The Plight of “Big Black Dogs” in American Animal Shelters: Color-Based Canine Discrimination
An Animal Rights Article from


Amanda Leonard, The Black Dog Research Studio
October 2011

Article is as it appeared in Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, Volume 99/100 - University of California at Berkeley's Anthropology department, Summer 2011. Read the entire report (PDF)

Big Black Dog (BBD) 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 define 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.

Because the majority of potential adopters are not like the cases discussed above, awareness of the importance of personality over appearance is the key to breaking the chain that creates, recreates, and reinforces BBD Syndrome in animal shelters in the United States.

With a few simple changes in place, the social memory of black dogs as menacing and dangerous can be overcome. 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 is knowledge. The public can be made aware of BBD Syndrome through educational adoption events, shelter literature and signage, the shelter website, and by drawing positive attention to the dogs themselves through brightly colored signs, bandanas, and better photography. If made knowledgeable about BBD Syndrome, potential adopters will be made conscious of the prejudices they may have been operating under, and possibly, just possibly, not walk right past the black Lab mix in Kennel 5.

Read the entire report (PDF).

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