Black dogs, especially big ones, may not get adopted as quickly as other dogs. But why? It may have something to do with what shelter folk call (big) black dog syndrome.
While quantitative analysis is limited, shelter workers swear BDS exists. According to them, black dogs (and cats for that matter) stay in the shelter longer and are more likely to be euthanized. Some studies have shown this isn’t the case, while others have shown the opposite, but in the absence of data, I’m inclined to side with the people on the front lines — the shelter workers.
What is black dog syndrome?
Basically, black dog syndrome is the tendency for people adopting pets to overlook black dogs, meaning they’re more likely to get put down. It’s controversial because while shelter workers’ anecdotal evidence supports it, no single study has proven or disproven it.
A 1998 study of 1,468 dogs offered for adoption at a local Humane Society did find that having a black coat was a factor in whether dogs got adopted. But in 2008, the general manger of the Los Angeles Animal Services noted that in a 12-month period covering 30,046 dogs, slightly more dogs that were completely or predominantly black were adopted than dogs that weren’t. And these aren’t the only contradictory studies.
Back in November 2014, we covered local Fort Worth dog hero Henry, a black Lab that’s become the face of the Fort Worth animal shelters and helped them raise over a cool mill for the city’s shelter needs. He was specifically selected because he was a big black dog, something they considered a case for low adoptability, despite being a Lab.
What causes BDS?
There are several proposed theories about why black dogs may experience slower adoption rates. In some cultures (ours, for example), black dogs tend to represent evil, bad or foreboding in literature, film and television. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll remember that Harry was initially shaken by seeing his Uncle Sirius’ animagus, a large black dog nicknamed Padfoot, because black dogs are harbingers of death.
In film and television, black dogs are frequently portrayed as aggressive or mean. Dobermans or Rottweilers are often the growling dogs protecting bad guys or secluded locations (like junkyards) from the cops.
But even if a potential pet adopter isn’t at all superstitious and isn’t even affected subconsciously by these factors, black dogs have another problem. It’s often difficult to see the expressive faces of black dogs as well. In fact, some people recommend using fun props when taking pictures of black (or even dark-colored) dogs to “bring out their personalities.” Specifically, things like fun hats or bright scarves can draw attention to their faces. But a lot of dogs aren’t all about dress-up time, so you also need to make sure you’re photographing them in the best light.
What can be done?
Animal shelters do their best — taking fun photos, really pushing the animals’ personalities on their Facebook pages (videos are really helpful because the personality shines through even if you can’t see the face well at first glance).
But if you’re looking to adopt a pet, do me a favor. Do our buddy Henry the black Lab in Fort Worth a favor. When you go to the shelter, pay special attention to the black or mostly black dogs. Don’t adopt them if the personality fit isn’t right… just give them a shot.