MAGGIE: the dog who changed my life

MAGGIE: the dog who changed my life
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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Black Dog Syndrome: Dog Discrimination?

In Honor of Maggie and Maddie, My Beautiful Black Dogs, Past and Present
and all the homeless black dogs and cats everywhere

I'm somewhat amazed I didn't know about this until a few months ago, being the huge dog lover I am, author of a dog book, and a big fan of large black dogs, labs in particular. I've been wanting to post about this -- it's been rolling around in my brain waiting to come out for days. After passing several black dogs on the trail on my hike yesterday with Maddie, and even passing a black bear asleep up in a tree, I decided that "black" was speaking to me and today is the day to write about it. After all, today is Maggie's birthday. It seems appropriate, don't you think?

Having had 2 of my own wonderful black labs: first Maggie, the dog I wrote my book about, who changed my life, and now Maddie, our 4 1/2 year old adopted lab, this subject is near and dear to my heart. Black Dog Syndrome (BDS), that is. I was shocked to learn that black dogs and cats are statistically the least likely to be adopted, passed over consistently more than other color dogs or dogs with markings, and the most likely to be euthanized in shelters, and in very high numbers. Thank God Maddie spoke to me from her website photo, because she came from a "kill" shelter!Articles have already been written in MSNBC, Time Magazine, Bark Magazine and USA Today about the black dog adoptions and euthanasia crisis . Thankfully, there are websites dedicated to educating the animal welfare community and public to recognize and eventually change this phenomenon: and

In a Friday, June 20, 2008 article in TIME titled "Do Black Dogs Face Discrimination?"Hilary Hylton questions, "Is it superstition? Black cats are considered unlucky by some. Is it mythology? Big black dogs have been portrayed as symbols of death in literature and legend, cast as bad guys in movies like The Omen, and even featured in modern stories like the dog Grim in the Harry Potter tales."

But perhaps the reasons for BDS are more practical. Several sources say it is poor lighting in photographs, with harder to read faces. That their eyes don't stand out well. Or that it's difficult seeing them when looking into poorly lit kennels. Black dogs do require special lighting to be well-photographed, so without that they don't show up well in pamphlets, flyers, or on shelter websites. I can speak from experience about how hard they are to photograph. Tom, my husband, learned how to photograph Maggie so that her beautiful, soulful brown eyes stood out. I know I learn to trust people by being able to read their faces. Their eyes in particularly tell me so much. It's important to be able to read dogs and cats, too. So it seems imperative that black dogs and cats are photographed is such a way that their eyes and faces are seen well.
According to TIME, Pam Black Townsend, an SPCA shelter volunteer, says to photograph black dogs outside in indirect light, or Photoshop the pictures to bring out the details.

Singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris says in the TIME article, "I have heard that black is the dominant gene and in general that's why there are so many of them." So are more euthanized simply because there are more black dogs? I think this alone is not the issue given shelter reports.

Hilary Hylton reports that some experts dispute the severity of black dog syndrome. "Kimberley Intino, director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States, cites one study by Pethealth Inc., a pet insurance and animal microchip company, that went through numbers from 679 shelters and found black dogs indeed had longer stays before being adopted — but just by two days on average."But even she felt the anecdotal evidence from shelters reporting seems hard to dispute.

The "Beware of Dog" sign often portrays a big, black dog with bared teeth. Perhaps we can best help black dogs and cats by becoming aware of the old superstitions we harbor unconsciously about black cats (don't let them cross your path) and the old mythology about black dogs.

Melissa Dahl says in a March 5, 2008 MSNBC article that "in British folklore, such as stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Walter Scott, the black dog is a creepy, spectral figure that haunts cemeteries and is an omen of death ... Another Englishman, Winston Churchill, battled serious bouts of depression which he called "the black dog." Maybe it's time to re-program our collective unconscious of the old mythologies.

Another possible reason cited is that even young black dogs might appear older to potential adopters simply because they may have bits of white facial hairs. Just think how hard this makes it for the already difficult to adopt out breeds like Pit Bull., Rottweilers, and Dobermans.

