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Are Black Dogs Less Lovable?

Are black dogs less desirable and harder to get adopted?

People who are associated with the dog adoption world often worry about what they call the "Big Black Dog Syndrome". It is based upon their observation that dogs that are large and black, especially Labrador retrievers, shepherd mixes, pit bulls, and Rottweilers are passed over time after time in favor of smaller, lighter colored dogs when it comes to adoptions.

Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.

There has been speculation that the reason black dogs have are being rejected is part of the fabric of our cultural heritage. In ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies, black dogs are often associated with death and the supernatural. They are emissaries of evil and in the folklore of Britain and Europe these demonic black hounds can be found hovering around the border spaces between this world and the next, such as graveyards and places where violence has occurred. The black dogs of folklore are not too very different from normal dogs, except that they are large and very dark, and if you look at their eyes they will sometimes flash red with a fiery glow. Certainly if the Devil has a dog he is big and black.

People who work with dog adoption groups argue that these negative ideas hovering in the back of our minds have become a stereotype which is supported by the idea of black dogs unleashing destruction as is often seen in movies, books and television shows. Thus potential pet owners mistakenly assume all black dogs are mean and aggressive, and having such an animal may lead people to believe that the owner has the same negative characteristics that are associated with big black dogs.

Although, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, this problem is not tracked nationally and local shelters keep only limited records on the size, breed, and color of the dogs that are adopted or put down, the problem has become apparent to shelter workers as they see what appears to be a reoccurring pattern where big black dogs do not get adopted.

While these observations may highlight a valid pattern the scientist in me wants some data which shows that there is a problem with black dogs. As a psychologist I know that a person's general attitudes tend to predict their behavior in various situations. Thus I thought that it might be worthwhile to check to see if people really do have a negative attitude toward black dogs.

The idea was to get people to express their feelings toward dogs which differ only in color. The sample of people that I tested were mostly students and staff members at my university. I tested a total of 60 individuals.

The target breed was Labrador Retrievers since they come in three colors, black, brown, and yellow. I used three photos of the dog's heads (one in each color) against similar backgrounds and in similar poses, each with its mouth closed. There were also three standing photos, one of each breed. These six photographs were mixed with 12 others, half of dogs heads and half of dogs standing. This set of "filler photos" consisted of parti-colored dogs, Beagles, Collies, Dalmatians, English Cocker Spaniels, Australian cattle dogs, and Corgis.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.
Three Labrador Retriever portraits used in the study.
SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.

The dog pictures were presented on a computer screen in mixed order. For each picture the observer was asked four questions, namely how much they liked the look of the dog, how friendly they thought it was, how good it would be as a family pet, and how likely it would be for the dog to be aggressive. Answers were on a scale from 1 to 7. The results are shown in this table.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.
SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.

If these observations of shelter workers are correct, we would expect the attitudes toward black dogs to be more negative. This is exactly what was found. The observers seem to think that black dogs don't look as good, are less friendly, and are less likely to make a good pet then either the brown or the yellow dogs. Even more importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the black dogs are seen as being possibly more aggressive than either the brown or yellow dogs. All of these differences reach the conventional levels of statistical significance.

The differences between brown and yellow dogs are not as large, but in all cases seems to favor the yellow dogs as being more desirable. All of these differences (except for "Good Pet") are also statistically significant.

These data do not indicate that black dogs are unloved, since the midpoint of the scale is 4 and the black dogs are rated on the good side for look, friendliness, and to being a good pet. However, the fact that they are rated lower than the other colors would provide some evidence in favor of the "Black Dog Syndrome" that shelter workers talk about.

Is there then little hope for black dogs to be adopted? There are things that can be done to make the dogs appear to be more friendly and lovable despite their color. I once hosted an event in northern Alberta which involved a dog day in the park, where the local SPCA chose a number of dogs to be on display for possible adoption. One was an oversized Labrador Retriever named "Trucker", who had a shimmering black coat. He had a marvelous gentle personality, but the SPCA workers were worried that his color would prevent him from being adopted and they bemoaned the fact that he had already been in the shelter for a long time. I told them that I would bet that I could get the dog adopted that day.

I darted across the street to a Dollar Store and bought a bright colorful print bandanna which I then tied around the dog's neck. I then told the workers that we had to change the dog's name to "Happy". I assured them that dogs learn new names very quickly. Standing there in his colorful bandanna with a card announcing that he was Happy made him look very sweet indeed. He was adopted that afternoon.

I would suggest that "Black Dog Syndrome" does exist, based on this new set of data, however things can be done to offset it and to allow more black dogs to be successfully re-homed.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

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