Pet photographer joins fight to combat ‘black dog syndrome’

The Black Dog Project
The Black Dog Project –Fred Levy

Animal photographer Fred Levy’s latest photo project shows us that you should never judge a dog by its color.

His photos are, in the literal sense, black and white. They are portraits of black dogs, individually posed, in front of a black backdrop.

The message, however, is a bit more complex.

The Black Dog Project tackles a controversial subject among dog rescuers: Black dogs are often the first euthanized and the last to be adopted from rescue shelters.

Levy first heard about the phenomenon in 2013 while photographing dogs at a dog park in Acton. A woman at the park told Levy that black dogs would be tough to find.

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While it’s a known phenomenon among animal shelters across the country, there are no official statistics to prove the claim.

Black Dog Project —Fred Levy

Anecdotal evidence also suggests the same is true with any black pet, including cats and ferrets. One reason may be that these animals — because of their dark color — are difficult to photograph well, Levy said.

“Sometimes [adopters] look at the picture and just see a silhouette and just see white eyes. That might be creepy,’’ he said.

Some also consider black dogs to be the modern-day version of a black cat, Levy added.

“In the entertainment industry, black dogs are often portrayed as villians,’’ said Levy. “They are thought of as the creature of death.’’

Levy cited the Harry Potter series as an example.

A 2014 Petfinder survey of shelter and rescue groups found that while most pets are listed for a little over 12 weeks on the adoption site, black pets spend nearly four times longer on the adoption list. Other factors, such as older age and breed, also determine an animal’s chance of adoption.

But not all rescue organizations believe the claims. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has called Black Dog Syndrome a myth. The organization reviewed studies examining the phenomenon in 2013 and found many people percieve black dogs — especially poodles — as friendly. The review also found that people are more like to rate the personality of a dog based on its size and breed rather than its color.

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Rob Halpin, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the center has not seen a bias against black pets.

“We take in thousands of dogs every year and place them into new homes and we see no evidence — or even anecdotal suggestion — that black dogs are either less likely to be adopted, spend more time with us, or [are] at greater risk of euthanasia,’’ Halpin said. “This syndrome, from our perspective, just does not exist.’’

Still, every November, many animal adoption centers nationwide participate in “Back in Black’’ month, a promotion that cuts or waives fees for black pets to boost their chances at finding homes. The MSPCA does not tak part in the promotion.

Levy put a Facebook call out for black dogs to photograph and received a slew of responses from owners of black dogs who felt black dogs are marginalized. He compiled 75 photos in a book that will be released in September. Levy said a portion of the proceeds will go towards helping rescue dogs.

“My hope is that people will think more about their personality and how they’ll fit into the family structure than how cute the dog is,’’ Levy said.

“Instead of ‘shopping’ for a dog, they should look into what will make the dog a great family pet,’’ he said.

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