For years there was an unquestioned belief among animal shelter workers that black dogs were less likely to get adopted than dogs of any other color.
They even had a name for it: Black Dog Syndrome.
But it was more than just a casual observation by volunteers at their local SPCA; there were scientific studies to back up their suspicions.
However, in more recent years Black Dog Syndrome has been called into questions and even called an outright myth.
And there are academic studies to back up the view that Black Dog Syndrome is just urban legend as well.
So what’s going on? I have a theory:
Black Dog Syndrome is real. All else being equal, black dogs are less likely to get adopted. However, the proactive actions of shelters as well as awareness by the adopting public have eliminated Black Dog Syndrome from the statistics.
Let me make my case.
History of Black Dog Syndrome
Black Dog Syndrome is a term that has been around since the 1990s when animal shelter workers first noticed a trend: black dogs seemed to be adopted less often and took longer to find forever homes compared to dogs of other colors.
As the phenomenon gained more attention, it started getting media coverage in the 2000s, sparking discussions about the unconscious bias affecting people’s perception of black dogs.
There are a few theories as to why Black Dog Syndrome occurs. One theory suggests that black dogs may be perceived as more aggressive or intimidating than dogs of other colors.
As Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles, told the LA Times in 2008, “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.”
Another idea is that black dogs don’t photograph as well as their lighter-colored counterparts, making it harder for them to catch the eye of potential adopters when browsing online or in printed materials.
Regardless of the reason, the crux of the Black Dog Syndrome theory is that even if these dogs are eventually adopted, they face a longer and more challenging journey to find their forever homes than dogs of other colors.
Black Dog Syndrome Studies
There have been several academic studies on Black Dog Syndrome beginning in 1998. Here is an overview of their key findings:
A 1998 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that having a primarily black coat color was a variable associated with euthanasia, while gold, gray, and white coats colors were significant predictors of successful adoption.
A 2002 study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science concluded “Black dogs had the least likelihood of being adopted.”
A 2010 dissertation by Jamie L. DeLeeuw of Wichita State University found that “not having a primarily black coat” correlated positively with getting adopted.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science found that “neither coat color nor sex influenced length of stay (at the shelter).”
A 2015 study published in the journal Animal Welfare discovered black dogs were actually adopted out more quickly than average in the shelters studied.
The three studies in 2010 and earlier all showed a bias against black dogs getting adopted.
However, the 2 latest studies found that coat color was not a factor or that a black coat was actually advantageous for dogs in shelters.
This is most likely thanks to animal shelters taking proactive steps to help their black dogs get adopted faster.
Combating Black Dog Syndrome
Due to their own observations as well as scientific studies to back them up, animal shelters and animal welfare organizations began to proactively combat Black Dog Syndrome in several ways, including education, positive promotion, and adoption incentives.
One of the key ways that shelters combat Black Dog Syndrome is through education and public awareness campaigns.
By providing potential adopters with information about the fact that a dog’s color has nothing to do with their personality or behavior, shelters can help dispel any myths or misconceptions surrounding black dogs.
Shelters will also educate potential adopters about Black Dog Syndrome directly, making animal lovers more likely to adopt black dogs so they will not be euthanized.
Shelters can also use social media and other platforms to showcase black dogs in a positive light and highlight their many positive qualities.
Some shelters will place black dogs in prominent locations within the shelter, such as in kennels up front with the best lighting. They may also dress black dogs in brightly colored bandanas or other accessories around their necks to make them stand out and catch the attention of potential adopters.
Adoption incentives also play a big role in combatting Black Dog Syndrome. Some shelters may offer adoption incentives for black dogs, such as waiving adoption fees or providing free training classes.
This can encourage more people to adopt black dogs and help them find their forever homes more quickly.
Looking at the studies and taking into consideration anecdotal accounts, I believe that Black Dog Syndrome still exists in the sense that the unconscious biases that make people less likely to adopt black dogs still exist.
However, these biases have been countered by the proactive actions of animal shelters and welfare organizations, as well as the adopting public’s growing awareness of the issue and eagerness to help.
This has led to a situation where, statistically, shelter dogs with black coats are just as likely or even more likely to be adopted compared to their lighter coated counterparts.
The dedicated efforts of animal shelter workers across the country have finally given black dogs a fair shake.