A new study published in Animal Welfare suggests that Black Dog Syndrome (BDS) may not exist in animal shelters, but that other types of dogs — like Pit Bull-type dogs — continue to experience longer stays and less favorable outcomes.
BDS describes the phenomenon that black dogs are passed over for adoption -or remain unadopted for longer periods – more than light-coated canines. Several theories have been suggested to explain BDS, ranging from popular culture’s portrayal of black dogs as aggressive (and black cats as unlucky) to the fact that black-coated animals don’t photograph as well as their lighter counterparts.
I don’t know, we think this guy looks pretty good!
The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Christy Hoffman of Canisius College, analyzed four years of adoption data from two animal shelters in Oregon. One shelter was a selective intake organization while the other was open intake, meaning they do not turn any animals away. The adoption records represented nearly 16,7000 dogs, but puppies and young dogs were excluded from the data set since they are well-known to be rescued faster.
According to Dr. Hoffman’s findings, black dogs actually experienced shorter stays than other dogs – six-and-a-half days at the first shelter as compared to seven, and nine days at the second shelter as compared to 10.5.
We had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Hoffman about her research. The project was brought to her attention by one of her Masters students, co-author Heather Svoboda, who works in animal shelters and was able to connect Dr. Hoffman with the two organizations featured in the study. Based on the popular literature, Dr. Hoffman and her team expected to find that black dogs had longer shelter stays, so they were pleasantly surprised to find that this appeared to not be the case.
Dr. Hoffman reminded us that while it’s possible that BDS is less of an issue today, or no longer exists, it’s difficult to extrapolate about BDS to the general dog and animal populations — particularly given that her data is based on two shelters in just one part of the country. The lesser presence of BDS could be explained by successful marketing campaigns geared towards eradicating BDS, greater awareness of the issue, and even the improvement of cameras so that these dogs photograph better.
There is yet to be a study that compiles data from all over the country (although we’d like to see that!), and these findings are a reminder that more studies about shelter dogs are needed. Nonetheless, there are two powerful conclusions to be drawn from Dr. Hoffman’s research.
One of the significant takeaways is the importance for shelters to analyze their own data to better understand the needs of their local community — especially given that we don’t yet have enough comprehensive research to make broad generalizations.
Dr. Hoffman related that many groups have begun using software packages specifically designed for shelters to help compile and comprehend their data. Programs like Pet Point and Shelter Buddy allow shelters to enter a wealth of information about every dog they intake, like breed, color, age, and the outcome.
If a shelter’s data suggests that black dogs are getting adopted but points to other types that aren’t (more on that below), then the shelter can turn their focus and resources towards the latter. While not all shelters have the manpower or resources to execute this, organizations like Shelter Animals Count are making an effort to compile a national database about shelter animals.
A second and equally significant conclusion of Dr. Hoffman’s research points to the actual data that was gleaned from their study — that age and breed group were much stronger indicators of “adoptability” than coat color. Namely, the dogs that do stay longer in shelters tend to be “bully types” like American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and mixes thereof.
According to her research, Pit Bulls experienced longer stays in shelters and had less favorable outcomes. Again, Dr. Hoffman noted that a large percentage of shelter dogs are Pit Bulls, which may partly explain these findings. However, it’s well-known that Pit Bulls endure a negative — and inaccurate — perception as well as discrimination like Breed Specific Legislation. This research again reminds us of the unfair stigma that they suffer, and the unfortunate consequences that can result.
Before we concluded our conversation with Dr. Hoffman, we of course had to ask her about her own pups. She has two — a Rottweiler-Shepherd mix and a Pit Bull mix. Apparently, the Pittie often help the professor teach her Research Methods Class by participating in cognitive test demonstrations. Sounds like one smart Pit!
Many thanks to Dr. Hoffman for her important contributions, and for taking the time to speak with us! We look forward to future studies that can help us better understand how to help dogs in need.