Black Dog Syndrome: What’s Really Going On?


There is an existing theory 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. but many notable experts have begun to question the validity of this perception, including Dr. Emily Weiss at the ASPCA with her piece “Hmm…It Really Ain’t So Black and White” and behaviorist Patricia McConnell in “The Black Dog Syndrome––Fact or Fiction?”.

Both articles site a 2012 study published in Society and Animals in which participants rated the friendliness of different colored Poodles. The results: people rated the black Poodles higher on the friendliness scale than they did the white Poodles. Concerned that breed may have had an influence in the participants’ perception of the dogs, the researchers  also asked them to rate eight different breeds in terms of friendliness, and this time people rated black labs the friendliest, second only to the golden retriever.

The researchers concluded that breed plays a more significant role in determining friendliness than color, thus suggesting that black dog syndrome is a myth, not a shelter reality. And yet, many shelters report that their black animals often get overlooked. There is not a ton of research on the topic, and admittedly, the aforementioned study 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:

Black dog

It might just be a numbers thing. In some areas, there may simply 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 are there 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.

Black fur shows up on everything. I have heard people claim that black fur is hard to hide on most fabrics, clothing, furniture, etc. However, 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 are often used to symbolize night, evil, prejudice, etc., which might contribute towards an inherent preference for dogs with lighter fur.

Some shelters adjust their game plan by making sure there is a good mix of colors, breeds, sizes, and genders available for adoption, so people have many animals 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 Chicago 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 combine the colors of all the crayons in your box. 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.

Myth or reality, the most important thing we can do is to continue the conversation about black dog syndrome, and bring more awareness to the animals—black, white, brown, and Heinz 57—who are looking for homes.

This article originally appeared as part of Darlene Duggan’s Shelter Voice blog for TailsInc.comWe decided to re-share it here, with a few edits for space and clarity

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