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Color Discrimination in Dogs

by Victoria Heuer

There is a secret that pet rescue and shelter workers know that most people do not, and one they are eager to tell you. Ready? Black dogs are not scary. Really!

You may scoff at the seeming simplicity of this statement, but the reality is that in shelters and rescue centers across the nation, workers are accustomed to having a glut of black dogs that are sometimes never adopted and, at best, wait far longer to be adopted than dogs of other colors. In fact, there is a name that has been coined for this phenomenon: black dog syndrome.

Unfortunately, it is not only black dogs that face discrimination. White dogs, too, have problems with acceptance in the canine community, and most would agree that they have it even worse. White colored dogs are rarely even given the chance to be adopted, since the standard method is to end their lives soon after birth.

Naturally, one might be skeptical of the veracity of these statements, but think about how many all black or all white dogs you see when you go out to the dog park. While there are no hard numbers on how many black dogs sit languishing in rescue centers and shelters, certainly there are some that are euthanized due to lack of space, and others, still waiting for the chance to be adopted, die of natural causes. All the while, shelter workers are lamenting the persistence of this discriminatory fall-out.

There are also no easy answers as to why black dogs are bypassed in favor of dogs of other colors, but the ideas range from long-held negative superstitions to a more innocent, but no less harmful, belief that black dogs are just not as pretty.

Likewise, there are no solid numbers on how many white dogs are terminated each year because of breed industry standards that require their deaths. Why must they die? Mainly, to cover up that fact that they were born, since the existence of an all white dog in a litter of pups (in most breeds) is viewed as a defect in the lineage, therefore tarnishing a breeder's reputation. People believe, some breeders say erroneously, that white dogs will be deaf, that they are hyperactive, or that they are plainly daft.

For those who have a deep affection for all dogs, regardless of color or breed, these facts and perceptions are unnerving. In searching for an answer to why these practices exist -- and indeed, persist -- the common observation is that people are simply uninformed about the plight of these animals.


Unlikely Heroes

Then there are those who, once informed, have made it their life's work to change the perception of black dogs and all white dogs.

One such person is Tamara Delaney, who in 2004 fell in love with a black Labrador Retriever named Jake that had been waiting for three years to be adopted from the Gemini All Breed Rescue Center in Minnesota. Delaney was thunderstruck by what she learned; not only of Jake's long sentence at the rescue center, but of the black dog population as a whole. From that day on, Delaney was committed to the cause. A website devoted to black dogs followed, and Delaney threw herself into educating the public about black dogs, encouraging the abolishment of myths and superstitions that painted black dogs as frightful or aggressive, and teaching shelter and rescue workers more effective ways of bringing attention to their black dogs.

One of the theories to explain the bias against black dogs is that people find them to be intimidating, and even frightening. Superstitions and wayward ideas about large black dogs abound, from ancient lore of black dogs being harbingers of death and doom, to malevolent black dogs in films and novels -- think The Omen from 1976, which used Rottweilers as cohorts of the devil, to The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to the countless depictions of Doberman Pinschers as vicious attack dogs. And then there is the oft used term "black dog" as a metaphor for depression, which may be subconsciously turning people away from the more positive attributes of these dogs.

From a more benign point of view, it has been suggested that people may be bypassing black dogs because they blend into the shadows, or because their facial features are not as discernible as their lighter-colored counterparts. Shelter and rescue workers have responded to these suggestions by brightening up their black dogs with colorful scarves and toys, placing them in spaces that are lit more brightly, and holding regular black dog events, such as fashion shows and half-price adoption days.

At the other end of the color spectrum is Sheila Dawson, who in 1991 founded the White Boxer Rescue Centre in the United Kingdom. Dawson had become aware of the Boxer Breed Council's code that all white Boxers should be destroyed at birth and stepped in to make a difference in these small pups' lives. Owners who contacted her would meet with her in secret lest they be found out by the council. These restrictions were the same for American breeders, and for a long time these breeders had no other options available to them. Fortunately, the resistance to killing white puppies grew until the breed councils on both continents loosened restrictions, allowing neutered and spayed pups to be gifted to friendly homes or rescue centers.

Nonetheless, because of the breed council restrictions on white born Boxers, most people have the misconception that these dogs will be deaf, are difficult to train, or will suffer from a host of other health problems. Not only the Boxer, but other dog breeds that are born white suffer this bias as well -- Bulldogs, Dalmatians, and German Shepherds, to name but a few.

Dawson refutes the preponderance of deafness in the white Boxer (or any other white dog) as being no more likely to occur than dogs of any color, and she says that even dogs that are deaf are more than capable of being trained.

Better to Be Safe...

Of course, there are health-related issues that must be taken into account for most any breed. With white colored dogs, owners must be sure that they protect their canine companion from excessive sun by using sunscreen and cover-ups so as to avoid skin lesions, and black colored dogs tend to need more hydration when they spend time in the sun, as they overheat easily. But these are small matters, considering that you will be doing these things for yourself as well.

Consider, too, that your dog will repay your small kindnesses with everlasting affection and devotion, and you will have that peace of mind, along with the joy of knowing that you saved your dog from certain loneliness, or worse.

White or black, large or small, dogs need love and acceptance -- just like we do.

Image: Nicki Varkevisser / via Flickr

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