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Man’s furry friend comes in all shades and styles. Whether its coat is curly, swirly, shaggy, or smooth, your dog holds a special place in your heart. Why should color make any difference? Well, apparently, it does.

Photo: Baevskiy Dimitry

According to numerous shelter worker and volunteer accounts, black or darker colored dogs are adopted at a noticeably lower rate than lighter-coated dogs. This phenomenon is known as Black Dog Syndrome. Natalie Kahla, the adoptions manager at Washington Animal Rescue League (WARL), in Washington, DC, has witnessed this trend firsthand. She explains that, “Black Dog Syndrome is when big black dogs get overlooked in shelters and sit longer waiting for adoption because of their coloring.”[i] It is even suggested that their rejection eventually leads to higher rates of euthanasia. In Melissa Dahl’s MSNBC article “Black Pups Face Doggie Discrimination,” the president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Los Angeles, Madeline Bernstein, asserts this: “They’re the hardest to adopt out, they’re in the shelters the longest and therefore, they’re most likely to be euthanized if nothing happens.”[ii]

Anecdotal evidence on Black Dog Syndrome is plentiful and upsetting. Many workers and volunteers at shelters can and do attest to the reality of the syndrome. In the Los Angeles Times article “Black Dog Bias?” Craig Nakano writes, “Shelter and rescue leaders insist the phenomenon is very, very real.”[iii] Natalie Kahla wrote of her distressing observations at WARL:

I have worked in the adoptions department at two different shelters in DC over the past 8 years. I believe that black dog syndrome is real… black dogs sit for months in a shelter waiting for adoption. I have a few specific dogs that come to mind… at WARL there was a black lab mix named Kissyfur. She came to our shelter on August 9, 2011, and stayed in the shelter until November 6, 2011 when we found a foster home for her. She stayed in foster until she was adopted on December 27, 2011. That is a length of stay of almost 5 months before being adopted. Our average length of stay for a dog in 2011 was 19.7 days. You can see that is a huge difference. I experienced similar length of stays for black dogs when I worked for the Washington Humane Society.

Time after time, prospective dog owners overlook black dogs to the point where black dogs’ wellbeing is at risk. Kahla’s testament is just one of many, and she firmly believes that the phenomenon is real.

Unfortunately, little hard scientific research has been conducted on the syndrome. Statistics concerning Black Dog Syndrome are simply unavailable. When asked about Black Dog Syndrome stats, Kahla responded, “I don’t have estimations or statistics… We really can’t run reports in our database based on dog coloring.” In Melissa Dahl’s article, Kim Intino, the director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States, confirms, “There’s not a lot of that type of statistics on many aspects of
sheltering… But I think that every person that has worked in a shelter can attest that in shelters animals with black coats can be somewhat harder to adopt out—or to even get noticed.” But there is at least some numerical evidence out there. Dahl writes, “One shelter in Kettering, Ohio, the Society for the Improvement of Conditions for Stray Animals, even ran a special discount on black dogs in February, slashing adoption fees in half after executive director Rudy Bahr realized that out of his shelter’s 42 dogs, 28 of them were big and black.” Even so, it appears that from a scientific standpoint, the theory lacks hard evidence and has gone largely unstudied. Yet firsthand anecdotal testimonies are bountiful. Nearly everyone who has worked or volunteered in shelters will bear witness to the harsh reality black dogs endure.

So why are black dogs so unwanted? Many factors play a role. In Nakano’s article, he refers to Ricky Whitman, spokeswoman for Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA, and Madeline Bernstein, who points out first and foremost that the color black has negative connotations. She says, “It’s that old thing of light is good and dark is evil. The light-versus-dark thing is so ingrained in our consciousness in books and movies. It transfers subliminally in picking out a dog.” Lighter colors are associated with good and happiness; black with dark, obscurity, and evil. In Melissa Dahl’s article, she writes, “In British folklore, such as stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Walter Scott, the black dog is a creepy, spectral figure that haunts cemeteries and is an omen of death … Another Englishman, Winston Churchill, battled serious bouts of depression which he called ‘the black dog.’”

Photo: Viorel Sima

Another theory is that black coats are too ordinary and lack something interesting. Bernstein also asserts, “People [think black dogs are] ordinary and common, not unusual and interesting,” Darker-colored dogs come off as bland and normal. They are written off as lacking a “wow factor” and are considered boring. The age-old aphorism “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is appropriate when looking for a new dog. Nakano writes, “Black dogs often don’t photograph well. Facial features disappear, and animals can appear less expressive.” In poorly lit kennels, darker-colored dogs really do become unseeable. Both Bernstein and Whitman attest to this in Nakano’s article. Bernstein suggests that black dogs aren’t as noticeable in shelters, stating, “They almost become invisible.” Whitman adds, “You can’t see their eyes very well, and people seem to connect with the eyes.” In “Black Pups Face Doggie Discrimination,” Bernstein again verifies their camouflaged features: “Black dogs might appear older; even when they’re young, they have bits of facial hair that may be white or gray… Sometimes if a potential adopter sees a whole row of black dogs, they think, ‘Maybe they’re not being adopted for a good reason. Maybe there’s something wrong with these dogs.’” Black dogs really seem to be discriminated against, be it for conscious or subconscious reasons.

The solution to this unfortunate phenomenon rests on our shoulders. Shelter workers and dog owners all must play their part. Personnel in pounds and shelters must do what they can to make dark-coated dogs stand out. Dahl writes that volunteers put a lot of time and effort into getting black dogs noticed, placing bright, attention-grabbing blankets and toys in their kennels, and notes that “at Bernstein’s shelters, they tie pink ribbons around the necks of the girls, and fasten big bow ties around the necks of the boys.” Awareness, however, is the most vital component of ridding the world of black dog neglect. Natalie Kahla stresses, “The most important thing is to educate the public.” Dark-coated dogs are just as loving and in need of love as other dogs. Color plays no role in their behavior; they’re not menacing, yet they continue to battle that reputation and go unnoticed. With greater understanding, Black Dog Syndrome will become a thing of the past. Black dogs want our love. Why not show them we want theirs?

By Eli Schwarzschild

[i] Kahla, Natalie. Broadway Barks Interview. E-mail interview. 12 Apr. 2012.

[ii] Dahl, Melissa. “Black Pups Face Doggie Discrimination.” msnbc.com. MSNBC Digital Network, 05 Mar. 2008. Web. 25 May 2012. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23472518/.

[iii] Nakano, Craig. “Black Dog Bias?” Los Angeles Times, 06 Dec. 2008. Web. 23 May 2012. http://www.latimes.com/features/la-hm-black6-2008dec06,0,6461430.story.

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