With Halloween just around the corner, you’re probably seeing decorations everywhere, including black cats. Black cats are frequently considered to be bad luck, which contributes to their difficulty in getting adopted.
But what about black dogs? Do they suffer the same bias as black cats? Is “black dog syndrome” a real thing, or confirmation bias on the part of shelters and reporters?
As it turns out, there are a lot of contradictory studies. In this post, we dig into what the studies have found, and what may explain the difference in results. And, of course, we’ll talk about what can be done to help black dogs.
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What is “Black Dog Syndrome”?
“Black Dog Syndrome” is the term coined to describe how black dogs have lower adoption chances than dogs with lighter-colored fur. This phenomenon has been shown in some studies, although as we’ll see in a minute, not conclusively.
Intuitively, bias against black dogs sounds plausible to most people, because there is known bias against black cats, the color black has symbolism within many cultures, and among humans, racism is a real and ongoing problem.
It’s harder to study the existence of Black Dog Syndrome for a number of reasons. While research into dogs, shelters, and dog breeders exists, it’s not as thorough as we’d like.
There are many reasons why people may be scared of black dogs, such as movie depictions of certain breeds. As with black cats, there’s also associations with bad luck or even the occult.
There are also confounding factors such as:
- What if it’s a preference for a certain type of dog breed, rather than coat color?
- Are black dog breeds typically bigger, making it a “harder sell” for the shelter to adopt them out?
- Do people show the same bias against purebred black dogs? Can we make conclusions about shelter dogs based on these findings?
- The US is a big country… can we conclusively say that Black Dog Syndrome is an issue everywhere, or does it only exist in certain regions?
Statistics About Black Dog Syndrome in Shelters
When we hear about the idea of “Black Dog Syndrome”, it sounds believable to us. There is enough lore within our culture for us to quickly accept that people find black dogs to be off-putting in some way. For example, many breeds of dogs considered to be “scary” happen to be dogs with black coats, like Dobermans or Rottweilers.
And, we all know that the color black has symbolism both in old wives tales (such as “black cats are unlucky”) and within more recent history. Colorism is a real phenomenon in people, where unconscious bias leads to prejudice against people with darker skin.
The question is whether that unconscious bias extends to dogs, too, and if so, to what extent?
Studies That Do Support the Existence of “Black Dog Syndrome”
There are a number of surveys that find that Black Dog Syndrome is real. These surveys are likely reason that you’ve heard about Black Dog Syndrome in the first place!
- A study from George Washington University found that Big Black Dog Syndrome exists. In other words, the issue was not that dogs with black coats struggled to get adopted, but rather large-breed black dogs did. This study hypothesized that poor photography and poor lighting within the shelter contributed to a negative impression of black dog’s perceived expressiveness and friendliness.
- A 1998 study from a single animal shelter in the US found that black-coated dogs had lower adoption rates than lighter colored dogs (with ‘gold’, gray, or white-colored coats). From Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Posage et. al.
- A 2018 study found that coat color did affect the length of stay (LOS) at a shelter. Brindle and multi-color dogs had the shortest average stay at 17-18 days, and black dogs had the longest stay (32 day average). This study was done in the Czech Republic and does not appear to control for other factors such as age, gender, or breed of the dog.
- A study done in 2017 in the Midwest found that having a black coat was a factor in adoption time, but not as much as dog size, previous history (being a stray vs having a previous owner), and age.
Additionally, an anecdotal look at shelter blogs around the internet finds that shelter workers believe that Black Dog Syndrome is a thing, from their own personal experiences.
I currently own a Black Lab mix and I have noticed that plenty of people are initially cautious around her, even though she is calm and friendly. This could be attributed to her black coat, but there are many other factors at play, such as a person’s past experiences with dogs.
Studies That Don’t Support the Existence of “Black Dog Syndrome”
After the concept of Black Dog Syndrome entered into everyday conversation, other studies were done to confirm or deny the phenomenon, accounting for other factors.
- A 2013 statistical study measuring “length of stay” (LOS) across different factors did not find a statistically relevant difference in LOS based on coat color or gender. It did find a difference in age (puppies get adopted the fastest) and size (medium-sized dogs had the longest LOS). This study was done in shelters in New York.
- A 2015 study that is the largest study in this list with over 16,000 dogs analyzed, found that there was not a significant difference in adoption times for dogs with black coats compared to other colors. Instead, they found age and breed groups were the difference makers. This study was done in the Pacific Northwest.
Differences in Black Dog Syndrome Statistical Studies
Even within the studies that do control for age, gender, and breed of dog, there are significant differences in outcomes. What might explain this?
One theory is that the occurrence of Black Dog Syndrome is highly regional. This intuitively makes sense, as people in different regions prefer different types of dogs and different breeds.