Madeline Bernstein, the Los Angeles SPCA president said in the MSNBC article that " some people turn in their black dogs to the shelters because they've gotten new furniture and don't like the dark fur their pet sheds." Ouch.

Some shelters place brightly colored, eye-catching blankets and toys in the black dog kennels. "At Bernstein's shelters, they tie pink ribbons around the necks of the girls, and fasten big bow ties around the necks of the boys," Dahl reports. Decking out the black dogs and cats with color seems like a great approach, though the dogs may tolerate it better than their feline buddies!

Another solution is to run special discounts on black dogs and cats, as MSNBC reported a shelter in Kettering, Ohio, the Society for the Improvement of Conditions for Stray Animals did.

According to Deb Hipp in her Bark Magazine article titled, "Black Dogs Face a Hard Choice at Shelter," some rescue groups have pleaded on their website home pages, "Please don’t overlook our black dogs.” Another shelter’s website just came right out with: “The general public is not aware of how doomed black dogs are when they are brought to a pound.” I think this is a good idea to just let the public know the truth so people can become aware of their unconscious biases if present and make a conscious choice to support black dogs and cats. I think if more people knew this grim truth, more would adopt black.

Another shelter effort to help showcase black dogs is simply to be sure they don't place multiple black dogs next to each other. "Most black dogs have to rely on shelter staff and volunteers to steer potential adoptors their way," says Hipp. Giving each black cat and dog a superhero nickname and photographing them in costumes is another approach some shelters have used, according to Emily Friedman in her October 9, 2009 ABC article.

How about you? Did you know about Big Black Dog Syndrome? When adopting, please consider a black dog or cat. Remember, BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL! Frankly, I'm very attracted to sleek, shiny black dogs! They may look plain to some folks, but to me they are bursting with personality! They are beautiful and they are the best!

Posted By:

Dawn Kairns
Author of MAGGIE: the dog who changed my life


Anonymous said...

I just recently got a black lab pup and he is my whole world! I love him to death! I too, think black dogs are the best!

Dawn Kairns, Author of MAGGIE the dog who changed my life said...

Congratulations! May you have many happy years together ... Thanks for letting me hear from you.

retriever farm said...

BDS is all to common even in the realm of selling puppies. Our local breed resuce also has the same issues. The yellows and chocolates always go before my blacks. However black is my favorite color. I am the proud mom of a very old black cat and three black labradors. I love black!!

Dawn Kairns, Author of MAGGIE the dog who changed my life said...

It just floored me to learn about BDS because, like you, black is my favorite dog color, especially when it comes to labs. Bless you for having so many black dogs/cat! I'm shocked all over again to learn this occurs with black lab puppies ...

Anonymous said...

My dog is a black lab from the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida. He is an indispensable member of the family. My husband and I actually disagreed over adopting him, because the hubby wanted a yellow lab!

Dawn Kairns, Author of MAGGIE the dog who changed my life said...

Hi Anonymous
I'm glad you got your black lab choice, then, over the yellow!

Samantha said...

I had no idea there was BDS! That is so sad! Thank you for making me aware fo this, I will take in note when I do decide to adopt a dog! I dont want any euthanize because of their color! :(

Dawn Kairns, Author of MAGGIE the dog who changed my life said...

Samantha, I haven't known about BDS for long, either, & was as surprised as you are to learn of it. That is fantastic that you will keep black in mind when you adopt in the future! That's my greatest hope in writing this post, that it will increase awareness of BDS and that people will consider adopting a black dog or cat, exactly as you are. Thank you for sharing your comment, Samantha & for helping our black furry friends!

Elanah said...

This is so shocking to me too. I happen to be an owner of four black dogs. I also have one yellow one, and believe me black is so much easier to clean ;) I feel like I'm always covered in yellow hair.

Dawn Kairns, Author of MAGGIE the dog who changed my life said...

I think many are shocked to learn this about black dogs. My hope is that that the more of us that spread the word, the more folks will become aware and adopt black. So great that you have 4 black dogs! Thanks for your comments, Elanah.

Dog Kennel said...

I have same like yours. I love a lot.

Dawn Kairns, Author of MAGGIE the dog who changed my life said...

Thanks for sharing. May you share love for a long time with your black dog!