A Dark History: Black Dog Mythology and Black Dog Syndrome
by Kristin Urban
This Halloween, black dogs could use a little extra love and attention.
Black dogs have long had a reputation for being bad omens and dangerous. While Black Dog Syndrome—the idea that black dogs wait longer to be adopted than their non-black furry friends—has recently been debunked, superstitions and the alleged syndrome have deep roots.
Black dogs have been known around the world as guardians of the underworld, hellhounds, specters, and harbingers of death, disaster, and depression. They’ve appeared in sinister mythologies and folk tales for centuries. In the Latin American tale, “The Cadejo,” an enormous fiery-eyed and hoofed black dog follows late-night drinkers and revelers until they are home. In some variations of the Cadejo legend, a white dog protects the human from the devilish black Cadejo.
In Greek mythology, there is the famously vicious guard dog of Hades, Cerberus. A terrifying creature with three heads and a serpentine tail, he was another massive black dog. Cerberus was responsible for making sure the dead stayed in the Underworld. The dog was so formidable that Hercules’ most difficult and final task was to capture this terrifying creature.
In Great Britain, dozens of stories concern black dogs. There, the term used to refer to ominous phantom dogs (who go by different names in different British regions) found throughout British folklore. One of the most famous tales concerns the Black Dog of Bungay. According to legend, in the year 1577, during a severe thunderstorm at St. Mary’s Church in Bungay, the devil appeared as a black dog. The dog “came across some people kneeling down, praying. With a ferocious snarl, it wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, in so much that even at a moment where they kneeled they strangely dyed.” The hellhound—or the black dog—then left for a second church, the Blythburg Church, where he once again spread terror and killed. Black dogs continued to gain a bad reputation in Britain through WWII Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s own black dog. No, he didn’t have a coal-black pooch, but rather this was the way he continuously and famously referred to his manic depression.
In the United States, Ernest Hemingway referred to his periodic depression as “the black dog.” But ironically, he owned a black dog himself and is seen pictured with his beloved canine in photographs.
The superstition surrounding black dogs can also be found in popular culture. The monstrous dog of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles was recently revived in the popular Sherlock television show. In the Harry Potter series. a large black dog called the Grim, who actually has roots in traditional British folklore, is considered a frightening omen of death. Through these characters, the legend of the terrifying big black dog is alive and well in pop culture.
But this aversion to black dogs isn’t limited to books and television. For years, belief in a disturbing trend in rescue groups and animal shelters, dubbed Black Dog Syndrome (BDS), has persisted. Sometimes also called Big Black Dog Syndrome, BDS refers to how black dogs, especially big black dogs, are adopted less than their lighter-colored counterparts, and euthanized more often. Petfinder, the go-to website to search for dogs to adopt, surveyed their rescue and shelters. They found that it usually takes 12.5 weeks for a dog to be adopted, unless they’re black, when it can take about 50 weeks to find their forever home.
Several theories aim to explain the phenomenon. Perhaps the notion that black dogs equal bad news has been ingrained in our mindset due to the phantom dogs and evil dogs in folklore, books, and films. A small study, “Exploring the ‘Black Dog’ Syndrome: How Color Can Influence Perceptions of Companion Animals” conducted by Heather C. Lum, Nicole Nau, and Kymberly McClellan, supports this “bad” theory. In the study, participants were shown images of different colored cats and dogs, and were asked to rate the animals on friendliness. The black dogs were perceived to be the least friendly, with yellow and then brown colored dogs being seen as the friendliest. The study also asked the participants to rate the dogs on how adoptable they seemed, the result being “lighter colored pets were considered more adoptable than the darker colored ones.” Black dogs were also rated as more aggressive than brown or yellow dogs.
Another theory says black dogs are simply more difficult to read. Washington, D.C.’s behavior and rehoming director, Marika Bell, said in Slate magazine that humans want to be able to read their dog’s facial expressions. You’ll be able to see the pleading eyes of a golden retriever in a shelter much more easily than the eyes of black dog hiding in a shadowy corner. Photographing black dogs is difficult at best. The dog often looks like a black mass whose features blend together. This doesn’t bode well for people looking online at photos of dogs to adopt.
In response to BDS, photograph campaigns allow sable-colored canines a chance to shine. One such stunning photo series, “The Black Dogs Project” by Fred Levy, shows off the beauty and personalities of black dogs. “The Black Dogs Project” went viral, was published as a book, and was named one of the best Tumblr blogs of 2014.
BDS anecdotes told by shelter workers all over the U.S. helped to spread the plight of black dogs. Until recently, there has been very little scientific data to backup or disprove BDS. Thankfully, Black Dog Syndrome may now be a thing of the past, likely in thanks to media attention, publicity, and photo series like “The Black Dogs Project.”
A four-year long studyconducted by Dr. Hoffman, Assistant Professor of Animal Behavior at Canisus College, found that black fur did not play a role in adoption. The study also considered age, sex, and breed of the intake and outcome of dogs at the two shelters, located in the Pacific Northwest. The study, published by the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, concluded that “the average length of availability for adoption (LOA) for black dogs was not significantly longer than that for other colored dogs, nor was the rate of euthanasia of black dogs significantly higher than average.” Sadly, senior dogs and bully breeds were least likely to be adopted, and had higher euthanasia rates.
Though Black Dog Syndrome has finally been laid to rest, black dogs still get a bad rep. Bully breeds are now seen as the new devilishly dangerous dogs and they, along with senior dogs, need just as much love and support as lovable black dogs.