BBDS: Big Black Dog Syndrome

Is Color Bias A Real Shelter Phenomenon?

By Kasey Maguire

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Growing up my family always had a dog in the house, if not two. Throw in a cat, and for a brief period, a Vietnamese pot belly pig, and you can see that pets were sort of a thing for us. When one would inevitably pass away we would get another, especially when it came to dogs. Labs were our breed of choice, yellow or chocolate but never, ever a black Lab. Looking back, I can’t say this was for any particular reason other than that no one in the family wanted a black dog. It’s a bit strange. A dog is basically a dog, no matter the color. Hell, I am currently the owner of one amazingly loveable, very friendly black dog; a big one at that.

So what gives? Why, didn’t any one of my pet-loving family members, extended included, ever own a black dog?  Why, according to some surveys and animal shelter workers are black dogs the least likely to be adopted? This happens with such regularity that there is even a name for the phenomenon: black dog syndrome, or in shelter lingo, simply BDS or BBDS — big black dog syndrome. The theory goes that if you happen to be a black dog, or even worse, a big black dog, the chances of you getting adopted are far slimmer than if you were a fairer-coated dog. Some shelters even train the black dogs in their care to do special tricks, give them backstories and ensure that they are well-trained to make them more appealing. But sadly, more often than not, it’s all to no avail.

What, exactly is the reason for this, and what, if anything can be done? But before we go theory diving let me disclaim that there are those that argue that BDS simply isn’t a thing at all. That it’s all, for brevity’s sake, made up. Think what you will, draw your own conclusions, but for this dog-lover, BDS is very much a thing. Hello people, there’s a reason why rottweilers, Dobermans and Bouviers make fabulous guard dogs; sure they are protective and fearless but they can also be scary as hell. Shit, my very own big black dog doesn’t even like other big black dogs. But more on that later.

The simplest explanation for BDS is that there are just more black dogs out there and so therefore there are more unadopted black dogs. Sure, that’s sensible, even wonderfully logical but possibly not the whole story. Another suggested explanation is what I call the superstition seep. Black cat superstitions abound. In practically every culture there is something ‘special’ about black cats and since cats and dogs are basically the same what goes for one, obviously goes for the other. Pffff, now this is terrible, wholly-unsound logic, but when has logic ever been something the superstitious were concerned with? Unsound as it may be, this might account for why people don’t jump at the chance to buy or adopt black dogs. But again, I’m not entirely convinced.

woman and doberman on the beach

Is it a cultural thing? I mean I’m 35 and I’m still afraid of the dark. That’s right, I do not like black-out, still-of-the-night dark. You know monsters and ghosts and all of that. I can’t recall a movie or story where the bad guys dress in pastels and the good guys in stark, foreboding colors. You can’t either, so don’t try, and if you do, don’t tell me, I don’t want to look bad. Black is evil, white is innocent, it’s as simple as that. Well it’s not really, but at some basic level it is.

Take my dog for example. As a Bernese mountain dog, she qualifies as a big black dog, albeit with some orange and white markings. Definitely 85% black. In any case, she’s the friendliest dog there ever was, happy to meet any animal, whether bi or quadrupedal; except, that is, when she sees another big black dog. While she doesn’t run away, she slows her walk and hides behind my legs, sometimes coming to a halt until the dog passes by, at which point, they sniff each other and she realizes all is well. Hello, dog, you are both big and black! What makes you wary of your own kind?

Well, there is the fact that when it is dark, my dog, you, your dog, or whoever, can’t really see black dogs, big or otherwise. But more than this, and possibly the best explanation for BDS, is because it can be hard to distinguish facial emotions on black dogs.

A dog’s facial expressions are largely told through their eyebrows and on black dogs it’s often difficult to discern the eyebrows from the rest of the face. Same goes with their eyes, which are often black or dark brown. All of this makes it harder to anthropomorphize black dogs. Which is to say we like, even love, our dogs for several reasons, not least of which is because we attribute a certain humanness to them that makes them feel like our very own furbabies (aka our children) and best friends.

It’s why you have conversations with your dog and even take their advice. When they tilt their heads, furrow their brows or give you those heart-melting puppy dog eyes you feel you know them, I mean truly know them, and perhaps you do. The point is that with black dogs it can be hard to read their cues because their facial expressions or eyes don’t pop out. This potential best friend is suddenly difficult to relate to, they don’t seem to get you or you don’t understand what they are trying to say to you. None of this is true of course. They are just as relatable as light-colored dogs, it just takes a touch more time and some mutual understanding to get there.

I think I’ve stated my case strongly enough that we can all agree that BDS is something that does in fact exist. As NBC’s PSA announcements of yesteryear remind us, “The More You Know”…So now you know that BDS is a thing. Now you know you that it’s something you can do something about. Now you know that black dogs need love, give love and are downright loveable just like any other dog. Let’s not let the stuff of our Stranger Things nightmares get in the way of adopting dogs based on the color of their coats. We’re better than that; or at least we can be.