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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2008

Big dogs dogged by dark stereotype

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Kit-Kat, a 5-year-old Rottweiler, resides at the Humane Society of Vero Beach, Fla., while waiting for an adoptive home. Kit-Kat, a 5-year-old Rottweiler, resides at the Humane Society of Vero Beach, Fla., while waiting for an adoptive home.
JANET WINIKOFF / AP Enlarge

NEW YORK - When Aaron Jones walks Gozer, his Rottweiler-hound mix, people cross the street to avoid them. Mothers scoop up their children. A lost motorist once rolled up the windows and drove off after spotting the dog. One woman screamed.

"He's the nicest dog I know," Mr. Jones, 33, of Oakland said. "It's hard to understand all the fear."

Gozer isn't aggressive and doesn't look mean or bark, Mr. Jones insists - people are afraid of the dog purely because it's big and black. As a puppy, Gozer was passed over for at least a month before Mr. Jones took him home.

According to animal shelter officials, big, black dogs like Gozer have more trouble finding a happy home than do other dogs. Some shelters even have a name for it: "Big, black dog syndrome."

Nobody tracks the problem nationally, and local shelters often keep only limited data on the sizes, breeds, and colors of the dogs that are adopted or put down, according to the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"But anecdotally," said Stephen Musso, executive vice president of the ASPCA, "that's what we hear from shelter after shelter: Big, black dogs just don't get adopted."

It's not just that large dogs can be frightening: Animal shelters say black dogs of all sizes are difficult to photograph for online listings, and are hard to spot against the shadows of their crates and cages in dimly lighted kennels.

Then there's the reputation. The idea of a big, black dog unleashing destruction is a common theme in books, movies, and folklore as diverse as The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Harry Potter series, and The Omen.

Even the common sign "Beware of Dog" depicts a big, black dog, teeth bared and gums dripping. The notion that the animals are menacing is so pervasive that Winston Churchill famously called depression "the black dog."

People are often wary of dark dogs because it's difficult to read their expressions, said Paul Nicosi, the dog behavior specialist at Bide-A-Wee animal shelter in New York City. Without defined eyebrows, a playful grin might be construed as an angry grimace, he said.

"There isn't a lot of contrast between black eyes and a black face, so people can't get a handle on how the dog is feeling," Mr. Nicosi said.

It doesn't help that a quirk of dark-dog biology has led to an overabundance of large, black dogs, said Alex Yaffe, who founded Heartland Lab Rescue, a network for rescuing abandoned Labrador retrievers in Oklahoma.

Labradors and pit bulls are resilient dogs who tend to have big litters of five or more, which increases overpopulation.

One black dog, Coal, took more than six months to find a home despite a sweet temperament, excellent recommendations, and a featured spot on Mr. Yaffe's Web site. "He was just black," Mr. Yaffe said. "That was his one offense."

The Web site blackpearldogs.com, a resource devoted to increasing public awareness of the "big black dog phenomenon," offers some lighthearted reasons to adopt big, black dogs: Their color doesn't clash with furniture or clothing, hides dirt well, and is easy to accessorize. In other words, black dogs could be the new black.



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