When Kevin and I lived in Philadelphia taking Gryffin to the dog park was a staple of our day. We met lots of dogs (people, too, of course), but one pup stands out in my mind for her sheer beauty. Athena was a Rottweiler, regal in stature and longer and leaner than the breed standard. Her coat – glossy black fur patched with gold – wrapped pure muscle.
I thought about Athena when I read an article in Tennessee’s Johnson City Press about a prejudice many people have against large black dogs. This prejudice keeps black dogs from being adopted from shelters, leading to high euthanasia rates. The director of the Washington County/Johnson City Animal Shelter told the paper that during times of overcrowding black dogs are first to be killed, because they are less likely to be adopted than their lighter-colored contemporaries. “People walk past (the black dogs) and don’t even really see them and don’t look at the personality,” she said. “A lot of people think the large black dog … might be menacing. It might be a threat.”
There’s a name for this phenomenon: Big Black Dog Syndrome.
I admit to being a little stunned. I find black dogs beautiful – and also, sensible. (As someone who wears so much black that I’ve had college students ask me if my wardrobe includes any other color, it would be a pleasure to own a dog whose fur didn’t mar my clothes as Gryffin’s did and Galen’s does.) But apparently, there are those who don’t share my sensibility or my eye for beauty.
Anthropologist Amanda Leonard is the founder of The Black Dog Research Studio and writes about Big Black Dog Syndrome (BBDS), which she defines as “the extreme under-adoption of large black dogs based not on temperament or health, but rather on the confluence of a number of physical and environmental factors such as size, color, the kennel environment, the “genericness” of black dogs, and the Western symbolism of black as representative of evil.” Lest anyone think this is farce, she cites a representative from the Humane Society of the United States who, in 2011, told MSNBC that BBDS “is not a hoax… it is something commonly accepted by shelter workers as truth.”
Recently Petfinder added numbers to the anecdotes. A survey of its affiliated shelters and rescue groups found that most pets are listed on Petfinder’s website for 12.5 weeks, but less adoptable dogs, which include senior, special needs and black dogs, spend up to four times as long. And interestingly, BBDS is not breed specific — Labrador Retrievers, Chows, Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, German Shepherds, Newfoundlands and mixes of these breeds are shunned equally.
There is hope that today’s discrimination against big black dogs won’t be tomorrow’s. That’s because Leonard has found that much of the prejudice is unconscious. Once people are made aware of it, she writes, most move past it. There are also simple strategies shelters can employ to make black dogs appear less intimidating, like putting a bright-colored bandana on a black dog, and not grouping black dogs together, instead putting them in runs beside lighter-colored canines.
In the 1960s, a group of African-American artists, musicians and writers launched a cultural movement called Black is Beautiful to challenge European aesthetics of beauty and to dispel notions that blackness in skin color, facial features and hair is inherently ugly. Animal welfare advocates should embrace this mantra as well.
Black is Beautiful… on people and dogs.