As an academic, I have endeavored to create research that animal welfare workers can use to help save the lives of companion animals. In that vein, I wrote an article on the topic of Big Black Dog Syndrome (the under-adoption of large black dogs – and cats – in American animal shelters). My article, The Plight of “Big Black Dogs” in American Animal Shelters: Color-Based Canine Discrimination, based on a year of field work at the Washington Humane Society in Washington, DC, describes the Syndrome, its causes, and techniques that shelters can use to mitigate its effects. In honor of the upcoming holiday of Halloween, in the following post I address how the negative aspects of black dogs and cats found in folklore can be turned around and capitalized upon to help re-home black dogs and cats around Halloween.
Big Black Dog Syndrome
Big Black Dog Syndrome is the extreme under-adoption of large black dogs based not on temperament or health, but rather on the confluence of a number of physical and environmental factors in conjunction with the Western symbolism of the color black. The color black in Western society is typically representative of evil and other negative connotations. The physical and environmental factors of size, color, the kennel environment, and the “genericness” of black dogs, when combined with the negative associations of the color black in Western culture, create what I refer to as “unconscious background checking.” “Unconscious background checking” is a phenomenon caused by the belief that shelter dogs have questionable backgrounds. As a result, the public, in order to protect themselves from “damaged” dogs, tend to shy away from the black (impure) dogs, and thus unconsciously discriminate against black dogs.
The Big Black Dog
Through the Middle Ages a rich folklore developed, particularly in Britain, where sightings of devilish spectral black hounds were recorded. These dogs were often associated with liminal spaces such as graveyards, ley lines, churches, lonely highways, rivers, fields, ancient ruins, bridges, etc. The dogs were described as ominous, malevolent, and belligerent; appearing near burial sites and churches. These dogs were considered to be the ghosts of dead people, dead witches, live witches, the Devil himself, or as a companion to a ghostly master, and they always appeared as black dogs, and nothing else. These dogs went out of their way to show the beholder that it is no normal dog, but rather, a supernatural being. Occasionally, a sighting near a home was a harbinger of death for one of the family members inside, or some other type of malefaction such as a plague (Brown 1958:176-179; Rudkin 1938:11-131).
The association between black dogs and the supernatural world has led black dogs in Western culture to be regarded with apprehension and suspicion. A big, evil black dog is a common theme in books and movies ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Harry Potter series, and both movie versions of The Omen. In fact, the sighting of a black dog which was believed to be a premonition of a personal calamity, has evolved into a term for depression after Winston Churchill’s famous quote about struggling with his “black dog” (Brown 1958; Cohen 2007:9-10; Dahl 2008).
In my experience at the Washington Humane Society (WHS), I found that while Big Black Dog Syndrome does occur in black cats, it occurs to a lesser extent than in large black dogs. Black cats are difficult to photograph, just like black dogs. Without great facial feature definition, many potential adopters are not drawn into that particular black cat, thereby negatively impacting adoption rates. However, despite the disinclination by some to adopt black cats for superstitious reasons, the black cats at WHS did not encounter the long waiting periods that WHS’ large black dogs faced. The improved adoption rates of black cats over black dogs can be attributed to the smaller and more manageable size of cats over dogs, but also because black cats have a certain kitsch value due to their explicit, even cliché connection with superstition and witchcraft.
As quoted in my article on Big Black Dog Syndrome:
A black cat is readily recognized as a symbol of witches, Halloween, superstition, and folklore. Black dogs do not have the same conscious and explicit connection to superstition that black cats do. While black dogs have a connection to the spooky folklore of spectral black dogs, the connection is not as readily obvious, well known and/or linked to popular culture as that of black cats. Today much of the superstition that linked cats and, specifically, black cats to witchcraft has been overcome, and the cliché of black cats as somehow affiliated with witches offers kitsch value that helps many find homes.
Re-homing Black Dogs and Cats this Halloween
Despite cats having a more explicit connection to Halloween, black dogs most certainly have a long history of being linked to negative supernatural activities. This supernatural association can be used to the advantage of animal shelters in re-homing black dogs and cats around Halloween. There are numerous educational and adoption campaigns/drives that shelters can undertake to bring awareness to the issue of why black animals are adopted less frequently than there lighter colored companions. Education of the importance of personality over appearance is the key to breaking the chain that creates, recreates, and reinforces Big Black Dog Syndrome. There is no way around the unconscious and deeply engrained associations of the color black as the color of malevolence and evil, therefore, the key to moderating the effects of Big Black Dog Syndrome is knowledge.
Halloween themed events and adoption drives/campaigns are a great opportunity to interlace education with the unique kitsch value of black cats and their loveable black doggy companions. An Autumn/Halloween/Black Friday adoption campaign, such as the Back in Black National Adoption Event run by the Best Friends Animal Society, is a great strategy for bringing awareness to Big Black Dog Syndrome, and for re-homing black dogs and cats. Adoption campaigns are wonderful tools because they are a concerted and focused effort to re-home animals that often succeed at adopting large numbers of animals because of the concentrated efforts of shelter staff, added publicity, public excitement, and discounted adoption rates.
Either as part of a Halloween adoption campaign, or as an individual event, there are many themed events that can draw potential adopters to a shelter in order to adopt a black dog or cat. By drawing positive attention to black dogs and cats, potential adopters will be made conscious of the prejudices they may have been operating under. Such events include a pumpkin carving contest where participants are judged on how well they can carve the likeness of one of the shelter’s black dogs or cats, a Black Cat Halloween Party, and a costume fashion show featuring both adoptable dogs and cats as well as those who have already been adopted. Costume prizes can be awarded for “best in show costume,” “scariest costume,” “funniest costume,” and “best owner and doggie/kitty duo costume.” Other activities can consist of pumpkin decorating, balloon animals, Halloween art, face painting, Halloween themed dog and cat treat bake-off, and Halloween goodie bags containing treats and educational material.
As for concerns about the safety of black cats during Halloween, I leave the decision about whether or not to market Halloween themed adoption events to the individual shelters. I believe that with a skilled and trained adoptions staff, a shelter should be able to weed out any potential adopter that has nefarious intentions in mind. I for one, have never felt uncomfortable adopting a black cat or dog to someone because I was worried that they may intentionally harm that animal as part of a ritual or ceremony related to Halloween. Please feel free to add your thoughts on this dilemma in the comments section below. A civil dialect on the subject of whether or not Halloween is a dangerous time of the year to be adopting out black cats, has the potential to be both useful and insightful.
Brown, Theo.1958. The Black Dog. Folklore 69(3):175-192.
Cohen, Hsin-Yi. 2007. Black and White: Deadly Color Prejudice. Dogs Today: 6-12.
Dahl, Melissa. 2008. "Black Pups Face Doggie Discrimination." MSNBC, March 5: Electronic Document.
Rudkin, Ethel H. 1938 The Black Dog. Folklore 49(2):111-131.
Amanda Leonard grew up on Long Island, and received her Bachelor degrees from the University of Delaware in Anthropology and East Asian Studies before moving to Washington, DC to spend a year working at the Washington Humane Society (WHS). She left WHS to attend graduate school at The George Washington University in Washington, DC where she recently received her Master's degree in Anthropology. While at the WHS, she worked as a canine temperament evaluator and also as an enrichment coordinator.
Her time at WHS was the inspiration for the research she conducted on Big Black Dog Syndrome as well as on how human gender impacts spay/neuter rates. Her research on black dogs has been published in the Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, a scholarly journal out of the University of California at Berkeley. Amanda is the creator of The Black Dog Research Studio, a website designed to disseminate research on Big Black Dog Syndrome.