Strap line

It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...

Monday, 12 August 2013

Black Dog Syndrome: A Bad Rap?

Hi Mia & Julie –

Firstly, thanks so much for letting me drop a verse in the rap song of your blog! I feel so awesome being featured. It’s like being Lil Wayne or something. Anyway…

I’m just recently back from ISAZ 2013, where I had a most excellent time chatting with other anthrozoologist-y types. 

As you know, I just graduated from the Anthrozoology Master’s Program at Canisius College, so I was uber-excited to have a chance to share my research with colleagues in the field. ISAZ did not disappoint. 

Pauleen Bennett & Heather at ISAZ 2013
Now I get to share with you two and it just gets better and better! :-)

My master’s thesis research project (advised by the oh-so-awesome Christy Hoffman) looked to answer the question: “Does Black Dog Syndrome Exist?

Animal welfare folks are probably familiar with the concept of Black Dog Syndrome (BDS) that Julie introduced last week: it’s the idea that dogs with black coats have a harder time than other dogs getting adopted, and as a result, may face higher rates of euthanasia and longer stays in adoption programs


Popular media - but is it correct?
A lot of popular media articles focus on this concept (like here, here, here and here) but the research results have been mixed: in a study published earlier this year, participants rated an image of a black dog as significantly less agreeable, less conscientious, and less emotionally stable than a yellow dog (Fratkin & Baker, 2013). Yet research into factors influencing shelter dogs’ lengths of stay (LOS) found that LOS was not significantly correlated with coat color (Brown, Davidson, & Zuefle, 2013; Protopopova, Gilmour, Weiss, Shen, & Wynne, 2012).

To dig deeper into the questions of whether potential adopters discriminate against black dogs in a shelter and whether black dog discrimination is reflected in shelter stats, I conducted a two-part research project:

Shelter Visitor Pilot Study – examined interaction between potential adopters and shelter dogs

Shelter Data Analysis Study – investigated relationships between LOS and coat color, age, sex and breed, as well as the impact of these variables on likelihood of euthanasia

And what I found may surprise you.
There was very little evidence to support the concept of Black Dog Syndrome!

From Heather's ISAZ 2013 poster

I know animal shelter workers are going “WHAT!?” right now – I know because I AM a shelter worker – but the truth is, even if many potential adopters come to the shelter with a negative bias toward black dogs, it’s not resulting in crazy-long shelter stays or greater risk of euthanasia for black dogs. In fact, according to analysis of shelter statistics, black dogs were adopted out faster than average at both shelters in my study. Black dogs were also less likely than expected to be euthanized (good news for black dogs, eh?).

When shelter visitors video-recorded their walk through the adoption area, I found that they spent about equal amounts of time looking at every dog, regardless of coat color. Visitors also rarely made specific comments with regards to coat color, although one guy did say: “I like black. Black dogs are cute.” Interactions like petting or feeding dogs also occurred as frequently between visitors and black dogs compared to dogs of other coat colors.

Still, I can’t deny that a few different studies show that people rate images of black dogs more negatively than other colored dogs. That being so, can I really say there’s no such thing as Black Dog Syndrome? Well, I think there’s evidence for a negative bias against black coats when viewing still images of dogs of different coat colors. However, this bias just isn’t impacting the adoption rates or in-person interactions with black shelter dogs. Granted, my video study sample was very small – it was a pilot study, after all – but the shelter stats were quite clear (and my sample there included 16,000+ individual dogs).

So, yes, I’m saying Black Dog Syndrome ain’t no thang. Like, really, it’s not a thing. 

But I certainly am open to the idea of a Black Dog Bias, and I think that’s the next step for this type of research – teasing out whether preconceptions are truly influencing adoption decisions. 

My head’s swimming with ideas about how to do this and if anyone is working/has worked on this kind of research, I’d love to hear from them!

Thank you ladies for giving me the mic.
Now picture me dropping it on the floor without a care. 
Svo. Out.


No really, you two are super RAD. Keep doin’ what you’re doin’! 
And thank you for letting me be a part of it.

Heather Svoboda, MSc
Communications & Development Manager, Cat Adoption Team

Further reading:
Brown W.P., Davidson J.P. & Zuefle M.E. (2013). Effects of Phenotypic Characteristics on the Length of Stay of Dogs at Two No Kill Animal Shelters, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16 (1) 2-18. DOI:

Fratkin J.L. & Baker S.C. (2013). The Role of Coat Color and Ear Shape on the Perception of Personality in Dogs, Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 26 (1) 125-133. DOI:

Protopopova A., Gilmour A.J., Weiss R.H., Shen J.Y. & Wynne C.D.L. (2012). The effects of social training and other factors on adoption success of shelter dogs, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 142 (1-2) 61-68. DOI:

Svoboda, H.J. & Hoffman, C. (2013). A novel empirical test of Black Dog Syndrome. Poster. International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) Conference. July 18-19, Chicago, USA.

© 2013 Do You Believe in Dog?