Shelter-by-shelter differences might also explain the outcomes in smaller studies. Poorly lit photographs may not show black dogs in the best light, making lighter-coated dogs seem more “expressive” by comparison. Additionally, poorly lit kennels may have a negative impact on black dogs when potential adopters visit the shelter, as black dogs can blend into the shadows.
Another thing I have not been able to find in these studies is the overall color variance in all dogs. It’s one thing to claim that a certain percentage of all shelter dogs are black, but what if the likelihood of black dogs in all situations (shelter dogs and dogs with homes) is even higher? Unsurprisingly, this information is difficult to find. Imagine the effort needed to run a complete census of all dogs in a country!
What about Black Dog Syndrome in Purebred Dogs?
While research into shelter dog statistics is a big part of the puzzle, what about purebred dogs? Do people seek out lighter-colored dogs in scenarios where all of the dogs in question are purebred, and where shelter lighting and photography is not an issue?
This study from the Memorial University of Newfoundland (published 2017) attempted to test preference for dark or light-colored dogs at a breed group level. For example, do people prefer dark or light-colored dogs within the Herding group?
They did this by showing photographs of different dogs and asking people to describe the dog with adjectives (“friendly”, “aggressive”, etc), and by asking people to pick between a light and dark colored dog in each group.
They found that of the eight groups tested–Scenthound, Sighthound, Sporting, Terrier, Toy, Spitz, Herding and Working–people showed a preference for dark colored dogs in all but two groups. The only group with a preference for light-colored dogs was the Spitz group. In other words, they found that overall, people actually prefer black dogs at the breed group level.
The study found stronger preferences when survey takers were asked the same questions within a specific breed (not breed group). But overall, they did not find consistent, strong bias. In short, the survey did not find evidence to support the presence of Black Dog Syndrome within purebred dogs.
Is Black Dog Syndrome a Regional Occurrence?
Two more interesting points: first, there were significant regional differences. For example, in this study, people who lived in Newfoundland, Canada, were much more likely to have a favorable opinion of the region’s famous (black) dog breed: the Newfie. But people in other regions of Canada with a notable light-colored breed showed more preference for light-colored dogs.
This suggestions that “Black Dog Syndrome” may be a regional occurrence.
Does Awareness of Black Dog Syndrome Change Outcomes?
Secondly, people who were simply aware of Black Dog Syndrome were less likely to show bias against black dogs in their answers. This was especially true if they thought the (purebred) black dog was from a shelter or rescue:
Participants […] who reported being aware of BBDS were more likely to prefer the photograph ofHuman preferences of canine coat colour and length (McDowell, 2017)
the dark-coated dog over the lighter-coated match, particularly when participants were led to
believe that the dog was from a shelter.
How to Help
While the jury is still out on whether Black Dog Syndrome is a real, measurable thing, it certainly doesn’t hurt to help the adoption chances of black dogs. So how can you help?
Just a minute ago, we shared a study that found, among other things, that people who were simply aware of Black Dog Syndrome were less likely to show bias against black dogs.
Sharing this article, or similar posts, may help educate others. Additionally, if you are considering bringing a dog home, try to check your assumptions about dogs you may see on Petfinder or in a local shelter.
National Black Dog Day
Speaking of awareness, did you know that there’s an entire day dedicated to black dogs? Every year, October 1st is dedicated to the awareness of bias against black dogs, and celebration of these beautiful, lovely pups. Mark your calendar for October 1, 2023!
Black Dog Rescue Project
Earlier, we mentioned poorly-lit photography as a potential issue. Photographer Fred Levy set out to address this issue by using his photo skills to create stunning (and well-lit!) photos of black dogs. While his website is no longer available, you can see his work here in his book “Black Dogs Project”.
Even with all of those studies, there is still not a clear answer on whether Black Dog Syndrome exists. Some studies found it to be the case, others didn’t. Still other studies found it to be a factor, but tied up with other factors such as dog size.
What are the explanations for this?
- Black Dog Syndrome may be a regional occurrence, where a certain “look” is preferred (or not).
- Whether or not a black dog is considered “scary” may be closely tied to its breed and (potentially unfair) associations of that breed, such as Dobermans.
- It may also be a factor of presentation, where photography and lighting doesn’t show the features of black dogs as well as they do for lighter-colored breeds.
- One study found that awareness of Black Dog Syndrome helped combat bias. Perhaps awareness is spreading such that certain studies are not able to show (as much) bias?
One thing is clear, however. A dog’s behavior and worth is not something that is determined by its breed, size, or color. Good, patient training can bring out the best in all dogs. With this in mind, show a little extra love to the black dogs in your life–they deserve it!