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Syndrome? Myth? Fact?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog highlighting some research that was conducted around the notion of Black Dog Syndrome. Now, recognize I have written posts about streaking, death and other topics that one would think deserve some dialogue and comment, but none of those had received the level of response that this one did. Behaviorist Patricia McConnell found this a chewy topic, too, and responded with a post on her blog.

Of great interest was how many of the comments on my post simply dismissed the research as opposed to looking for an opportunity to question assumptions. In the case of this research, the question focused on one piece of the Black Dog Syndrome – the assumption that people perceive black dogs as “badder” (my language) than other dogs. The conclusion of the research was that breed was an important driver of these perceptions – but not color.

The notion that black animals stay longer needs more research… Could it be there are simply more of them so folks have a tougher time choosing? We have conducted research around how the number of animals available for adoption influences adoption choice, and we found that by reducing the number of cats available on the adoption floor, we can increase the likelihood that someone will make a choice and adopt. There are numerous studies in marketing that confirm the number of choices greatly influences human behavior to choose. Maybe black animals are staying longer… (we do not yet have all the data to support that yet) but if they are, is this due to a “syndrome?” Is it because people don’t want them or is it because there are more of them? There are many other possible scenarios, some mentioned by some of you… But the fact is that right now, we just don’t know if it is in fact true…. The ASPCA’s Dr. Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB, took the time to comment as well. I want to share his thoughts here as I wish I had said them myself …

When I entered this field about 25 years ago, I was surprised to find out how much people were sure of, without evidence to support their certainty. “Pet overpopulation was out of control and getting worse” - despite data showing a decades-long decline in shelter numbers; “Black cats are adopted by witches at Halloween for sacrifices” - a whole different black critter myth; “Pets given as gifts are at high risk of being taken to shelters” - they are not. I helped to form the National Council on Pet Population Policy and Study and later the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science to develop an evidence-based approach to the real issues that confront us and the homeless animals we all seek to help. The current discussion is quite interesting, but I am quite taken by the fact that comments rarely cite statistics to support positions or opinions. Daniel Patrick Moynihan quite famously said, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts." I would add what I will call the Dr. Z amendment to Moynihan's statement: "Your opinion should exist in the same time zone as some set of facts.” At this time, I don't think anyone can quote an objective set of observations that can be repeated in more than one shelter to establish the facts of a Black Dog Syndrome.

We have busted a few myths here at the ASPCA – from the notion that the price someone pays for a cat impacts their bond or value of the cat to the idea that some of our policies are protecting our shelter animals from harm. Keeping an open mind to what we think we know, what we would like to know and what scares us to know can ultimately help us save lives. Keep the comments coming, keep questioning… and show me the data!

Related links:
“Hmmm…It Really Ain’t So Black and White”
“Get Over It and Adopt an Ugly Pet”
NBC News: “Black Dogs Are Adopted Less Often” 

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