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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...


8 August 2013

Is There a Black Dog Syndrome?

Hi Mia,

This was a summer of conferences squared! One of the topics that kept buzzing through my ears was a phenomenon commonly described as “Black Dog Syndrome,” an affliction suffered by dogs who turn black after eating too much licorice. But seriously, as you know, this is the commonly held belief that dark-coated dogs in shelters are less likely to be adopted than other dogs.

A recent proponent of this belief is Amanda Leonard. At the Association of Pet Dog Trainer's 2012 Conference, Leonard gave a talk titled, “The Plight of the Big Black Dogs and Gender Myths.” As her website explain,
"My year at the Washington Humane Society served as the inspiration and field work for a term paper for my very first class at [George Washington University]. That term paper turned into a multi-year project to expose Big Black Dog Syndrome and help shelters find homes for their black dogs (and cats)."

Leonard is not alone in believing in a “Black Dog Syndrome,” but does it really exist? In animal shelters, is there an adopter bias against dogs who are all black? Or maybe there is just a bias against dogs who are big and black, as some have suggested? Or maybe, people have less favorable opinions of black animals when explicitly asked but maybe it doesn't reflect in adoption rates? Maybe there is no bias against black dogs, there are just more of them in the dog population and therefore more in the shelter? Ultimately, how might researchers investigate this idea of a Black Dog Syndrome?

Research on Black Dogs 
There has been lots of research presented on this topic this Summer! At the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ), Heather Lum, Nicole Nau Kymberly McClellan presented their study, Exploring the “Black Dog” syndrome: How color can influence perceptions of companion animals. In this questionnaire-based study, sixty-five people looked at pictures of animals of different colors and offered opinions on areas like the animals'  friendliness, aggressiveness or adoptability. They found the black dog was rated as least friendly and most aggressive and the lighter colored pets were considered more adoptable (study summary available here).

Also at ISAZ, Heather Svoboda & Christy Hoffman -- from the Canisius Anthrozoology Masters Program -- presented a poster on A novel, empirical test of Black Dog Syndrome. Their study won the ISAZ Conference Poster Contest, and next week Heather will join Do You Believe in Dog? for a guest post to discuss her research. Excellent!

But there was even MORE black dog research this summer! Later in July, at the 50th Animal Behavior Society Conference in Boulder, Colorado, Patricia McConnell, Taylor Jarmes and Keira McIntyre presented The Black Dog Syndrome: Factors influencing difficulty of canine adoptions. (McConnell is the PhD, CAAB we often mention on this blog, and she has been thinking about this topic for quite some time, see her earlier post). Their study on the Black Dog Syndrome had an interesting twist, so let's take a look...

TO INVESTIGATE WHETHER black dogs are less likely to be adopted than other dogs, McConnell and her students looked at the amount of time dogs spent on the adoption floor, as opposed to the amount of time dogs spent in the shelter overall. There could be a myriad of reasons why a dog does or does not make it onto the adoption floor, and coat color is not necessarily one of them. For example, depending on the shelter, a dog might be held back from the adoption floor if it's sick, has behavioral issues, was recently picked up as a stray or if all the runs on the adoption floor are taken. So time spent on the actual adoption floor is an important detail when investigating whether black dogs are bypassed.  

(How much time is spent on the adoption floor? Source)
By examining adoption records and photographs from a shelter in Stoughton, Wisconsin, McConnell and her team determined dog primary and secondary coat colors. This way, they could check whether dogs were in fact black or whether the dog had a more varied coat.

Ultimately, they determined that “coat color did not significantly alter a dog’s days on the adoption floor when analyzing the entire population or when eliminating puppies.” Additionally, the amount of black found in primarily black dogs did not influence how long dogs stayed at the shelter.

Where Are We With Black Dog "Syndrome"?
To date, there doesn’t seem to be much empirical support for the Black Dog Syndrome, but as you might imagine, there are many ways to go about investigating it. For example, within a particular breed, are certain colors preferred over others, and is black more or less desirable? Or, if we were to examine a large population of entirely black dogs of a certain age and size, might the phenomenon apply? Of course, when exploring this topic, data could be collected in many different ways -- from mass data sources that look at adoption rates to reports from prospective adopters. Researchers could even look at peoples'
Newfoundland & Labrador
behavior towards dogs of different colors.

WHAT ABOUT A REGIONAL or cultural Black Dog Syndrome? Kalita McDowell of the Canine Research Unit at Memorial University of Newfoundland explored this question in her research, which she also presented at the 50th Animal Behavior Society Conference. McDowell wondered whether “breeds of dogs native to, and largely celebrated in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Labrador Retriever and Newfoundland, both of which have a dominant black coat colour, will be preferred by the residents of the province and thus contradict the BBDS [Big Black Dog Syndrome].” 

I checked in with McDowell for more details and here's what she had to say: "I found that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians only preferred more black Newfoundlands than other participants, however they did not prefer more black-coated Labrador Retrievers than other participants (everybody preferred black Labs to yellow and chocolates, and yellow more so than chocolates)." Lots to mull over!

Regardless of color, when it comes to dog adoptions, people give a hoot about the way dogs look, which kind of stinks because behavior is very much where it’s at! After all, looks fade, even in dogs ;) (kidding, totally kidding).

Glad y’all are getting some sun and beach and looking forward to next week’s guest post by Heather Svoboda!



More reading
McConnell, P. The Black Dog Syndrome: Fact or Fiction? The Other End of The Leash Blog. (Additional studies on coat color mentioned in this blog post).

Weiss et al., 2012. Why did you choose this pet?: Adopters and pet selection preferences in five animal shelters in the United States. Animals 2, 144–159. (Full article here)
ISAZ 2013 Conference Program
ABS 2013 Conference Program

The Black Dog Syndrome – Fact or Fiction?
The Black Dog Syndrome – Fact or Fiction?
The Black Dog Syndrome – Fact or Fiction?
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