Black Dog Syndrome- fact or fiction?

Big Black Dog Syndrome, or BBD, is a theory that has been floating around for a number of years. It makes sense; larger black dogs are adopted at a lower rate and euthanized at a higher rate in shelters. It is canine color discrimination. However, is it true? When we were adopting a dog we were specifically looking for a black lab-ish kind of dog. The Labrador Retriever consistently ranks as the number one dog breed in the US, and the Rottweiler and German Shepherd consistently rank in the top ten. So what’s the story? There is research on both sides. Let’s examine….


In one month in 2008, shelters in Arkansas reported that 13 out of 14 dogs that were euthanized were large black dogs according to the Kroeber Anthropological Society. Color plays such an important role and in Western society the association with black is evil (contrast that to other cultures where white is evil). White is innocence or purity, green is envy, red is lust or passion, yellow is illness or fever. So take a large, black dog in a gray shelter kennel and they just blend in to the background. Compound that with the fact that because of the dark color, it is difficult to read a dark dog’s features. If you can’t read the expression on a dog’s face you may assume because of the color psychology that the dog is menacing.


Size matters. With the media onslaught of “purse dogs” it’s no wonder that small dogs are more popular. Large dogs are a consideration in adoption because they are perceived as harder to train (myth), they eat more, they have more health problems, and just generally cost more for a family. There is a practical concern to size for potential adopters.


On the other side of the discussion, recent studies show that when evaluating dogs for selection pre-conceived notions about breed are more of a factor than color. In the study, people were given personality types to rate pictures of dogs (friendly-submissive, hostile-dominant, etc.). The dogs were large black poodle, small black poodle, large white poodle, small white poodle. If BBD was correct, the black poodles should have scored lower than the white which did not happen- small white poodles were seen as yippy. So the second study used the same personality types but different dogs. The dogs were Border Collie, Boxer, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Black Labrador Retriever, Pit Bull, Standard Poodle, and Rottweiler. The dogs were all different colors and coats and the Black Lab consistently rated higher than the Pit Bull and the Rottweiler.

Genetic Dominance

The fact is black coat color is a dominant gene in dogs, like brown eye color in humans. Because of this there is an abundance of black or dark colored dogs in the population. So an abundance of dark colored dogs in shelters is not entirely unusual; it’s a matter of statistics.


For the black dogs that are in shelters it is important that they have good photos. Adoption relies so heavily on the internet and a dark dog can have a big blob of a face with no discernible features if it doesn’t have a good photo. I think the large dogs generally get passed over- not just black dogs- because of the fear of training, health, cost, family implications, even though little dogs can be (and often are…) more of a challenge. If there was one dedicated Large Dog volunteer that could spend time with these animals and teach them an special trick it could do wonders for their attractiveness to prospective adopters.

And finally, the biggest hurdle as shown with the most recent research, is really breed and our own stereotypes and pre-conceived notions. As shelters and ourselves try to label a prospective animal we are trying to assess personality and how this dog will fit into our family and predict future behaviors. This is good information to have, but remember if you are getting a shelter dog you have a 75% chance of getting a mixed breed. This means a genetic cocktail of breeds- physical and behavioral. We thought Reggie was a lab- mostly because that’s what we were told and we never questioned it. Turns out he doesn’t have an ounce of lab in him. Size should be a factor based on your living environment, but personality should be the biggest determining factor when selecting a canine companion.

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