My parents adopted an all-black puppy last year, and I confess, I was surprised. Their other dogs are a yellow Lab and a snowy white Maltese, and when they set out to adopt a shelter dog, I thought for sure they would come home with something similarly light-colored.
Instead, they adopted Lady Agatha, an all-black pittie mix with beautiful brown eyes that are near-impossible to capture in photographs. My parents went to the shelter and passed the “black dog syndrome” test. Could you?
“Black dog syndrome” is a catchy name for the phenomenon in which dark-coated dogs are overlooked in shelters in favor of lighter-colored dogs.
The idea has been around for a while, but the term caught on in the early 2000s, and probably originated in shelters, where employees and volunteers witnessed firsthand the tendency of black animals to have longer shelter stays.
But why might black dogs be overlooked in the shelter? There are several common hypotheses:
- They don’t stick out: Dark coats in poorly-lit shelter enclosures can mean adopters don’t notice black dogs.
- They’re hard to photograph (like my parents’ Lady Aggie, whose lovely eyes get lost in her lustrous black coat). Bad pictures can mean fewer clicks on black dogs’ online adoption profiles, and fewer in-person adoption inquiries
- Their dark faces make it harder to read their facial expressions, and people want to feel they have an immediate emotional connection to their shelter dog.
- Their dark hair may show up more on furniture if they shed, and some people just can’t handle the mess.
- Black dogs are sometimes associated with darkness and bad omens in pop culture (remember the Grim in Harry Potter?), which might make some people more hesitant to take one home.
Shelter and rescue workers often have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support black dog bias. Even I can contribute: I’ve volunteered in dog rescue for a decade, and one of my current jobs is in a cat shelter.
At my place of work, it’s true that in a room full of kittens, the black ones will often be the last to find homes. The same is true in my experience with dog rescue: all-black dogs usually take longer to place than lighter-colored or multicolored ones. But they do get adopted.
In a blog post written for the ASPCA professional site, Dr. Emily Weiss reported on a 2012 study that sought to discover whether or not black dog bias was real.
The study found that participants’ perceptions of dogs were “influenced more by their internalized stereotypes of breed” than by color. For example, a black Lab in the study was perceived as “less hostile, more friendly, less dominant and more submissive” than a brown pit bull and a brindle boxer. In this case, breed perception was far more important than color.
It turns out coat color is not the first thing most people consider when evaluating a dog. As reported by io9.com, a study of dark-colored dogs at a Midwestern shelter in 1998 determined that while color was a factor, it was actually at the bottom of the list of adopters’ considerations when choosing to adopt.
According to the study presented by io9, the main considerations when choosing a dog are:
- Breed. People want purebred dogs, “regardless of color.”
- Size. Big or small, people want a dog that fits their home and lifestyle.
- Age. Young dogs tend to be far more desirable to adopters.
- History. According to the study, “some people had an aversion to stray dogs.”
- Color. Only after all the other factors had been considered did people start choosing dogs based on color.
If color isn’t actually that big a deal, why does the idea of black dog syndrome persist? The ASPCA’s Dr. Weiss believes is may be due to the “base rate fallacy—there are simply more big black dogs in the population.” In other words, because there are more black dogs in shelters (the base rate), we see them more, which reinforces our perception that they are stuck in shelters more often.
In fact, there are studies to support that adopters choose black dogs just as frequently as others, and in rates commensurate with their numbers in the general dog population.
In an interview with the L.A. Times, a Los Angeles Animal Services manager pointed to the fact that over the course of a year, “27% of the 30,046 dogs taken in by his department were predominantly or all black,” and out of all the dogs adopted, “28% were predominantly or all black.”
However, in the same article, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Humane Society notes (emphasis mine): “The question isn’t whether a black dog will get adopted, but how long it will take. The average wait at her shelter is two weeks…Black dogs may linger two months.”
A longer wait time is fine at a “no-kill” shelter, but in overburdened public shelters, a longer stay isn’t always possible. Some studies do support the belief that more black dogs are euthanized in shelters than other colors. But as io9.com reports, studies exist to prove or disprove either side.
So can we answer the question, for once and for all: Is Black Dog Syndrome real? Well, sort of. Not always. Sometimes.
In many many (but not all) dog adoption centers, it’s probable that a young, purebred dog with a perfect behavioral history will be first out the door, but that could very well be a black lab or other all-black breed.
In other places, yes, black dogs do seem to stick around longer. But overall, it seems “black dog syndrome” may be inflated. It’s bigger, older dogs and dogs of perceived “dangerous breeds” that have the hardest time finding homes, whatever color they may be.
Black dog bias may not be as pervasive as the media would have us believe, but that doesn’t mean that black dogs don’t suffer in some places. As dog people, we have a responsibility to keep their reputation strong.
The best way to avoid black dog bias yourself is to remember that each dog is an individual, and coat color is as meaningless as ear size or tail length when it comes to the value of a friend.
Visit the Black Dog Project for stunning photographs that prove each black dog is distinct, and if you’re interested in knowing black dog adoption statistics in your area, do some research online, at the library, or even by contacting your local county animal shelter to ask questions. Knowing how black dogs fare in your neck of the woods may lead you to do some campaigning on their behalf.
If you’re considering adopting a dog yourself, remember: a dog of any color can fit your lifestyle. Don’t overlook that dark-coated beauty waiting in the shadows. You may be overlooking your new best friend.