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Black Dog Syndrome: Is It Real?

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Being in a shelter is stressful for any dog. But does the color of a dog’s fur determine how long they will be in that shelter? The idea that black-coated dogs are more likely to stay longer than others is known as Black Dog Syndrome (BDS) and is a controversial topic. Is it real? Here’s what we know.

Baseless archaic myths surrounding dogs (and cats) with black fur, labeling them as evil and unlucky date to medieval times. Fortunately, modern culture gives more credence to science and research. Turns out that color genetics may have a bearing on the number of black-haired domestic pets and, thus, the number of black pets seen in shelters.

In the Genes

Only two colors of pigment determine a dog’s coat color: black (eumelanin) and red (phaeomelanin). The color of a dog’s coat is the result of genes inherited from both the mother and the father. The range of coat colors that exist are created from these two basic “default” colors.

Gary Weitzman, DVM, MPH, CAWA, president and CEO of San Diego Humane Society, says the dominant black pigment that all dogs have (to a greater or lesser degree) may hold some answers to Black Dog Syndrome.

“There are some studies that show that there are simply more black pets because black coloration is a dominant gene. Therefore, more black pets in shelters,” he says.

“In the shelter system, we do tend to see black dogs get overlooked by potential adopters. But it may not be as significant as we once thought,” he adds. “At San Diego Humane Society, our length of stay is negligible for all black pets; 14 days for dogs and 31 days for cats, versus pets of other colors–15 days for dogs and 27 days for cats.”

Last year, a team of researchers led by psychologist Melissa Trevathan-Minnis, PhD, used dog facial-emotion recognizability to explore whether the phenomenon was real or if it was a self-perpetuating myth that led to decreased adoption rates, longer shelter stays, and increased euthanasia rates.

This study, according to the published abstract, “evaluated 105 college-student participants’ ability to accurately identify emotions in behaviorally anchored photographs of a dog whose coloration and eyebrow nodes had been digitally altered into either a black or tan condition and into a condition with more or less visible nodes, as well as questioned these participants on a variety of qualitative and quantitative indicators related to BDS.”

The findings were published in the journal The Humanistic Psychologist and stated that “the results did not demonstrate a difference in participants’ ability to accurately match photographs with the operationally defined emotions based on either coloration or visibility of nodes, nor was any bias seen against black coloration in terms of preference or willingness to adopt. However, the results did find that more visible nodes led to a significantly higher rate of success in identifying emotions for the photographs of the tan, but not for the black, dog. These findings are presented as a construct validation study exploring whether BDS exists, and the data do not tend toward supporting its existence. However, due to various limitations, this study should not be seen as disproving the existence of BDS, only providing some evidence against its construct validity.”

Personality Plus

While Dr. Weitzman confirms that pets with black coats can be undeservedly overlooked by adopters, he says, “The good news is an animal’s personality shines through no matter what color their coat. There’s a growing number of wonderful people who will only adopt black pets knowing this.”

San Diego Humane Society and many other shelters nationwide now go out of their way to shine the spotlight on black-haired dogs by holding adoption promotions tying them in with days such as Black Friday and Black Dog Awareness Day to ensure they get extra-special attention.

“Also, we never prevent black animals from getting adopted during certain times of the year like before Halloween,” Weitzman says. “Many years ago, animal shelters would stop adopting out black cats in the weeks leading up to Halloween for fear that they would be used in satanic rituals, which is a total myth. Preventing hundreds of animals from finding good homes by putting up unnecessary – and ineffective – barriers isn’t the answer to protecting them.”

Picture Pretty

It’s often said that another reason black-coated pets aren’t adopted as quickly is because they don’t show well in photos. That’s no excuse these days, when nearly everyone has a smart phone capable of producing perfect portraits of black pets. Many shelters use the services of professional photographers who generously donate their time and expertise, as well as social media gurus who help present shelter pets for adoption in the best possible way to help spread the word.

What You Can Do to Help Reduce Stressful Shelter Stays

  • Adopt a black dog! And if you can afford it, remember that two is company.
  • Set up an Instagram account for your pooch and help spread the word through your social media, showing how it’s all about companionship and personality, not coat color.
  • Volunteer at a shelter to help organize events to promote awareness.
  • Start a Facebook Group. It can be for a specific breed or all black-haired dogs.
  • Organize events such as picnics to celebrate black dogs.
  • If you’re a shelter or rescue volunteer or employee, take the free Fear Free Shelters course to learn how to improve the experiences of shelter animals during their stay.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Sandy Robins is an award-winning pet lifestyle journalist and author of For the Love of Cats, Fabulous Felines: Health and Beauty Secrets for the Pampered Cat, The Original Cat Bible, and Making the Most of All Nine Lives: The Extraordinary Life of Buffy The Cat.

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