Black Dogs: Last Hired, 1st Fired?

A new study on "black-dog syndrome" attempts to prove that pets with dark fur do get adopted.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — As a fan of animals and a nonfan of discrimination, I was compelled to write years ago about a topic I had begun hearing about from fellow animal lovers and shelter volunteers: doggie discrimination.

Before anyone laughs, the topic is very serious — in fact, deadly serious. According to anecdotal evidence compiled nationally, black pets are less likely to be adopted. Some shelters report that the bias affects larger black dogs, while others report that the problem isn’t size- or animal-specific but is simply about color.

Although it’s referred to as “black-dog syndrome,” the pattern of darker-coated animals being the last adopted and most likely to be euthanized is not limited to dogs; it afflicts cats, too. This phenomenon is considered so common that some shelters actually decorate black animals in scarves and other accessories to make them more appealing to potential adoptive families.

According to a new report from the ASPCA, however, reports of black-dog (and -cat) syndrome are overblown. The website for the Today show quoted ASPCA Vice President Emily Weiss as saying, “New pieces of research have found that there is no indication that [black dogs] are less likely to be adopted.” She added, “We just conducted a piece of research looking at various traits that drive people to adopt, and color did not play a role at all. It busts this myth completely.” Weiss goes on to surmise where the “myth” of black animals not being adopted may have come from: “They might see that black dogs are staying around longer, but that might just be because there are more black dogs in the shelter.”

Weiss’ analysis actually raises more questions than it answers. For one, it has been hypothesized that people rarely acknowledge bias in studies and polls, sometimes because they are unaware, and other times out of embarrassment. “The Bradley effect” is the most oft-cited example of this in polling methodology. California gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley was leading, according to exit polls, only to lose the 1982 race to a white candidate.

A similar discrepancy occurred in polling data conducted during Douglas Wilder’s historic campaign to become governor of Virginia. Wilder won the 1989 race but just barely, and not by the margin predicted by polls. It was speculated that in both instances a certain segment of white voters felt uncomfortable admitting their unwillingness to vote for the black candidate for fear of seeming biased, so instead they lied.

While I am not suggesting that all of the ASPCA’s polling respondents intentionally lied about their feelings about black pets, it’s possible that  some may have. It is even more possible that there are negative traits they associate with black pets, in the same way some do with black people, that are subconscious but ingrained. As a result, some of those polls may not even be aware that they’re more likely to gravitate toward pets of colors other than black.