Black Dog Syndrome is a scary fact of life in every animal shelter in the country. What it means for dogs and cats that have fantastic temperaments – animals that would be wonderful pets for families – is that they “get passed over” for adoption because their black fur makes them invisible to families that come to shelters looking for an animal to adopt.
That black fur also makes it difficult for people to understand an animal’s behavior.
Combine these two things and look hard at the kill ratio in any one animal shelter for any given week, month or year. Statistics show that the highest numbers of dogs and cats killed in animal shelters are those with black fur.
These are animals that shouldn’t have been killed.
Which is the conclusion that Amanda Leonard comes to. Leonard is the creator and lead researcher at The Black Dog Research Studio. She developed her online research studio to benefit shelter staff so that they “… may be armed with the knowledge needed to place black dogs (and cats) into new and loving homes.”
And, this is her story. Because it’s important and needs to be told.
So that you can understand that Black Dog Syndrome isn’t a made up fairy tale that a bleeding heart animal lover came up with.
But. Look for the insights into fairy tales that Leonard’s research delves into.
Because what her research points out is that some of what guides us as we look for an adoptable dog or cat are myths buried so deeply within us that we have no idea how they influence the choices we make.
Here’s Part One of the conversation that I had with Amanda Leonard.
HSD: Many of us with a passion for animals can trace that back to pets we grew up with. Is this true for you and, can you tell us about that?
Amanda: I always loved animals and my parents can attest to that. Most of my toys were either animals or dinosaurs and I spent countless hours when I was older watching wildlife documentaries.
I grew up with a big Labrador names Gus who was the consummate friend and partner in crime. Gus was part of the family before I was so it pleased my parents that he took to me so quickly and effortlessly. I even learned to walk by leaning on him.
In seventh grade, long after Gus had passed away, we got Hunter, another Yellow Lab, followed thereafter by two more Yellow Labs, Brodie and Jackson. For a time, we had three Labs!
In my teens I took up horseback riding, which I still do on occasion, and I was even on my university riding team where I met some of my best friends.
I guess you can say I’ve always loved animals and have incorporated them into my life in one way or another, whether it was by building bat boxes or by finding homes for the feral kittens born under our deck when I was 14.
HRD: You describe yourself as a “research studio” of one human and four cats – and all of your cats are black or black & white. I think that black & white cats have wonderful temperaments – my first two cats were black and whites.
Do you think there’s a correlation between temperament and coat/fur color? I realize that we may be opening a Pandora’s box w/this question, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Amanda: My first three cats were all adopted from the Washington Humane Society (WHS) while I was working there. I didn’t set out to adopt black and white cats, I was just adopting the ones that I had a special connection with.
Oliver (my only non-black and white cat) came along years after working at WHS through friends who had been my colleagues WHS but who had since moved on to another shelter in St. Croix.
As far as color dictating personality, I don’t really think that carries much merit that can be scientifically substantiated, but I know a lot of people who own torties and calicos who will swear to you that those types of cats have distinct personalities from cats of other colors.
I’ve also heard, anecdotally, that some Chocolate Labradors exhibit mild neurotic behavior that the Yellow and Black varieties do not.
While I’m not an expert on the topic, I don’t think this behavioral difference can be explained on the basis that the color itself causes the issue, but rather the inbreeding to produce more and more Chocolate Labs creates an even more tightly closed gene pool within the already small gene pool of the Labrador breed is what causes the problem (if one even exists).
Furthermore, when it comes to Black Dog/Cat Syndrome, I have observed black dogs and cats of every personality type imaginable. Their color does not dictate their personality, health, energy level, or nature (black dogs are often portrayed as menacing in movies and on TV). Black dogs and cats can be heroes, friends, and colleagues just as easily as a tan one can.
HRD: Can you connect-the-dots between your academic background and your work as a canine temperament evaluator for the Washington Humane Society (WHS)? – how did you end up at WHS?
What exactly did you have to do to become a canine temperament evaluator/enrichment coordinator?
Is there one story from your work at WHS that made a huge impression on you that you’d like to share?
Amanda: I knew during my senior year at the University of Delaware where I was studying Anthropology and East Asian Studies that I wanted to take a year off in-between undergraduate and graduate school. I felt that undergrad had been four years of focusing on myself, and, I wanted to take a year off to focus on my community.
So with that in mind I applied and was hired by WHS to work as their Enrichment Coordinator. My responsibilities mainly focused on developing and implementing enrichment programs as well as an exercise, training, and obedience regimens for the dogs and cats that eased the stress of their stay at the shelter and improved adoption rates.
Shortly after being hired and trained as the Enrichment Coordinator by my supervisor, Kevin Simpson, he approached me to see if I would be interested in also taking part in the behavior assessments of all the incoming dogs.
I leapt at the chance to work and learn from Kevin. Kevin trained me and introduced me to my new partner, Aaron, with whom I would evaluate the dogs (evaluations required two people.)
Aaron and I spent many days assessing dogs and consulting with the Adoptions team to ensure that the dogs were appropriately matched with the right families. Learning about canine behavior and how to safely handle dogs was a huge gift and one that has continued to serve me well.
My time at WHS was hugely transformative.
I saw there were infinite opportunities to study human and animal interactions. In short, there was no scarcity of Anthropological studies I could undertake based on my year of experience that could potentially be used by the Animal Welfare community to help save the lives of companion animals.
I conceive of my research as scholarship not just for the betterment of the academic cannon, but also as information that can be used by others to make the world a better place.
HRD: When did you become aware of Black Dog Syndrome?
Amanda: I didn’t notice Black Dog Syndrome right away while working at WHS. It just sort of snuck up on me one day when I observed that all of the dogs that had been there for over two months were large and black, and many of the cats that had been at WHS for a long time were also black.
I asked my supervisor, Kevin, about it and he told me that their lengthy stays were likely due to Big Black Dog Syndrome and he then encouraged me to look it up on the internet.
It wasn’t until I left WHS to attend graduate school at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, that I had the opportunity to really expand on Kevin’s initial suggestion.
In my very first Anthropology graduate class, “Art, Aesthetics & Symbolism” I took the opportunity to write my term paper on Black Dog Syndrome based on my year of experience at WHS, as well as intensive research on the symbolism of the color black, the environmental factors that contribute to Black Dog Syndrome, discourse amongst Animal Welfare workers on the topic, and Anthropological theory.
What was at first just a term paper, eventually grew into a scholarly article published in the Kroeber Anthropological Society papers out of the University of California at Berkeley’s Anthropology department.
I can only hope that my article is being used by Animal Welfare professionals to find new and loving homes for black dogs and cats across the country.
We hope so too. And, what we’ll show you in our follow up post are the highlights of Amanda’s research.