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Hmm… It Really Ain’t So Black and White!

Black Dog Syndrome – the idea that a black dog is less likely to be adopted simply because he is black… It is an idea that has persisted in sheltering for years with little data to support it as fact. Recently, some research was published that gives evidence that maybe Black Dog Syndrome is a myth.

The manuscript, titled “Give a Dog a Bad Name and Hang Him: Evaluating Big, Black Dog Syndrome,” was written by Lucinda Woodward et al and published in early 2012 by Society and Animals. The researchers conducted two studies aimed at studying the impact of the features “black” and “big.” Their first study used just one type of dog – the poodle – with 4 different variants – large black, small black, large white, small white. Participants (795) were given the task of rating each picture on 8 different terms of personality (for example, friendly-submissive and hostile-dominant).

The authors hypothesized that if the black dog syndrome was correct, black poodles would be rated as less friendly than the white ones. What they found, however, was that black poodles were rated by participants as significantly more friendly than white poodles. In fact, there was a trend for the small white poodle to have the lowest positive ratings.

Concerned that the model might have been influenced by a perception of small white poodles as yippy dogs, the researchers examined the same question a bit more globally in their second study. Their second study focused on this – “If black dog syndrome is indeed a valid phenomenon, it was expected in study 2 that participants would rate the image of a large black dog breed (a black Lab) as more hostile, more dominant, less friendly, and less submissive than the dogs in other photos. However, if Black Dog Syndrome is simply an artifact of attributes associated with typically large, black dog breeds rather than size or color, we would expect to see significant variance of personality attributions across photos of different dog breeds.” In other words, could it be breed (or perceived breed) as opposed to color that is influencing adoptions?

In this second study, the researchers used the same 8 personality types to rate, but this time, the pictures presented were of 8 breeds – border collie, boxer, German shepherd, golden retriever, black Lab, pit bull, standard poodle and Rottweiler.

What they found was that participants’ perceived personality rating appeared to be influenced more by their internalized stereotypes of breed than the color or size of the dog. The black Lab was perceived as less hostile, more friendly, less dominant and more submissive than the brown pit bull, the brindled boxer, the sable German Shepherd and the black and tan Rottweiler. The black Lab only consistently rated lower on these scores when compared to the golden retriever.

The authors conclude, as some of us have hypothesized in the past, that Black Dog Syndrome may in fact be due to the base rate fallacy – there are simply more big black dogs in the population. The study highlights that dog breed is an important predictor of personality attributions made by humans. This nugget is a kicker for those in shelters as previous research has suggested we are pretty poor at identifying breeds, and our adopters yearn for this information as they want to be able to predict what a dog will be like in their home. The ASPCA’s Meet Your Match program replaces breeds with Canine-ality – helping adopters to find their match without a focus on breed. For those not able to use Meet Your Match, identifying behavior as opposed to breed may help adopters to keep an open heart and mind…

Of course, this is just one study and more data is needed to bust this black dog myth – but there sure is something exciting about getting down to the data to help us noodle through how to decrease risk for the animals in our shelter.

What do you think of this research?

Related links:

ASPCA Meet Your Match
“If It Looks Like A Duck…”