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Thank you for sharing that important video and question! In my work, Brown’s most important statement...

By Jessica Dolce on What If People Are Doing the Best They Can? - 8/31/2016 at 11:57am

Excellent advice! I don't believe anyone frivolously surrenders an animal to a shelter. If they had the...

By Ruth Pearl. Pet Assistance, Inc on What If People Are Doing the Best They Can? - 8/30/2016 at 7:41am

Dead on, B.J. Thank you for writing this piece and for sharing the video from Brene Brown. If there are...

By Jamie Healy on What If People Are Doing the Best They Can? - 8/30/2016 at 7:34am

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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Comments

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Well said! The most well-meaning people can be very resistant to acknowledge the significance of empirical research and consider its implications on their current beliefs and knowledge. (And shelter professionals are no exception.) It's a tough thing to do.

Perhaps one of the reasons science is so often dismissed is that individuals don't have a full grasp of the strengths and advantages research possesses over anecdote. They may also be unaware of the many factors that can skew an individual's perception and memory. (For example, confirmation bias, the tendency for people to look for and believe information that supports what they believe, and to disregard any evidence to the contrary.) With a better awareness of such things, people may be more able to appreciate and consider research outside of that which agrees with what they already believe or have experienced.

So glad to see such an important topic being addressed, many thanks!

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As a rescue member, the black dogs are harder to adopt out. Not because of breed, or if people think they are bad dogs... simply they are harder to photograph to capture the 'cutness factor'. Two photos, one of a black lab puppy..the other a white dog with a brown patch over it's eye and little spots on its legs. More people will be drawn to the white dog. So, to help with this, we add colorful backgrounds, or bowties to help draw attention to the black dog. :)

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