The Bias Against Black Dogs

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 7 2014 @ 10:01am

A sad fact:

Black dogs get euthanized at higher rates. They linger at pounds and adoption agencies for black-dogslonger than light-colored dogs, and they are less likely to find a home. Marika Bell, director of behavior and rehoming for the Humane Society of Washington, D.C., says the organization has been tracking animals that have stayed at their shelters the longest since March 2013. They found that three characteristics put a pet at risk of becoming one of these so-called “hidden gems”: medium size, an age of 2-3 years, and an ebony coat.

What kind of nefarious psychological quirk would prevent someone from adopting a dog based on fur color?

Animal welfare experts believe the discrimination arises from a pack of factors. The mythology around black dogs is grim. (The Grim, from Harry Potter, is a “large, black, spectral dog that haunts churchyards” and augurs death.) A 2013 study by Penn State psychologists revealed that people find images of black dogs scarier than photos of yellow or brown dogs—respondents rated the dark-furred animals less adoptable, less friendly, and more intimidating. And while the association between obsidian and evil is more explicit for cats, dogs have to contend with a culture, post-Samuel Johnson and Winston Churchill, that symbolizes depression as a coal-colored hound.

Update from a reader:

Maybe people are swayed by mythology against adopting black dogs, but I’ve always felt like there was a much simpler explanation.  This is a picture of my two dogs (well, sadly, the yellow one is no longer with us):

December 21 008 2

Who did you notice first? Who do you spend more time looking at?  The yellow one.  It’s true of every single picture I have of the two of them together.  The lighter-colored dog, even when she’s off to the side of the picture, is the one who becomes the focal point – to the point where frequently people don’t even notice that the black dog is even there until he’s pointed out.

The fact is is that the human eye is kind of lazy.  We’re drawn to lighter-colored objects that aren’t as difficult to focus on, where the contours are easier to make out and the features easier to identify.  It’s not necessarily prejudice; it’s an unfortunate quirk of biology.  And it’s not just our eyes; cameras have difficulty with dark subjects as well.  So, when it comes to a web page filled with pictures of dogs in need of adopting, it’s easy for your eye to just skim right over the black lab mix and on to the yellow hound mix or the white greyhound.  When you go to visit the shelter, you’re more likely to notice the light-colored dog than the dark colored one, and so you’re more likely to take the light-colored dog home.

Still, I support promoting awareness of the phenomenon, because there are a lot of awesome black dogs out there who need homes.  It was my husband who spotted our black dog on the web page of the same rescue we had gotten the yellow one from.  He had languished in foster care for quite a while, despite being young and healthy.  He’s been with us for almost six years and he is one of the best dogs I have ever had in my life.  It’s a shame to think that the laziness of the human eye could have prevented him from coming to live with us.

(Image via Petfinder. Shena, an adult pit bull mix, is available for adoption from Rebound Hounds Res-Q in New York)