Note: To be read with a Syl Johnson soundtrack (click above).
Black dog discrimination (a.k.a Black Dog Syndrome or BDS), a phenomenon that has historically made black dogs the most difficult of shelter animals to adopt out, is becoming a thing of the past, according to Jan McHugh-Smith, president of the San Francisco SPCA and PetPoint, a web-based animal management program.
In 2007, PetPoint collected data from more than 700 adoption agencies, totaling approximately 380,000 adoptions, and discovered that although black animals do take longer to be placed with adoptive families than other groups, the difference for black dogs amounts to little more than a day. And happily, all of the black dogs in the data pool eventually found homes.
Betsy Saul, co-founder of PetFinder, agrees that there is no longer a significant difference, at least in the more progressive shelters, for the time it takes black dogs to be adopted. But this delay can still have hugely negative consequences for the animals. "A one-day difference may not seem like a lot, but if it happens to be the seventh day, in some shelters that black dog could be euthanized."
Generally speaking, Saul says BDS tends to have a greater impact on BIG black dogs (BBDS). "And it isn't so much about people being afraid of them," she says. "It's 'Can you see me?' With the little, white fluffy dogs, BAMO! They're right there. The black ones just blend in to the background."
This prejudice can also apply to cats, although McHugh-Smith notes that many potential cat parents come in with a specific color of cat in mind, be it orange or black or calico. "For us, dogs are pretty easy, regardless of their color" says McHugh-Smith. "We have three cats for every dog in our shelter, so we tend to focus on creative ways to help our cats find homes," she says. For example, in October, the SF SPCA launched a "black cats are lucky" campaign to help debunk the old "cross-your-path" wive's tale. (For all you cultural trivia geeks out there, seeing a black cat in Scotland and Japan is actually considered good luck.) The Marin Humane Society recently gave all of its black cats names like Crayola, Rainbow and Sienna as part of its "Black Cats Have Colorful Personalities" promotion.
A number of factors have contributed to BDS over the years, beginning with visibility (in photographs the faces and features of black animals can be difficult to distinguish, especially when contrasted against the reflection of a camera flash off metal bars) and the stigma attached to some canine breeds like Rottweillers.
In British folklore, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (best known for his creation of detective Sherlock Holmes) and Sir Walter Scott both depict the black dog as a creepy, spectral figure that haunts cemeteries and is an omen of death. More recently, Harry Potter is stalked by a big black dog called "the Grim" in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." And Winston Churchill was known to battle serious bouts of depression that he referred to as "the black dog."
Knowledge of these biases has motivated many shelter workers and volunteers to put extra energy into getting their black dogs and cats noticed, including targeted adoption campaigns, tying bandanas or ribbons around their necks and placing brightly colored blankets and toys in their living areas. Saul largely attributes the dwindling discrimination against black dogs to these efforts. "We are at the mid-point of positive change, she says. "But we need to stay vigilant about this issue for the change to continue."
Both McHugh-Smith and Saul recommend photographing adoptable black dogs and cats in well-lit places outside of the shelter whenever possible. Posting videos (a feature PetFinder offers; check out black boxer-pit mix Hayden's video here) is also a sure way to help communicate a large black dog's gentle demeanor and playful personality to a potential adopter.
Saul adds that some shelters strategically place PVC pipes at the front of their dog kennels to allow visitors to offer sanctioned treats to the animals. The dogs quickly learn to associate new visitors with F-O-O-D and automatically come to the front of their kennels whenever a new person walks by. "What a great way to market themselves with a good sit right where everyone can see them," says Saul.
Do you have a black dog or cat? What influenced your decision to take him or her home? Or maybe you recently passed up a black animal in a shelter for a whiter, fluffier version? Share your stories.
December 08 2008 at 08:12 AM|