Inspired by outrage and agony, protesters inundate the streets. They march. They kneel. They chant and cheer. Occasionally, they bend down to reassure their dogs, who haul signs that read “I Bite Racists” and “Black Lives Matter.”
Images of pups (and other pets) at recent protests have earned both praise and disapproval from the court of public opinion. Some contend that pets at protests improve morale and support the cause, while others argue that they’re being foolishly and forcibly put in danger.
“I don’t have any issues with dogs at protests, unless their owners are willingly putting them in a dangerous situation,” says Lou, who attended four (and was taken into custody at one) of the recent protests in L.A. “Some marchers brought their dogs, who looked very happy to be there. People even brought out their little pups: I remember a pair of Frenchies wearing chains.”
While Lou encourages owners to keep their dogs away from protests where police are clearly fomenting violence, she advocates for power in numbers, even if that includes pets: “Bringing along pets and even kids shows how we’re united as a community, and as long as nobody’s in danger, their presence keeps our spirits up and motivates us.”
Larry McCool, owner of Mystic Llama Farm in Jefferson, Oregon, completely agrees, which is why he brought Caesar the No Drama Llama to a recent march. “Caesar can’t speak,” McCool tells me. “He has no voice of his own. But what he does do is speak for the voiceless; those who feel they’re left out and aren’t represented in our society. That’s why Caesar was at the Black Lives Matter march and why he was able to stand for the whole nine minutes of silence on the bridge, surrounded by over 5,000 marchers.” Caesar has since been hailed for the warming impact he had on protestors that day.
Nevertheless, questions remain about the consequences, good and bad, of bringing pets — primarily dogs — to protests. From the perspective of the pups themselves, Jessica Pierce, bioethicist and author of numerous books about pets, including Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Possible Life, says, “Bringing a dog to a protest — especially a large one — seems, on the whole, like a bad idea. Many, if not most dogs, would find a large, noisy crowd of strangers to be scary, over-stimulating and anxiety-provoking. Summer heat and humidity would be another potential danger for dogs, including having to stand for long periods on hot asphalt. Dogs are really attuned to human emotions, so being around a bunch of people who are ramped up, angry, sad, frustrated and perhaps scared could be emotionally upsetting for them.”
Pierce adds, “There might be some exceptions: Some dogs are just very chill and don’t react to sensory overload — and really, really like people. But these would be in the minority.”
Therefore, Pierce suggests seriously considering both the temperament of your dog and the protest you plan on bringing them to before doing so. “Small neighborhood protests might be a different story,” she says. “Our small rural town had a ‘rally,’ which involved about 10 people standing by the road for about two hours holding signs in support of Black Lives Matter. There were a few dogs in attendance, and they seemed to be having a good time.”
From a perspective of the greater cause, an argument could be made that bringing dogs to protests — or at least snapping and sharing a photo of them with signs — is generally helpful. “People probably bring dogs to protests for the same reasons they bring children: To indicate a festive, peaceful mood — they’re not trying to get into violent battles with police,” says Pamela Oliver, professor emerita of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and expert on collective action, social movements, news coverage of protests and racial disparities in criminal justice. “The viral ‘happy’ photos, just like the photos of children at protests, convey the image that ordinary, peaceful people care about this issue; that it has broad public approval.”
“Whether you think this adds to or subtracts from the message depends on what you think the message is,” Oliver continues. “If the message is anger and grief, it would seem to distract. If the message is, ‘We can build our own community safety; we don’t need the police,’ the dogs might promote it. Different protesters come to the protests with different backgrounds and moods. And different protest events are often called for different constituencies — some are explicitly called to express anger, race, grief, and others are explicitly called to draw in allies who may have a more celebratory mood.” All of which adds emphasis to the importance of reading the room before barging in with your pet.
Oliver does, however, acknowledge that there are also plenty of reasons to leave your dog at home — and not only because they might get caught in the crossfire. “Some people are afraid of dogs and aren’t comfortable being forced to be with dogs in a crowded space,” she says. “Southern police traditionally used dogs to chase Black people, and there are some serious racial associations with big, aggressive dogs. A dog could get upset by the noise and disruptions of a protest, and might become upset and possibly even attack a fellow protester. Dogs sometimes get into fights with each other, and in a large crowd, it could be difficult for the owners to separate them.”
So unless you really have a handle on your dog, perhaps leaving them at home really is the best option. But you can still encourage them to support the cause (even though Pierce says that dogs have no capacity to understand the scope of these issues). “If you were to go into your backyard to take a picture of your dog holding an ‘I Bite Racists’ sign — as opposed to dragging your dog to a large protest — then I don’t see the harm,” Pierce says. “Because dogs are beloved by people of all stripes and colors, it might be a ‘soft’ way to make a statement and reach a broad audience, especially if the photo goes viral. We use dogs as our mouthpieces all the time (sometimes in a passive-aggressive way; sometimes in ways that are actually helpful), and this doesn’t seem any different.”