Black Dog Syndrome


Aww, cute. Which one do you want?

(I can tell what most of you will say.) 

lab puppies .jpg

“Just when you were hoping there were no new ways to be racist, it turns out people may be racist against dogs.”

Wait, what? Do we discriminate against dogs? No. I mean, they are all cute—I’m just drawn to the white ones. Aren’t you? Wait, what does that even mean?

If you are not involved in animal rescue, you may be surprised to learn that black dogs are notoriously hard to adopt out. Shelter officials have dubbed it Black Dog Syndrome — black-coated dogs are overlooked in favor of lighter-colored dogs and are more likely to be euthanized. I often see and hear things like this:

 We had a litter of very cute, very fluffy puppies, three yellow and three black. And the yellow ones all went immediately, but for the black ones it took weeks.”

Where the average adoption time for light colored dogs is weeks, black dogs can linger for months. I have seen this play out in my own foster population. Black dogs just take longer to find homes. I consider this when I choose which dogs to foster. I know that I can adopt out lighter dogs faster, and maybe save more. I also know that the black dogs are more likely to be put to sleep – they are more urgent.  

“In a survey, Petfinder member shelter and rescue groups reported that most pets are listed for 12.5 weeks on Petfinder, whereas, less-adoptable pets (such as black, senior, and special needs pets) spend almost four times as long on Petfinder. “

What’s behind the aversion that shelters call Black Dog Syndrome?  Why do most of us automatically have a preference for the light colored puppies above? Is it just aesthetics? It turns out there are definite stereotypes concerning black dogs and we have color bias. White is seen as goodness/purity, while black is often seen as evil/negative. Do we associate black dogs with evil or misfortune similar to the superstitions surrounding black cats? It’s not as obvious, but it seems we do. One study showed people pictures of the same dogs with digitally manipulated dark coats or light coats; the same dogs with light coats were thought to be more “agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable.”  

In numerous studies, yellow dogs were considered to be the friendliest, brown dogs the second friendliest, and black dogs the least friendly. Darker colored dogs were deemed less adoptable, and black dogs were considered the most aggressive. There is a general and widespread misperception that black dogs are mean. Is fear the issue? Think about the fact that large, black dogs are often portrayed as aggressive on tv and in films. If you ask someone which dogs are typically aggressive or scary, they are likely to list Dobermans, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, (all black) and Pit Bulls.  (If you ask anyone that works with animals, they will tell you that Chihuahuas and Dachshunds are the most likely to snap at or bite you.)


aggressive .png

*The dogs on this list are sorted in order of lowest to highest percent of dogs that passed the temperament test conducted by the American Temperament Test Society. Breeds with the lowest percentages are ones that frequently showed signs of aggression, panic, or extreme shyness during the test.

*Dog aggression is defined as dangerous behavior directed at another individual, including other animals. This behavior includes barking, biting, lunging, and snarling.

Black dog syndrome upsets me. I did feel more drawn to the light coated puppies above. Knowing about color bias, I feel that I would definitely NOT make a dog adoption choice purely based on color. People do not think color matters much in their decision to adopt a dog. When shelter adopters were asked why they chose their dog, color was actually at the bottom of the list of considerations. Color is not the only inherent bias we have. Adopters are much more influenced by stereotypes of breed.  A jet black Poodle is perceived as more friendly than a light colored Pit bull type dog. 

According to one study, the main considerations when choosing to adopt a dog, in order of importance, were: breed, size, age, history, and then color last. People tend to prefer purebred looking dogs.  Breeds considered aggressive are among the least adopted dogs. Size is a considerable factor in choosing a dog. Big dogs have a harder time finding homes; they seem less manageable. People are looking for a dog that fits into their lifestyle and home space. Age matters, puppies are irresistible to most, but adopters may be looking for an older, calmer, already house-trained dog. History – if provided – is a big consideration. A dog that was stray may be a runner, and not everyone is ready to take on an escape artist.

Only after all of these other factors did study participants admit to choosing dogs based on color.  I don’t believe we realize that we have such strong color bias. That is why we self-report it as the last consideration on the list. Many people feel uncomfortable with it, I know I did at first. I don’t want to be dog racist.

Besides, people like what they like. What about the 101 Dalmatians effect? Remember the scene in the park where each person so closely resembles the dog they are walking? There is actually something to that. Some studies suggest that we chose dogs that bear some resemblance to our own appearance.  Data confirms that owners and their dogs tend to look-alike.

101 dalmations effect.jpg

There are so many factors involved in choosing a dog to adopt, so what else might explain why black dogs are being overlooked?

If the shelter has a large number of black dogs and 2 or 3 light dogs, people will notice the light dogs first. Maybe there are many more black dogs in the shelters than any other color and the selection bias is toward the unusual?

Shelters need to get black dogs noticed. It really helps to have good photographs of the dogs available for adoption. That can help get potential adopters in the door. There is some anecdotal evidence that good photography, photos that show off a dog’s personality, increase adoption rates. I firmly believe that a good photo can get a dog adopted. That is why I am following my fosters around with a camera everyday, trying to get that one great shot that will make some total stranger fall in love with this one dog. It works. 

Here’s a big problem with black dogs. They are significantly harder to photograph. Lighter-colored dogs clearly have an advantage with potential adopters. Why? Most photos won’t show the black dog’s personality as easily as a lighter colored animal. Black dogs appear less expressive. Facial features are not as easy to distinguish, you can’t see their eyes very well, their eyebrows disappear. Adopters get attached to dogs when they can read their facial expressions, and on black dogs those are harder to make out.  It becomes harder to humanize them and connect with them on an emotional level.

I have done a bit of research, and there are many good tips for photographing black dogs:

Black Dog Photography Tips

What you can do? 

If you are reading this and feel concerned that black dogs are being treated unfairly, please, speak up to change people’s perception of black-colored dogs.  Whether or not you’re currently looking to adopt, you can do a lot to help pets who suffer from Black Dog Syndrome. Encourage others to look past their first impressions of a black dog. Tell them about Black Dog Syndrome; it’s generally an unconscious prejudice and most people will move past it once they’re aware of it. The best way to avoid black dog bias is to remember that each dog is a unique individual, and their coat color or breed are as meaningless as ear size and eye color when it comes to the personality and behavior of a dog.


There are so many reasons to Adopt a Black Dog:

-They never look dirty

-They make you look thinner

-Black dogs in animal shelters are adopted less and are consequently euthanized more often than lighter color breeds 

-They are no different than any other color of dog