Op-Ed

'Black Dog Syndrome': Don’t judge a pooch by his color

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It’s not easy being a black dog at the pound.

“We don’t discriminate against dogs based on their color, so we don’t automatically place those dogs in a non-adoptable category,” said Dianne Sauve, the director of Palm Beach County’s Animal Care and Control.“But there are times we end up with lots of black dogs.”

The idea that people discriminate against black dogs might sound novel, but it’s an observable phenomenon among dog shelter professionals.

“I don’t know what it is,” Sauve said.“So we try not to put them all together. And we work with them to teach them to sit. You’ve got to market the black dog’s attributes and talents. I’ve seen a group of Chihuahuas go in and the last one to go is the black one.

“I just don’t get it.”

It’s called The Black Dog Syndrome, and the reasons cited have varied from would-be owners being worried that black dogs would shed too noticeably, get too hot, or look older than they are. Others say that facial features, a real selling point for a pound animal, are too obscured in black dogs.

Or maybe it’s something deeper and harder to explain. The subject of the bias against black dogs was recently featured on Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Dish. One reader responded that he has a small white dog and a large black dog.

When walking both his shelter-adopted mutts in his neighborhood, he has noticed this: Small children refer to them not by their colors, but as the small dog and the big dog. But teenagers and adults differentiate them as the white dog and the black dog, even though their size difference is dramatic.

And although both dogs are female, most people refer to the little white dog as a she, but the big black dog as a he, even though it’s wearing a pink collar.

“My neighborhood is fairly diverse, but regardless of the ethnicity of the person we meet, she is always the Black Dog,” he wrote.“It makes me a little sad, not just because it happens, but because it is apparently such a widespread bias.”

Last year, psychologists at Penn State University conducted a study to explore this.

The researchers recruited 65 participants to look at pictures of cats and dogs in multiple breeds and colors, and then asked the participants about their judgments on how well-suited each animal would be for a pet.

In both cats and dogs, black animals were ranked at the bottom for friendliness and adoptability. And black dogs were imagined as more aggressive than dogs of other colors.

Fred Levy is a professional photographer from Massachusetts who started The Black Dogs Project as a way to promote the often-overlooked beauty of black dogs.

Levy used social media to find people who would be willing to allow him to photograph portraits of their black dogs in his basement studio, and then he published the portraits online.

“Everyone who owns one says it’s hard to get a good photo of their dog,” Levy said.“I wanted to give myself a challenge.”

Levy learned of the struggle black dogs have in being adopted while taking his own multi-colored dog to a local dog park. Since then, he has shot portraits of about 75 black dogs, he said.

He photographs them on a black background as an extra challenge.

You can see some of his dog portraits online at caninenoir.tumblr.com/

“My hope is to let people know that this is definitely an issue,” Levy said.“When they go to look for their first dog, maybe it’s something they'll keep in mind.”

Frank Cerabino writes for The Palm Beach Post.

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