I recently adopted a black lab puppy. A neighbor who’s studying to be a vet and volunteers at a shelter gave me kudos, as it's known in shelters that black dogs are by far the least popular color and are hard to find homes for. Could racism really extend itself in a cross-species manner?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Well, your vet-student pal’s certainly right about one thing: it’s an accepted truth among animal-shelter staff that people just don’t want to take black dogs home. Articles and message-board commentary from shelter workers attest to this sad injustice; pounds across the country (and in some cases dedicated black-dog rescue groups) host special adoption events to try to get the poor creatures out the door.
Guess what, though? All the concern notwithstanding, this phenomenon — known as black dog syndrome — doesn’t seem to actually exist, at least as far as research has been able to demonstrate. And there’s a fair amount of research, BDS having long been a hot topic in the shelter world. Among the more recent findings:
- A 2013 analysis of 1,200 dogs and puppies at two no-kill shelters in New York State saw no significant variation in length of availability for adoption (LOA, in the lingo) related to coat color. The study did find that LOA increased about a day per year of age for adult dogs, and that medium-sized dogs could expect to wait longest; adopters gravitated toward the smallest dogs and the biggest, and (understandably) to the puppies.
- Writing in 2015 in the journal Animal Welfare, researchers crunched the numbers from two Pacific Northwest shelters over a four-year period, taking into account the fates of more than 16,000 dogs. Here, they left the puppies out of it and limited the data set to the tougher sells, dogs between one and 13 years old. This time the black dogs actually got adopted faster than dogs overall, beating the average wait time by half a day or more; it was the brindles that had to hang around longer. Older dogs experienced a higher LOA, as did so-called bully breeds; both groups were euthanized more often too.
- In an online article from 2016, the ASPCA looked at shelter records for nearly 300,000 dogs and cats in 14 communities. Again, the black dogs did better than the general dog population: in 2013, for example, they accounted for 30 percent of canine intake but 32 percent of adoptions. Brown or white dogs weren’t in the same kind of demand.
- For what it’s worth, black cat syndrome may be a thing. Several scholarly papers have reported longer adoption waits for black cats, though the ASPCA data showed them doing OK — tabbies of all colors tended to be adopted less readily.
As far as any supposed black-dog problem is concerned, though, I think we can pretty much put this one to sleep — an image that brings me to my next point. Euthanasia is where the BDS illusion may take its real toll. Say you’re a shelter worker who believes black dogs are less likely to be adopted out. And say your shelter is full to bursting, and you’ve got to select a few unlucky animals to meet their maker. Who you gonna pick?
The really weird phenomenon here, I’d say, is the durability of the BDS canard, despite all the studies debunking it. What gives? The best explanation is pet demographics. According to the ASPCA, there are simply more black-coated animals out there — it’s a dominant genetic trait in both dogs and cats — so naturally they’d appear to be overrepresented at the pound.
Not to get too Freudian, but I’d suggest that given how much attention the specter of BDS continues to garner, it could be saying a little something about our own cultural anxieties — not unlike the recurring worry over whether dogs themselves can be racist, discussed here in 2010. (Inconclusive due to spotty data, but certainly it’s possible that a dog living in a homogeneously white-peopled enclave, say, might bark at the racially unfamiliar.) BDS may seem to offer another bit of evidence about the perniciousness of racism in American society — and in a venue where the apparent solution (host another black-dog adoption day!) is a bit simpler than anywhere else.
Meanwhile, less-damning theories still flourish to explain black dogs’ alleged unpopularity. One you’ll see is that it’s tougher to read the facial expressions of dark-colored animals, and thus harder to forge an emotional connection with them in the unforgiving light of the pound. Far from being dispelled by actual adoption stats, this rationale for a nonexistent trend has evolved with technology: now the story’s about how selfies are an important part of bonding with our pets, and nobody wants to adopt a dog whose face won’t show well on Instagram. Clearly there’s something going on that keeps us coming back to this zombie black-dog myth.
Anyway, I don’t mean to be harsh, Bob — I’m sure there are plenty of reasons for the neighbors to think you’re a good guy. Adopting a black dog just doesn’t happen to be one of them.
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