Otter was a big, goofy black Lab and my introduction into the breed that I love. We adopted him from a rescue group at a year old and liked him so much that we later adopted Molly, a yellow girl. When we had the two dogs out together, I noticed time and time again that people would come up and pet Molly, often walking around Otter to do so. This always seemed odd to me, as Molly was friendly but Otter loved people and adored attention. This was my first introduction to “Black Dog Syndrome.”
Black Dog Syndrome, often called BDS by animal rescue folks, is a mysterious ailment that results in the death of many black dogs in shelters. It’s why, as an rescuer with few fosters and less money, I am reluctant to pull black Labs.
BDS is the phenomena whereby black dogs are rescued much less frequently than lighter colored dogs. A Petfinder survey of shelter and rescue groups reported that most pets are listed an average of 12.5 weeks before adoption, while less-adoptable dogs, such as those that are black or have special needs, take almost four times as long to find a forever home.
There are many reasons why black dogs have a harder time finding homes. One reason, quite simply, is numbers. Black is a genetically-dominant color and one of the three recognized colors of the Labrador Retriever, America’s most popular breed for more than 20 years. Many shelter dogs are Lab mixes, and between that and the dominance of the color in general, there are more black dogs needing homes.
This is just a part of the problem though.
Another problem is the difficulty of photographing black dogs. Many people do online searches to look for their future family member. Photos of black dogs often end up looking like a big black blob with a tongue. Lighter dogs photograph better and thus get more attention when their photos are posted.
In a shelter environment, black dogs are often harder to see. Many shelters are industrial, warehouse-type buildings with very poor artificial lighting and few if any windows. The kennels are dark with lots of shadows. If a black dog is standing in the back of a kennel, potential adopters may not even realize he is there. Even when they do see him, he is often overlooked, as the poor lighting makes it difficult to see his features and expression. When people are looking for a dog to adopt, it is often a very emotional decision and they are looking for a face to fall in love with. A lighter colored dog, or one with unusual markings, is simply easier to see.
Popular media has also had an impact. In Hollywood, white has always depicted the hero in the story and black denotes the villain. Black dogs that do appear in movies or on television are typically used to portray the aggressive and dangerous characters. A big, frightening black dog can be seen in The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Grim in the Harry Potter series is a large black dog. Black dogs are used in both movie versions of The Omen and even on the common “Beware of Dog” signs. Because they are more difficult to photograph, they are not frequently used in commercials and advertising campaigns, while yellow Labs and Golden Retrievers appear in many advertisements. These factors combine to leave the public with a false impression that black dogs are more intimidating than dogs of other colors. In fact, a 2013 study by Penn State psychologists revealed that people find images of black dogs scarier than photos of yellow or brown dogs; respondents rated the ebony animals less adoptable, less friendly, and more intimidating.
Petfinder has named Sept. 21-27 as “Adopt a Less Adoptable Pet Week.” Even if you don’t need to add another wagging tail to your family, you can help dogs suffering from BDS. Encourage your friends to look past their first impressions of a black dog and to look at all the dogs in the shelter or rescue. Personality and connection is far more important than appearance. Black dogs are just as smart, loving and affectionate as those of any other color.
Karlene Turkington, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, is a lifelong animal lover who has been training dogs for over 20 years. Readers are welcome to send their questions to: info@TrainMyK-9.com. Information provided here is a basic overview of issues. Specific health or behavioral concerns should be discussed with your veterinarian or qualified animal trainer or behaviorist.