Love comes in any color: Animal advocates say black dogs have a harder time being adopted

Oct 27 2013 - 8:35am

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BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner
Zena (left), a border terrier/black Lab mix, and Remy, a miniature poodle, belong to Lora Collins, of North Ogden. Collins is a volunteer with Black Dog Walk, an organization that tries to combat some people’s reluctance to adopt black pets.
BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner
Lora Collins owns two black dogs: Zena, a border terrier/black Lab mix (left) and Remy, a miniature poodle. Collins is a volunteer with Black Dog Walk, an organization that tries to combat some people’s reluctance to adopt black pets.
BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner
Zena (left), a border terrier/black Lab mix, and Remy, a miniature poodle, belong to Lora Collins, of North Ogden. Collins is a volunteer with Black Dog Walk, an organization that tries to combat some people’s reluctance to adopt black pets.
BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner
Lora Collins owns two black dogs: Zena, a border terrier/black Lab mix (left) and Remy, a miniature poodle. Collins is a volunteer with Black Dog Walk, an organization that tries to combat some people’s reluctance to adopt black pets.

Zena the rescue dog seemed like the perfect pet -- gentle, even-tempered and great with small children. 

The fact that this pooch had black fur never gave adopter Loa Collins a second thought. But not every black dog is as lucky as Zena, as Collins has learned since finding her four-footed pal eight years ago.

Black dogs have a harder time being adopted out of shelters and rescues due to a phenomenon known as Black Dog Syndrome, says Collins and other local animal advocates.

Whether they simply don't stand out in a crowd of other dogs or just look too "plain" and generic, black canines often seem to be passed over in the adoption lineup.

"They do kind of blend in; for whatever reason, we don't even see them," says Collins, of North Ogden, who helps promote the adoption of black dogs and cats through the Weber County-based volunteer group Black Dog Walk.

But is Black Dog Syndrome --- also known as Big, Black Dog Syndrome -- a real phenomenon, or has the role of fur color in pet adoptions been overstated?

The answer seems to be a grab bag. Although several Top of Utah spokespersons confirm they see the syndrome play out in their shelters or rescue groups, one Indiana University Southeast researcher contends that breed is a stronger indicator of people's perceptions of dogs than color or size.

Psychology professor Lucinda Woodward's work, published in the journal "Society & Animals" in 2012, found that -- with the exception of golden retrievers -- large black Labs were seen as "consistently less dominant and less hostile than other large breeds, contrary to the assumption that large, black dogs are viewed negatively."

"I was just blown away by the fact that (the hypothesis) didn't pan out; I was shocked," says Woodward in a phone interview from New Albany, Ind.

Surprising results

Woodward says she became intrigued about a bias toward black dogs when the idea first became popular in the media a few years ago.

She says at that time, she thought, "I'm not sure if I buy it; this needs further investigation."

One of her studies, conducted at Ball State University in 2009, asked participants to look at photographs of four poodles, large and small, black and white, and evaluate their personalities. Another online study evaluated personality characteristics of 13 popular dog breeds, including a black Labrador, pit bull, German shepherd, Rottweiler and golden retriever.

Although Woodward says she expected to see negative reactions to the large black dogs, due to other research done on perceptions of the color black, that was not the case.

In the study featuring standard and toy poodles, for instance, she says, "What we found was the big black dog was actually perceived far more favorably than the small white dog."

Overall, Woodward adds, "People had breed preferences, but the breed preferences didn't necessarily correlate with color preferences."

More scientific research on Black Dog Syndrome is needed, Woodward says, because shelter workers need accurate data when faced with hard decisions about which animals may be more adoptable and which might be euthanized.

Often overlooked

Here in the Top of Utah, finding homes for black dogs is more difficult, says Vickie Chidester, Brigham City's animal control officer.

"We find it is true; the light-colored, the goldens or whites or whatever, get adopted quicker than a black dog or a black cat," she says.

Lisa Shaw, who runs Four Paws Rescue in Willard and Logan, agrees, saying, for various reasons, "A lot of people are just totally put off by black animals."

Carl Arky, of The Humane Society of Utah, says he isn't sure if the bias against black dogs is technically a scientific "syndrome," but he does find the darker animals get overlooked.

"I don't know if it's a conscious or subconscious phenomenon, but it seems to be borne out in the numbers," says the director of communications for the Salt Lake City organization, who intentionally adopted three black dogs of his own.

Tracy Roddom, of Davis County Animal Services, says she doesn't think folks dislike black dogs or cats, but the animals may be harder to place because there are simply so many of them.

Woodward agrees the sheer number of black dogs is an issue; black is a predominant color, and also large black dogs, such as Labradors, tend to have larger litters of puppies.

"So we are just talking about a bigger population overall, not just in shelters," she explains.

'Real enough'

Amanda Leonard, the author of "The Plight of 'Big Black Dogs' in American Animal Shelters," says she isn't sure if any amount of research can prove the existence of the syndrome.

"I'm worried that maybe it's a rabbit hole," says Leonard, of Baltimore, Md., who wrote her paper after her own experiences working for Washington, D.C.'s Humane Society.

Leonard, an anthropologist who runs the National Black Dog Research Studio website, says the premise has become a contentious issue, with some pointing to its negative impact on adoption rates while others question its validity.

Yet Leonard says if the syndrome is something seen by animal shelter workers, "It's real enough to me. ... If it's real enough to that dog who's been at the shelter for six months, it's real enough to me."

Part of our negative attitude about black dogs is subconscious, rooted in long-standing cultural beliefs associating the color black with "evil," Leonard says, or to popular portrayals of black dogs as menacing animals in movies and literature.

"Unconscious background checking" enters the picture as well, Leonard says. We tend to think most shelter dogs have backgrounds that predispose them to negative behavioral issues, and black dogs in particular are assumed to have more problems than white dogs.

Who's in the kennel?

Shannon Porter, animal control officer for South Ogden and Washington Terrace, thinks negative views of animals with black coats is a thing of the past.

"I think it's more hearsay than anything else," Porter says, adding "I've had several black dogs come in and people adopt them."

Other factors come into play in the adoption of black dogs, including the typical shelter environment. Arky says if a pen is poorly lit, a black dog isn't readily seen by potential adopters visiting the facility.

"They fade into almost the woodwork when they're in their kennels," he says.

Black dogs are also difficult to photograph, and many adoption groups rely on website portraits to attract interest from potential pet owners. If a dog's dark eyes don't stand out against its dark coat, "some of their personality just kind of gets lost," says Collins, of Black Dog Walk.

Shedding is a practical consideration, too; Chidester says black fur is more visible than light fur.

Another factor is a dog's demeanor, Porter says, explaining folks might choose a mellow black dog over a hyper golden dog, but, "I don't think that color really has a whole lot to do with it."

Would-be adopters should look at the personality of an animal and how it would fit into their lifestyle, adds Komaldevi Woelich, a North Ogden member of Black Dog Walk, and, "Don't turn away because that dog is black."

Help for all

Woodward says the notion of Black Dog Syndrome persists because it's a heuristic, a shortcut for thinking that often corresponds to things that are true but also to things that are wrong.

"It's a mistaken belief, a misconception, but it gets perpetuated because sometimes it plays out to be true," Woodward says.

Whether the syndrome is proven or not, Leonard says the desire to help promote the adoption of black dogs is a good thing because it gets people in the shelter doors to try to find a pet -- black or otherwise.

"It'll help the white dogs, it'll help the purple dogs, it'll help everybody," she says.

Contact reporter Becky Cairns at 801-625-4276 or bcairns@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @bccairns.

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