Psychology faculty Lucinda Woodward debunks black dog syndrome in Getty web forum

15th June 2016

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Are black dogs unadoptable?

That’s the question addressed by Lucinda Woodward, professor of psychology and co-director of the international studies program at IU Southeast in an essay published on Zocalo Public Square, a web forum based at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.

Woodward was invited to contribute the essay as part of the “What Does Blackness Mean?” project funded by the Los Angeles, Calif.-based Getty Museum. The project, a component of the Getty/Zocalo “Open Art” initiative involving public forums and works in various media, explores the role that blackness and attitudes towards it play in how we talk and think about art, race and morality. The initiative gathered essays to lend academic perspectives to the art in the exhibit.

Woodward’s essay explores the so-called black dog syndrome, the widespread assumption that black dogs are less likely to be adopted from shelters than other dogs due to their darker color and behavioral traits associated with it.

A dog lover and companion to a long series of black Labrador retrievers and mixes since childhood, Woodward began looking into the topic a decade ago, before it went mainstream.

“I have always been interested in cross-cultural research on personality,” Woodward said. “My research on the perceived interpersonal style of dogs was just a natural extension of this research in a cross-species application.”

Woodward set out to explore the validity of the syndrome by applying theories of personality across species. She found that people attributed different personality characteristics to different breeds of dogs, so she wondered whether dog color had anything to do with those differences in the attributed personality traits.

The answer is yes, but according to Woodward, the traits have less to do with dogs, and more to do with us.

There is no research to support the contention that black dogs are disfavored because of innate characteristics, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that any apparent disinclination to adopt a black pet—to the extent that this is actually the case, which Woodward disputes—has a lot to do with human cultural attitudes and assumptions.

Woodward employed several psychological concepts in her analysis of the phenomenon.

“Some very basic social psychological phenomena such as discrimination and fundamental attribution error—assuming another sentient being behaves the way it does because of personality traits rather than environmental factors—both play into our assumptions about the personality of black dogs,” she said.

Base rate fallacy also plays a role. This leads to the perception that black dogs are not being adopted because the shelters are so full of them, when in fact this is a sign of their preponderance in the population of canine pets generally. There are more of them around, so it’s natural to expect there to be more of them in shelters.

When people shy away from black dogs on the basis of rumor, urban legend or a gut feeling whose origin they might not even recall, they are exhibiting a source monitoring error, another all-too-common cognitive glitch.

Woodward notes that in many cultures, dark or black beings are associated with evil, and supposes that this finds echoes in the so-called black dog syndrome.

“Such heuristics [rules of thumb] can perpetuate prejudices we may have until they can be dispelled through direct contact,” she said.

The good news: Black dogs are no less adoptable than any other kind. In fact, they are renowned for qualities of intelligence and loyalty that have made them among the most popular and desired companions.

The better news: There are still plenty of black dogs waiting to find their forever homes.

Homepage photo: Ozzie, beloved adopted black dog of Lucinda Woodward.

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