New Mexico's Pet ResourceFALL 2006

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BIG BLACK DOG SYNDROME
by Nancy Marano

Cosby

Day after day, Jake, a black Lab mix with gray muzzle hair, waited in his kennel at the Albuquerque Animal Care Center. The people who walked past barely glanced in him, as they moved on to other luckier dogs. Volunteers who exercised and played with Jake knew he had a great personality, but no one wanted him. Jake’s time was running out when one of the volunteers adopted him.

Jake blossomed into a friendly, loving dog who now goes on class visits as part of the Animal Care Center’s humane education program. The children love him and, judging from his vigorous tail wagging, Jake returns the affection.

Why did people pass him up? Could it have been that his gray hair made him look older than he was? Jake was only about three years old at the time. Or was he a victim of BBDS, big black dog syndrome, a problem almost every animal shelter understands.

BIG BLACK DOGS – THE PROBLEM

Did you know that black dogs, especially big black dogs, such as Labs and Lab mixes, Rottweilers, Chows, or Newfoundlands, are usually the last ones to be adopted from shelters or rescue groups? Black dogs, and cats too, are euthanized at a higher rate than other animals.

This phenomenon is so common it even has a name: big black dog syndrome.

Here are some of the theories given for why black-coated dogs don’t get adopted more easily.

They don’t show up well in a kennel. It isn’t easy to distinguish their features, and, if they have any gray or white hairs on their face, they often appear older than they are. Joanne Anderson, a shelter volunteer and rescuer in Babylon, Long Island, who also writes a weekly pet column for the Babylon Beacon, The Amityyille Record and The Massapequa Post, says, “Black dogs do not show up behind the bars or wires of a cage. People walk right by them and do not even notice they are there.”

Superstitions give black dogs bad press. In European and British folklore black dogs often appear as evil forces portending death to those who see them. Writers like Sir Walter Scott and Arthur Conan Doyle perpetuated these superstitions by using spectral hounds, usually black and fearsome, in their stories and poems. These tales may pass into people’s beliefs subconsciously.

“There may be a subliminal suggestion that “black is evil” like the symbolism of Scar vs. Mufasa in “The Lion King,” Anderson says. “When the shelter has a golden retriever mix and a flat-coated retriever mix, basically the same dogs, the light-colored dog will usually be adopted before the dark one.”

People fear them. Terry Albert, a California artist who has worked with several Lab rescue groups, says that from her experience black dogs are more difficult to place. “I currently pet sit for a black Giant Schnauzer. He scares people to death even though he’s very friendly. People shy away from him on the street.” The same is true for black Labs. “People never say they are afraid of black, but sometimes body language tells you. They stop, stiffen up, lean back a little, get a look of concern on their faces or grab their children. Meeting a big black dog at the door is very intimidating, especially when the dog is excited and barking. Maybe it’s harder to read a black dog’s expression.”

Melanie Coronetz, a freelance writer in New York City, had similar experiences. Zorra was a stray rescued from the streets of Harlem. When Coronetz first met her, she realized Zorra was showing her teeth because she was frightened. Coronetz already had Skipperkees so she was accustomed to black dogs. “I think teeth on black dogs look whiter and more menacing than on other colored dogs. People who are not naturally drawn to dogs may feel a bit frightened. A dog’s size and the misguided reputations of certain breeds are also factors,” she says.

There is an overabundance of black or black and tan dogs so people don’t pay attention to them.

Black dogs aren’t photogenic. This makes a difference for shelters that put pictures of animals awaiting adoption in the newspaper. Black dogs may have expressive eyes, but they don’t show up in pictures.

WHO COULD RESIST THIS DOG?

Shelters need to get creative in showcasing black dogs. Many use gimmicks to draw attention to wonderful BBD’s. Anderson, a shelter worker who has photographed animals for 23 years, learned many tricks on how to present black dogs to the best advantage.

Accessorize, accessorize! A colorful hat or scarf on the dog helps to break up all that solid black in a photo. Blue scarves or red devil ears at Halloween help get people’s attention. A ball in the dog’s mouth or a tongue hanging out is good, but a dog who is eating or barking looks vicious. Profile shots are better than full face, and light backgrounds show the dog off well.

The name’s the thing. Creative names on black dog kennels make people stop to notice the name and look at the dog. One animal shelter volunteer started naming black cats Jellybean. People began noticing the cats with that name and adopting them. “Jellybean allowed some humans to see beyond a dark, midnight coat into the rainbow of riches in a cat’s heart,” she says.

The power of one. Take black dogs out of the cages, according to Sloan Cunningham, former Adoptions Supervisor at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society. “Don’t cluster them together in a line of kennels. Put them in better-lighted, more accessible kennels, intersperse them with other colored dogs and make their kennels friendly looking with beds and toys. A trick or polite “Sit” will make them more adoptable. It’s good to have up-beat, positive write-ups of them on their kennels,” she says.

Ready for my close-up. Anderson emphasizes that people often can’t see the beauty of the dog beneath the curls and mats in their hair. Grooming ends that problem and makes people realize how beautiful the dog is.

BLACK PEARLS

Tamara Delaney has taken the plight of BBD’s one step further. After trying to find a home for a black Lab mix, who languished at a rescue group for three years, Delaney set up a website devoted entirely to BBD’s. Her site, Contrary to Ordinary: The Black Pearls of the Dog World (www.blackpearldogs.com), acts as a clearinghouse for shelters and rescue groups by placing pictures and stories of their black dogs on the website.

The next time you visit a shelter or rescue group pay special attention to the beautiful black dogs and cats waiting to be noticed. Give them a chance to find their way into your heart and home.


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