'Racial' profiling in veterinary medicine: Breed biases in the exam room
Earlier this week I was reminded of an uncomfortable character flaw I possess: I harbor a subconscious fear of German shepherd dogs (GSD). It's one I've never been able to shake ... not since I was a kid and was chased down by a white GSD while riding my bike.
What do I recall the most? The rainbow of bruises ringing four decidedly canid puncture wounds on either side of my skinny nine-year-old thigh. That, and the brown bell-bottom cords I so adored — ripped just enough so they couldn't be salvaged.
What's interesting about the memory is that I cannot recall the dog herself ever stressing me out. What got to me most (save the unsalvageable pants), was the fear of getting all those rabies shots once it came to light that "Gypsy" (I'm almost positive that was her name) had not been vaccinated for rabies by a licensed professional.
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 true temperament. Seeing as I'm predisposed to fear them, it's no wonder these dogs might not instantly warm to me.
In my defense, German shepherds in Miami-Dade County are way different than the GSDs in Philly, where I started out my veterinary career. Here, the bulk of this breed's members are bred for protection, trained out of the home for that purpose, and consequently tend to come attached to owners who believe that screaming in German while wielding the business end of a pinch collar is the way to control these dogs.
They're pets, of course, but they come with "perks." A dual-purpose pet, as it were — one that often fills the animal hospital with high-volume barks and bad foreign accents.
Then there are the working GSD's I've cared for. After a five-year contract with the local 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 their people want them … which I can understand … but still.
Not that ALL my clients' GSD's give me pause. I have at least a handful of them who I've grown very attached to. But I'll be honest: It's taken more time for me to sidle up to these dogs than to most any other pet.
Now, before you accuse me of racial profiling in my practice, let it be known that I do believe that I cannot completely control this seemingly innate bias, much though I do work on it. As with any other fear, continued sensitization to impressive scenarios has done nothing but deepen it.
So am I a racial profiler? Absolutely. I will almost invariably muzzle a first-time GSD patient.
Which brings me to the uncomfortable example of my breed bias I referenced above: When, earlier this week, a GSD owner chided me for wanting to muzzle her stiff-tailed dog, she asked whether I would like being racially profiled at the airport.
Wow. What could I say? So I said nothing. But I muzzled the dog anyway.
Dr. Patty Khuly