By Darlene Duggan
This is part one of a series exploring common shelter rumors and myths.
It has long been discussed in the sheltering world that black dogs don’t get adopted at the same rate as dogs with other coat colorations, and therefore are more of a burden on shelters and have higher euthanasia rates. Two recent articles: “Hmm…It Really Ain’t So Black and White!” by Dr. Emily Weiss at the ASPCA and “The Black Dog Syndrome––Fact or Fiction?” by behaviorist Patricia McConnell, have questioned the validity of this perception.
Both articles site a study published in the academic journal Society and Animals in which participants rated the friendliness of different colored poodles. And guess what? The participants rated the black poodles higher on the friendliness scale than they did the white poodles. Concerned that breed may have an influence in the participants’ perception of the dogs, the researchers also asked them to rate eight breeds (Border Collie, Boxer, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Black Lab, Pit Bull, Standard Poodle, and Rottweiler) in terms of friendliness, and this time the results rated the black labs the friendliest, second only to the Golden Retriever.
The researchers concluded that breed played a more significant role in determining friendliness than did color, thus suggesting that black dog syndrome is an unfounded myth, not a shelter reality.
But why does it exist? There is very little research on this topic, and admittedly, the study above does not address the whole picture, but there are some untested/unscientific explanations, observations, and perceptions from those on the front lines of animal sheltering attempting to explain black dog syndrome:
– It might just be a numbers thing. In some areas, there may just be more black dogs than dogs of other colorations. If this is the case, then it would seem that it takes longer for black dogs to be adopted because more black dogs need to be adopted.
– It’s difficult to get good photos of black dogs. In this modern age of animal sheltering, most potential adopters scour the internet for their pet before heading to a shelter. Because amateur and professional photographers alike have a more difficult time photographing black dogs, they may be less likely to appear in online listings, advertising campaigns, and videos. For those of you who have tried to photograph your pets, it’s not an easy task! Pets are wiggly, uncooperative, and unpredictable during photo shoots. Add the stressful environment of the shelter into the equation, and getting good pictures of any animal becomes a challenge. So, there may exist a bias towards black dogs’ exposure to the public.
– Black fur shows up on everything. While I don’t personally agree with this, I have heard people claim that black fur is hard to hide on most fabrics, clothing, furniture, etc. I grew up with an all white cat, and have first hand knowledge that white fur shows up on everything as well!
– Underlying cultural bias against black/dark colors. It has been mentioned that dark colors dominate in animal gene pools, but there is certainly a historical and institutional bias towards lighter colors. Black animals often symbolizes night, evil, prejudice, etc. (think of the superstition of the black cat), which might also contribute towards our inherent preference towards dogs with lighter fur.
Science and research have yet to determine if the black dog syndrome truly does exist. Regardless, the perception is that it does, so shelters need to adjust their “game plan” accordingly. Some shelters do so by making sure there is a good mix of colors, breeds, sizes, genders, etc. available for adoption, so the public has many to choose from. However, even that technique has its inherent problems—given too many options, a person is less likely to make a decision. When determining which animals to place for adoption at any given time, “less is more” is the tenet for some shelters—if you place all the black dogs on the adoption floor, a black dog will have to get adopted at some point!
In my area of the country, we tend to see Heinz 57 dogs in the shelters—true mutts that are mixes of mixes of mixes. The gene pool for these dogs tend to result in shades of brown similar to what happens when you color all the crayons in your box (yellow + red + purple + orange + blue + black + white + green = BROWN). And, my opinion is that just like our attraction to our mates, we have personal preferences in our animals as well. Some folks are attracted to tall, dark, and handsome, whereas some people gravitate towards thin people, while still others prefer someone with a little more meat on their bones. I argue the same holds true for our selection of the perfect dog—I like the medium-sized shelter mutts with fluffier fur, whereas my good friend prefers small lap dogs with fine, flat coats.
What about you? What types of dogs (or other animals) are you more likely to share your home with? And, what are your thoughts about the black dog syndrome? Is it a myth or a fact in the sheltering world?
Darlene Duggan worked for many years behind the scenes at The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago––overseeing volunteer programs, problem solving shelter issues, and laboring tirelessly for the welfare of animals. Her bi-weekly column, The Shelter Voice, will explore the complex concepts surrounding animal rescue and welfare usually reserved for discussions amongst those at the very front lines of the industry. She hopes to broaden the understanding and education of shelter supporters so they can act as well-informed advocates for the cause and help spread the adoption and rescue message throughout their community.