Based purely on observation, many animal shelter workers believe that black dogs are passed over for adoption in favor of lighter-colored dogs in disproportionately large numbers. Not everyone agrees that so-called "black dog syndrome" is real, and no centralized records that might either support or debunk this contentious theory are kept. Moreover, three highly credible psychologist-designed studies to uncover conscious or unconscious color biases against black dogs have arrived at wildly contradictory conclusions.
Possible Contributing Factors, If True
Because black absorbs light, the features of black dogs disappear into the shadows more easily than their lighter-coated counterparts, making them more challenging to photograph, notes dog photographer Fred Levy. The same visibility problem also applies to black dogs in shelters, believes Marika Bell, director of behavior and rehoming for the Humane Society of Washington, D.C. People connect emotionally with dogs by reading their facial expressions, which are more difficult to decode in black dogs, Bell told "Slate" magazine. Other commentators have noted that popular culture often associates black with evil and, in literature and movies, menacing dogs are often black.
Study Finds Black Labs Less Appealing
The dual specialties of Stanley Coren, psychology professor at the University of British Columbia as well as author of many books on dog psychology, make him especially qualified to ferret out intrinsic color prejudices. To that end, he selected 60 colleagues and students and showed them photographs of dogs of various colors and breeds. Unbeknownst to the participants, the study's "target" breed was the Labrador retriever, which comes in black, brown or yellow. Across the board, Coren found that black Labs received significantly lower ratings for attractiveness, friendliness and adoptability. Writing in the October 2011 issue of "Psychology Today," Coren concluded that these results provide "evidence in favor of the 'Black Dog Syndrome' that shelter workers talk about."
Black Dogs Seen as More Aggressive
A study conducted by three psychologists from Penn State Erie's Behrend College support Coren's conclusion that black dog syndrome is more than an urban legend. After the 65 participants recruited for the study were shown pictures of cats and dogs of various breeds and colors, the researchers questioned them about their impressions of each animal's attributes as pets. In cats as well as dogs, black animals were ranked at the bottom of the scale for friendliness and adoptability. Black dogs also were perceived to be more aggressive than those of other colors, the researchers told San Diego's Association for Human-Animal Bond Studies in July 2013.
Black Dogs Preferred, Another Study Finds
As convincing as the findings of the two small studies may appear, a much larger two-part study into black dog syndrome arrived at diametrically opposite conclusions. Led by Lucinda Woodward, psychology professor at Indiana University Southeast School of Social Sciences, the study appeared in the 2012 edition of the journal "Society & Animals." After looking at pictures of dogs of different breeds and sizes, 795 participants rated each for eight presumed positive and negative personality attributes. In the first part of the study, black poodles of all sizes scored significantly higher than white poodles. In the second, black Labs were rated second only to golden retrievers for positive personality traits. Animal behaviorist Emily Weiss, senior director of research and development for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, believes that these results support the conclusion that black dog syndrome is a myth. Perceptions of dogs are influenced more by breed than color, Weiss believes, and if black dogs are overrepresented in shelters, the likely reason is that they're also overrepresented in the general dog population.
- Slate: Black Dog Syndrome: Why Do People Discriminate Against Dark Pets?
- Humane Society for Shelter Pets: A Cure for Black Dog Syndrome
- Psychology Today: Canine Corner: Are Black Dogs Less Lovable?
- Kroeber Anthropological Society: The Plight of “Big Black Dogs” in American Animal Shelters: Color-Based Canine Discrimination
- ASPCA: Blog: Hmm… It Really Ain’t So Black and White!
- Association for Human-Animal Bond Studies: Exploring the “Black Dog” Syndrome: How Color Can Influence Perceptions of Companion Animals
- Today Pets: Puppy prejudice: Are Black Animals Less Likely to Be Adopted?