Is Black Dog Syndrome Real? Yes. No. Kinda-Sorta

Sometimes black dogs linger in shelters forever; but sometimes, black coats can be a selling point.


It’s a truism among dog lovers that black dogs are less likely to get adopted at shelters. But is it actually true?

An interesting article at io9, Gawker’s site for science-fiction nerds, takes a close look at the science behind Black Dog Syndrome and finds that it’s not actually that big a deal. According to the numbers, at some shelters, black dogs do get adopted less than other dogs; but at others, it might in fact be a selling point. Even when black dogs are viewed less favorably by potential adopters, the color of the coat is only one of many factors that come into play. Whether a dog’s coat is dark or light often falls behind other factors, such as whether they’re a purebred or a mutt, how old they are, their size, and so on.

Esther Ingliss-Arkell’s article is valuable not only in relation to the specific issue of Black Dog Syndrome, but as an excellent example of how dangerous that media phrase “a study says …” can be. Those words are used to convey a certain authority on a conclusion, but not all studies are created equal. When I’m researching a study, the first thing I check is how many people were included in the sample, and who they were. A sample population that’s made up of 50 undergrads at a university is very different than one that includes 2,000 people across the continental United States. Its amazing how many studies cited in headlines actually resemble the first rather than the second.

There’s a place for those studies made up of undergrads; usually they come about because the researchers were given just enough of a budget to afford some decent statistics software and the pens and paper to give to the subjects. They’re usually starting points for larger studies. If the researchers can come up with some decent results from using undergrads, they can go to the faculty or other sponsors and say “This looks kinda cool! Just imagine what we could do if we had actual money!”

The point of Ingliss-Arkell’s article is that Black Dog Syndrome is not a clear-cut issue; there are studies that prove and disprove it, so people who have a bias toward either side have plenty of evidence to make their case. Of course, in making that case they have to ignore or dismiss all the studies that prove the opposite side. Ingliss-Arkell makes an excellent point about the inherent limitations of studies themselves:

This is the problem with experimental science. Studies are done under two assumptions — that a sample represents the whole, and that during the experiment that sample is doing what it always does. When we look at Black Dog Syndrome, it seems like a pretty simple idea to test. Animal shelters keep records. How hard can it be to go through them and see how often and how fast black dogs are adopted? And yet studies stack up proving and disproving the same idea. A sample taken from the Midwest shows a trend exactly opposite to one in Los Angeles. A sample taken one year looks different from a sample taken another year. The sample doesn’t represent the whole, and there’s wide variation in what a sample of any given group of people do in one situation or another.

This is why it’s not only useful to have multiple studies, but to sometimes do meta-studies. A meta-study involves gathering as many studies on a given topic as you can and identifying patterns between them. They’re helpful because they provide an aggregate vision of what the research as a whole is saying, not simply what the the latest headline is telling you. A good meta-study can provide a more complete picture over time and geographical area, rather than results that came from, say, a three-month period in Los Angeles.

So is Black Dog Syndrome a real thing? The best answer is “maybe-kinda-sorta.” Some studies show it occurring in certain times and places, and sometimes dogs with dark coats actually get adopted faster. Fashions in what kind of dogs people want come and go with time, and there are factors that usually outweigh color, such as breed. In other words, it’s there, but maybe not as important as we often are led to think.

Via io9

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