Black Dog Syndrome describes a phenomenon where dogs with darker colored hair or fur are passed over in shelters by potential adopters, who seem to favor lighter colored dogs. This dynamic tends to become more pronounced as the size of the dog increases and also seems to apply to the adoption of cats (appropriately known as “black cat syndrome”).
Here we will explore some of the supposed reasons for this bias and the concrete scientific studies which confirm and discredit its existence in order to better understand what Black Dog Syndrome is.
Impact of Photography
By far the most compelling explanation for Black Dog Syndrome has to do with the impact of photography on the representation of black dogs, particularly online.
Most shelters will upload photos of their dogs onto a website for potential buyers to browse. A black dog’s features don’t show up as well in photography – often it’s harder to see their eyes and facial features, making them less easy to identify with and anthropomorphize than other dogs with lighten fur or hair.
This may even affect in-person visits to the shelter, because it’s common for potential owners to take photos or videos as their walk through the shelter to refer to when deciding which pup to adopt later on.
Humans are unconsciously feel fondness towards things we see as familiar, including our own faces. So if it’s harder to make out the facial features on a black dog, it’s harder for humans to anthropomorphize the dog, develop a connection and want to adopt them.
Negative Symbolic Associations of Black Dogs
Symbols and superstition become a factor consciously or subconsciously in the process of picking a dog to adopt.
Black Dogs in Mythology
Black dogs are a frequent motif in myths and folklore, particularly those that have origins in the British Isles, the earliest one dating back to 1127. While some details differ, these mythological dogs usually are large with shaggy coats and glowing eyes.
In many myths dogs also serve as guides or guardians in ‘liminal zones’ between our world and others, usually the underworld. In ancient Egyptian lore, the jackal-headed Anubis (you guessed it, another kind of black dog) is a divine embalmer and leads souls to the world of the dead.
In ancient Greek folklore the guardian or watchdog at the gates of Hades was a big black dog called Cerberus.
Some more contemporary example of this motif are Sirius Black from the Harry Potter series and the death hounds in The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Black dogs serve differing purposes in all these stories and myths, but all are portrayed to different degrees as menacing, eerie and otherworldly.
Black Dogs as Symbols of Depression
Black dogs have also been used as a metaphor for depression. The connection was first made by the Roman poet Horace and later famously by Winston Churchill to describe his own depression. This metaphor helps people concretize the symptoms of depression, which can often be hard to understand. However, this might have unintended negative consequences for black dogs by giving their features a negative symbolic meaning which lies totally outside their control.
Black Cats and Other Animals
When looking more broadly at the superstition surrounding black animals, the trope of the black cat immediately comes to mind.
Superstition around black cats began during a period of hysteria surrounding witches in the Middle Ages in Europe might also bleed over into our dark and uncanny associations with other black animals more generally.
Stray cats were often cared for by single women who were accused of practicing witchcraft. Black cats by association, were thought to be reincarnated witches themselves, or helped the witches carry out their magic.
More generally, black animals in the medieval period, including black birds and ravens, seen as omens of death or bad luck.
While most people don’t necessarily believe in witchcraft now, these symbols and associations are woven into our culture (just think of the black Halloween cat!) and could unconsciously inform our perception of which animals are cuter and cuddlier.
Studies That Prove the Black Dog Syndrome Theory
The journal of the American Veterinary Association published a study in 1998 which attempted to determine the characteristics associated with successful adoption. They studied a group of 1,468 dogs, 1073 of which were successfully adopted, 239 who were not and 157 who were returned after adoption.
They found that generally the most successful dogs were smaller, had experience living in indoor environments and had lighter a colored coat (gold, gray and white). This study could then be interpreted as proof that Black Dog Syndrome exists.
A study by the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science which attempted to predict adoptive vs. euthanasia amongst dogs and cats in a California animal shelter analyzed age, sex, coat color, reason for relinquishment, breed, purebred status and injury status.
Regarding coat color, their findings were that dogs with black or brindle colored coats had the least likelihood of being adopted compared to a reference coat color of black and tan. All 10 of the other coat colors they identified including red, merle and tricolor were preferred slightly more over the base of black and tan.
A study done by the ASPCA which surveyed 1,500 adopters across 5 different shelters revealed that 27% of dog adopters cited appearance as the single most important factor considered in their adoption process. While this doesn’t explicitly prove the existence of Black Dog Syndrome, it shows just how important looks are to potential adopters and further shows the significance of processes like anthropomorphizing and negative symbolic association could have on a black dog getting adopted.
A graduate school dissertation from Wichita state university studied all dogs entering and exiting a Midwestern shelter in 2007. It used a data driver approach to identify the characteristics that lead to dog adoption.
This investigation concluded that the main factors that contributed to adoption in order of importance were smallness, being a stray, youth, not having a primarily black coat, medium hair and being female.
Studies That Contradict the Black Dog Syndrome Theory
Conversely, another study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science in 2013 found that coat color did not have a significant effect on the length of stay of dogs in a shelter. This study was conducted on one shelter in New York State.
The findings revealed age and size to be the most relevant factors, with young dogs getting adopted faster than older ones. Small dogs stayed for the least amount of time, while medium sized dogs spent the longest.
Guard dogs as a breed category also had relatively longer lengths of stay in the shelter than their peers in other breed groups, even longer than dogs categorized as ‘fighting’ breeds.
The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare came to a similar conclusion in a paper published in 2015. They found that the average length of stay and rate of euthanasia was not higher for black dogs, but the trend seemed to go more along the lines of age and breed group.
Some Further Considerations
Based on the available studies, it is difficult to conclude either way if Black Dog Syndrome exists as a significant factor in the adoption process.
But not everything can be observed in a statistical analysis. The cultural and symbolic connotations of black dogs are a prime example of this and should not be overlooked because of it.
To zoom out, the question of Black Dog Syndrome asks us to reflect on the value system we place on dogs in the adoption process. It highlights the prejudices we may harbor against certain breeds, coat colors, ages and sexes of dogs in the adoption process.
It also should make us think about the consequences of this discrimination in the context of kill shelters. Should a dog’s inability to conform to an adopter’s expectation result in the death of that animal? Or might it be better if the adoption process could be changed to be more equitable and have more humane outcomes for even the most ‘undesirable’ dog?