Shedding the light on black dog syndrome

We all know discrimination based on a person’s race or color is wrong, but unfortunately, it still happens. That doesn’t appear to be any different when it comes to black or dark-coated dogs, though it may happen with more frequently in the dog world. Dogs with black, or dark colored coats are often the last to be adopted and the first to be euthanized in America’s animal shelters.

While there are no hard statistics, as studies haven’t been done regarding this specific theory, the anecdotal evidence is compelling. Shelter workers have a name for it: ‘Black Dog Syndrome’. Possible explanations for this syndrome run the gamut, from superstitions, fear, and negative connotations, to an overabundance of dark colored dogs, to the logistics of photographing a black dog. While people today may not allow superstition to drive their actions, they may be unconsciously prejudiced by all of the negative connotations about black dogs.

Superstitions and fears about black dogs have been around for years; in mythology and folklore dogs are associated with the supernatural, death, graveyards, the Devil, and the otherworld. English fairy tales spoke of a black dog the size of a calf with a long black shaggy coat and bright fiery eyes. Harmless if left alone, it could strike a human dumb and cause death if spoken to or touched. Sirius, one of Orion’s two hunting dogs, signaled hot summer months, a time of sickness and death, while Cerberus was the guard dog of Hell.

A play written in 1621, “The Witch of Edmonton”, is based on the trial, imprisonment and execution of Mother Sawyer, a witch, who was accused of having a pact with the Devil disguised as a Black Dog. The church grim, or kirkegrim, haunts churches and graveyards and normally takes the form of a huge black dog. The legend of the Black Dog of Meriden, Connecticut, a small ghost dog, says if you see it once it means joy, but twice it means sorrow, and three times means death.

The movies continue to foster this belief. “If you think of any movie with a mean, devil dog, it’s always a black dog, and if you see a witch in a movie, they always have a black cat,” says Mike Arms, president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Movies such as “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the “Harry Potter” series and “The Omen” have all shown black dogs as threats. Even the movie “Beethoven” used Dobermans as the threatening dogs, while a loveable St. Bernard is used for the family dog.

Reputation is another possibility. Some dogs may appear big and scary on sight, such as Rottweilers, Dobermans, Labradors, and Belgian Shepherds. If a bad reputation ensues due to a situation involving one of these breeds, some people unfairly assume all of that particular breed are the same way, which is patently untrue.

Tamara Delaney, founder of the educational website Contrary to Ordinary: The Black Pearls of the Dog World, (blackpearldogs.com),  states “We all know that a prejudice is a preformed opinion, usually an unfavorable one, based on insufficient knowledge, irrational feelings, or inaccurate stereotypes. I also think some of the breeds in the last 50 to 60 or so years that have been mishandled by certain groups of people (ie: Rottweilers, Dobermans ,etc.) have affected how we think about a large black dog. You go to a movie, watch a show or read a book… what dogs are they using to show evil or fierceness? Most commonly: a big black one.”

It could also simply be that there is an overabundance of black dogs. According to Steve Broomfield, regional center manager for the southern adoption centers at The Blue Cross, “Black dogs often take longer, especially larger ones. People tend to overlook them more easily. Darker dogs don’t have the facial expression of lighter/multicoloured dogs and so don’t always look as endearing.”

The label ‘black dog’ has even been applied in non-dog related areas, furthering the negative connotation. Winston Churchill, who battled serious bouts of depression, called it “the black dog” and it has now become a universal metaphor for depression. Australia has an educational, research, and clinical facility for depression and bipolar disorder called the Black Dog Institute.

Another, simpler factor is that black animals are hard to photograph well, making them harder to advertise. It’s also harder to read their expressions, as they don’t have the well-defined ‘eyebrows’ that lighter colored dogs do. Photographer Seth Casteel of Little Friends Photo in Los Angeles says “I hear about Black Dog Syndrome all the time.” Casteel has launched a nationwide nonprofit called Second Chance Photos (secondchancephotos.org ) to help combat this problem, and has tips for getting good photos of shelter animals.

The Human Society of the United states and the ASPCA estimate that 5-8 million animals enter shelters each year, and approximately 3-4 million are euthanized. Approximately 60% of these are dogs. Vice-President of shelter outreach at Petfinders.com, the largest online pet adoption database, Kim Saunders, says “Overwhelmingly, we hear from the shelter and rescue groups that black dogs, especially the big black dogs, and black cats take longer to get adopted.” Inge Fricke, director of sheltering and pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., says “It is not a hoax. There is definitely anecdotal evidence. There haven’t been any definitive studies to absolutely prove that the phenomenon exists, but it is something commonly accepted by shelter workers as truth.”

Whatever reason, or combination of reasons it may be, black and dark colored dogs have less chance of being adopted into loving forever homes. These dogs are just as loveable, loyal, and devoted companions as a dog of another color. Just as people should be judged based on their character, so should dogs, regardless of the color of their coat.