Black dog syndrome

The term ‘black dog syndrome’ is sometimes used to describe feelings of depression, but it can also refer to a very real phenomenon often seen at animal shelters.

As animal lovers, we know how indispensable shelters and adoption agencies are. According to the Humane Society of the United States, an estimated six to eight million animals were taken in by shelters last year, and half of them were adopted.

This number is the highest it’s ever been, but it still leaves three to four million animals without homes. Many of these animals are overlooked by potential adopters solely because of their appearance. For example, a family comes in to adopt a dog but is interested only in the cutest or most purebred-looking-puppy in the facility, regardless of breed or behavioral requirements. This phenomenon is often referred to as “black dog syndrome”. The name arises from the fact that black dogs are the hardest to get adopted out of shelters and rescues.

“Employees at our shelter constantly witness visitors scanning the kennels as they walk down the aisles in search of a new friend,” says Pam Backer, director of shelter operations at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. “They merely glance at the black dogs but stop completely when they approach a ‘colored’ dog.”

Why are these dogs shunned?

Black dog syndrome does not occur simply because people dislike the way black dogs look. Sherri Skidmore runs an organization called the Black Dog Rescue Project, which works to bring awareness to black dog syndrome and improve adoption rates for these dogs. She believes there are several reasons behind the phenomenon.

“Black dogs are harder to photograph than lighter or multicolored dogs, and many potential adopters are now searching websites that post pictures of adoptable dogs in their area,” Sherri explains. “Negative influences from the media may also play a part, because black dogs featured in television shows or movies are typically aggressive, menacing characters. Commercials and print ads rarely feature black dogs because they are much more difficult to photograph than lighter dogs.”

Promoting black dogs

Sometimes, just the way a shelter is set up can make a potential adopter discriminate against color, breed or size without even realizing it. Poor lighting and walls painted with darker tones are two factors that can lead to lower black dog adoption rates.

“When the public is in a shelter ready to adopt, and they walk down the aisle to start choosing, looks come first, not behavior,” says Rachel Bulman, public relations director for the SPCA of Lakeland, Florida. “When people start a human friendship, it’s the interaction they have that determines their compatibility, not the color. The shelter environment is our worst enemy because adopters cannot see interaction first, only color and size.”

Finding creative ways to make all dogs look adoptable is important. “We can’t help what the public thinks when they walk in the door, but we can promote black dogs in a variety of ways to help lessen their time with us,” says Pam. “This can include taking them to offsite adoption events, promoting them on local TV and radio stations, and raising awareness about the syndrome. We also have adoption counselors who are very good at pointing out the great attributes of each dog. All these tactics allows people to see the personality as opposed to just the color of the dog.”

“Some shelters have attempted to tackle the problem by having black dogs wear colorful bandanas,” adds Sherri. “They may also promote black dogs by running ‘black dog specials’ at a reduced fee or even for free. All these are great ideas. Anything a shelter does to draw attention to black dogs will help improve their chances for adoption.”

Leave your emotions at the door

If you are interested in adopting a dog, especially for the first time, evaluate your individual needs and lifestyle prior to visiting your local adoption facility. It is also important to try to keep your emotions out of the way when trying to choose between the available dogs.

“Human emotions play a huge part in black dog syndromerelated cases,” says Rachel. “When it comes to a cute, cuddly puppy versus a bigger but already trained dog, the puppy will win out over the older dog 80% of the time. We have to think outside the box and realize that each dog should have a chance.”

When trying to decide which dog you want to adopt, consider not only his temperament and personality, but also your own temperament and personality, as well as that of anyone else living in your home. The last thing a shelter wants is a dog being returned because he got too big or was too hard to train. When visiting an adoption facility, let any pre-conceived notions go. Each dog, no matter what his color or breed, has his own personality and traits, some good and some not so good, depending on your wants and needs, available time, patience level and lifestyle.

Pam offers a great piece of advice when it comes to dog adoption, “Be open minded and don’t be afraid to give a black dog a chance. They have just as much to offer as a dog of any other color.”