Doing Some Hard Time

 Not so long ago, NBC Nightly News brought dark-colored­­­­­­ canines into the limelight with their exposé on “black dog syndrome”. The report stated that black dogs are consistently and repeatedly left behind in shelters, while their counterparts of other colors are successfully finding homes. Because shelter space and resources are so limited, these dogs are consequently more likely to be euthanized.

There are several possible explanations for how black dog bias came about. Some say that dark-colored animals are portrayed as fearsome and evil in the entertainment industry. I’m tempted to poo-poo this idea, until I recall that the person pulling all the strings in pet selection is often under the age of 8. Some people think that black pets blend in with the somewhat dim environment of most shelters, making them more likely to be overlooked. They are difficult to photograph properly and often resemble a dark, shapeless blob in online photo spreads. One theory proposes that humans cannot easily distinguish dark-furred facial expressions; black pets are therefore perceived as less communicative or less engaged. One particularly plausible explanation is that people faced with a group of similar items are, in general, drawn to the unique. White dogs fit the bill. Spotted dogs all have different spot patterns, and there are several different shades of brown and blonde, but an undiluted, truly black coat might come across as generic, boring, nondescript. Which sounds more enticing : the dog with the arrowhead mark on his shoulder, or the third black dog from the end of the row? It all becomes quite ludicrous when you take a step back and realize that we are seeking to enrich our lives with a new family member, not selecting fixtures for the guest bathroom. Are we, as a species, really this shallow?

A focused internet search reveals that the issue of black dog syndrome is somewhat deeper than I realized. Yes, more than one study has cast a light on the problem; however, a good deal of other work has not supported its existence. Some studies even showed that black dogs are more likely to be adopted; some showed a bias against other external qualities, such as body size and apparent ancestry. All the same, there is no shortage of anecdotal reports, most of them offered by seasoned shelter workers, insisting that black dog bias is a legitimate phenomenon. How can we sort through this conflicting information? Perhaps the stigma imparted by black fur isn’t uniformly distributed across geographic or demographic borders. Maybe black dogs aren’t an issue at the shelter where you are headed to find your next companion. Maybe at your shelter, it’s brindle dogs and tortoiseshell cats that turn into long-term inmates. This isn’t difficult to find out—just ask the kennel attendants. They’ll know the shelter residents better than anyone. If there is a type of pet who is always left behind, who’s stuck in jail while the others move along, don’t you want to know about it before you make your choice?

Dr M.S. Regan