What Is Black Dog Syndrome?

Black Lab dog with head tilt

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Black dog syndrome, also known as BDS, is a phenomenon in pet adoption in which black dogs are ignored in favor of light-colored ones. Observed by shelters and rescue groups across the world, BDS is an issue negatively affecting the adoption rates of black pets. The reason behind the phenomenon is unclear.

Adopters might pass by black dogs because of a fear stigma against certain breed types—like pit bulls, for instance. Movies and television shows often portray big, black dogs as aggressive and intimidating, which could also convince potential adopters to avoid them. Some believe it could come down to how photogenic dogs are. Notoriously, black dogs do not photograph well. Lighter-colored dogs, on the other hand, do. When shelters or rescues photograph their adoptable animals to post on their website or on social media, lighter-colored dogs may have the upper hand.

Origins and History

The BDS phenomenon has been studied for decades, gaining media attention since the 2000s when activists began publicly addressing the issue. Historically speaking, black dog syndrome can be traced back ages.

In mythology and folklore, black dogs are regularly portrayed as guardians of the underworld. They’re also represented as bad omens in general. Those stories date back hundreds of years and they may creep into adopters’ minds when they are perusing the shelter. And some people believe black dog syndrome may be due to potential adopters associating the color black with evil.

Other theories as to why BDS exists include the fact that black or dark coats are less noticeable and that black dogs simply don’t photograph well and, as a result, they don’t always attract adopters. In addition to a fear stigma against certain breeds that are often portrayed as aggressive, geographic location may also play into BDS.

Black cats are in a similar situation and are often subject to the same phenomenon, also known as black cat syndrome. Some believe black cats are in a tougher position due to the added stigma of superstition and their association with witchcraft, which could deter potential owners.

Impact

Shelter workers across the globe say they have witnessed black dog syndrome in action first-hand. Due to the phenomenon, larger, black dog breeds tend to stay at the shelter significantly longer than smaller, lighter-colored dogs. Many black dogs even get euthanized as a result.

While some believe it’s genuinely tougher for black dogs to find their forever families, science has not proven or disproven the theory. There are several studies that contradict themselves.

In a 2011 study by the ASPCA, appearance was the most frequently cited reason for those adopting a canine. A study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science in 2002 found that black coat colors negatively influenced adoption rates for both dogs and cats. Researchers said adoption rates were much lower in pure-black animals.

Other scientific studies seem to contradict these results, like one looking at how long dogs remained in two New York shelters in 2013. That study determined that coat color had no effect on their length of stay, and noted that black dog syndrome may only take effect in certain areas of the world, possibly due to cultural differences.

While it’s difficult to determine whether or not BDS is a reality in shelters, animal-lovers can agree that it’s an unwelcome phenomenon.

How to Help

Black dogs are no different than dogs of other colors. They act the same, provide the same amount of love, and give just as many kisses. If you want to help reduce the impacts of black dog syndrome, adopting one is the perfect solution. 

Adopting a black dog is a surefire way for you to help black dogs find forever homes. Head to your local shelter or hop onto a site like PetFinder to find your new furry friend. You can also look at rescue associations, who often take in black dogs, and even rescues specific to black dogs. Rescuing a black dog from a shelter or rescue will make room for more animals who are ready to be saved. Bonus? You will have a brand new pup to call your own.

If you’re in no place to get a dog of your own, consider donating to local shelters or rescues to help support their operations and perhaps give a black dog more hope. You can also volunteer your time to support local shelters. Often, shelters will have volunteer opportunities to walk, play with, or even just relax with dogs. Volunteering is a great way to positively influence a dog’s life without spending the big bucks or making a life-changing commitment.You can also make a difference in a black shelter animal’s life by sharing your thoughts on the issue with friends, family, and community members. Encourage them to adopt a black dog or cat and be sure to share photos of adoptable pets on your website or social media channels to give them a boost. Word-of-mouth makes a surprisingly big impact.