Posted on October 24, 2011

Are Black Dogs Less Lovable?

Psychology Today, October 21, 2011

People who are associated with the dog adoption world often worry about what they call the “Big Black Dog Syndrome”. It is based upon their observation that dogs that are large and black, especially Labrador retrievers, shepherd mixes, pit bulls, and Rottweilers are passed over time after time in favor of smaller, lighter colored dogs when it comes to adoptions.

There has been speculation that the reason black dogs have are being rejected is part of the fabric of our cultural heritage. In ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies, black dogs are often associated with death and the supernatural. They are emissaries of evil and in the folklore of Britain and Europe these demonic black hounds can be found hovering around the border spaces between this world and the next, such as graveyards and places where violence has occurred. {snip}

People who work with dog adoption groups argue that these negative ideas hovering in the back of our minds have become a stereotype which is supported by the idea of black dogs unleashing destruction as is often seen in movies, books and television shows. Thus potential pet owners mistakenly assume all black dogs are mean and aggressive, and having such an animal may lead people to believe that the owner has the same negative characteristics that are associated with big black dogs.

Although, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, this problem is not tracked nationally and local shelters keep only limited records on the size, breed, and color of the dogs that are adopted or put down, the problem has become apparent to shelter workers as they see what appears to be a reoccurring pattern where big black dogs do not get adopted.

{snip} Thus I thought that it might be worthwhile to check to see if people really do have a negative attitude toward black dogs.

The idea was to get people to express their feelings toward dogs which differ only in color. {snip} I tested a total of 60 individuals.

The target breed was Labrador Retrievers since they come in three colors, black, brown, and yellow. I used three photos of the dog’s heads (one in each color) against similar backgrounds and in similar poses, each with its mouth closed. There were also three standing photos, one of each breed. {snip}

The dog pictures were presented on a computer screen in mixed order. For each picture the observer was asked four questions, namely how much they liked the look of the dog, how friendly they thought it was, how good it would be as a family pet, and how likely it would be for the dog to be aggressive. Answers were on a scale from 1 to 7. {snip}

If these observations of shelter workers are correct, we would expect the attitudes toward black dogs to be more negative. This is exactly what was found. The observers seem to think that black dogs don’t look as good, are less friendly, and are less likely to make a good pet then either the brown or the yellow dogs. Even more importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the black dogs are seen as being possibly more aggressive than either the brown or yellow dogs. {snip}

The differences between brown and yellow dogs are not as large, but in all cases seems to favor the yellow dogs as being more desirable. All of these differences (except for “Good Pet”) are also statistically significant.