs to assault and terrify civil rights activists. To a great extent, law enforcement continues to do this, against Blacks and Latinos, in places like Los Angeles and Ferguson, Missouri.
I recently spoke with Professor Parry by phone to find out more about his research.
OC WEEKLY: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. So why did you get started researching this?
TYLER PARRY: I wrote my dissertation on something completely different, but as I was in the archives reading the accounts of formerly enslaved peoples, I found detailed descriptions of dogs. We use the term “interspecies violence,” which is the idea that animals have been used as a tool to subjugate black people.
OCW: How long have you looked into this?
TP: My co-author on the book project had our first discussions in 2013. We were grad school colleagues, and friends. We were finding the same things, but in different areas. We gave our first co-presentation in 2015, 2016. The reason why the book is not out yet is that we’re still doing our own separate projects.
OCW: So when will the book come out?
TP: We’re halfway done with the writing. We have a pretty hard deadline–we want the writing down by next spring. Then there’s editing, peer review–when it will be physically available is a few years from now.
OCW: You’ve written about the use of dogs for racist means in the U.S. and Caribbean. Does this happen elsewhere as well?
TP: Yes. I’ve talked with scholars in South Africa. There’s the phrase “being treated like a dog”–the same kind of language resonates in South Africa. And there was the boxer George Foreman, who when he went to a fight [Muhammad Ali] in Zaire had a German Shepherd with him.
OCW: I was going to ask you about that! That’s a famous incident, and his dog made the people there feel very uncomfortable.
TP: I don’t think he knew they would. But it certainly seems to suggest that the Shepherd dog seems to have been the primary dog. It’s called the “police dog.” Even when it was brought to the U.S., people knew it as a police dog. It was supposed to invoke some sort of fear.
Zimbabwe also has a history of dog attacks that mirror what happened in Birmingham in the 1960s. This idea becomes part of the language of civil rights–the dog becomes a symbol of freedom.
My co-author and I found that bloodhounds also served in abolitionist discourse. Slaveholders were called “two-legged bloodhounds.”
OCW: So this has been going on since basically the beginning of the U.S.
TP: Yes. The dogs that came with the original colonizers, the Spanish, were mastiffs. At some point, they developed the “Cuban bloodhound.” That would become the premiere dog used, and administered on the Trans-Atlantic market as a slave-catcher. But it fell out of favor because of its perceived ferocity. People were afraid of it.
Urban areas in the north and south seemed to prefer the German Shepherd. I think this was based on World Wars One and Two. They were military dogs. And the term “police dog” was used by the British early in the 20th century. I don’t know that there was a deliberate decision to change dogs–it just happened organically.
OCW: What sort of reforms have taken place with regard to police dogs?
TP: We haven’t interviewed police officers to see if they’re training their dogs in a color-blind fashion. But police departments have been sued. The first complaint was in the 1960s. Dogs had a larger presence in African-American communities in the ‘60s. The police said the dogs mainly served in higher crime areas. But in the ‘80s, ‘90s, there was a lawsuit against the LAPD. It was settled, and they were found guilty of excessive force. They were specifically targeting black and brown men. That seems to have initiated some reforms at the LAPD.
The problem though is that this keeps occurring in cities. This was mentioned in the Department of Justice report on Ferguson, and the Ferguson Police Department hasn’t really addressed the interspecies aspect of their policing.
This represents a system of abuse. There’s still a suspicion amongst some African Americans that if the dog’s owner is nervous around Black people, the dog will also be nervous.
We haven’t fully appreciated how dogs have been at the center of discussions of racism in the country. It does seem evident that dogs symbolized how the racial discourse has developed.
OCW: How do people react to hearing about all this?
TP: One thing that initiated the Jacobin piece was that I was targeted for a couple days after giving a talk at a library in Fullerton. A student journalist wrote about it, and it was caught by the Daily Caller, Daily Wire, and then the Daily Stormer. Their statement was that I had said, “dogs are racist.” I was misrepresented on a large scale, so my co-author and I wrote something short to put it out.
Most people coming to talks have really enjoyed it. Some people will see it as anti-dog. People know dogs are the oldest friend of humankind, and a lot of people love dogs. But our research is that the way dogs are used to subjugate various populations can be viewed through a racial lens. Sometimes, people are nervous, and tell me that their dog may have a preconceived bias against a group of people.
OCW: So how do we fix all this?
TP: I haven’t written the epilogue yet! But the university recently acquired a canine, with a handler. Since then I’ve been finding that a number of police officers–especially police officers of color–are sensitive to how dogs might be seen to African Americans.
The university asked for my input, and ended up acquiring a black Lab. They got a very tame, well-behaved black Lab that I met and very much like. We need to have discussions about moves to acquire a canine–we need more honest and fruitful discourse between police officers and the communities they serve.
An officer later told me that he encouraged the department not to acquire a German Shepherd. I think that was a particularly good view: if you have to have a dog, then it’s best to find a dog that doesn’t make people nervous. This doesn’t fix the problem, but it is one step.
There is a legacy, largely documented, about why African-Americans might distrust canines. I hope people read our research, which is why a lot of it is available for free, and hope there’s fruitful discourse on it.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.