Shelters find ways to combat Black Dog Syndrome

By Sue Manning

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 4 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

This June 26, 2008 photo shows Hazel, a lab mix, in Los Angeles. Casteel spends at least one day a week volunteering at shelters across the country, taking pictures of available dogs and cats of all colors.

Seth Casteel, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Shelter workers call it the "Black Dog Syndrome": Black dogs and cats are often the last to be adopted and the first to be euthanized.

There are no statistics, but there's plenty of anecdotal evidence and many possible explanations, ranging from superstitions like the notion that black cats are bad luck, to a simple logistical problem: Black animals are hard to photograph well, and are therefore hard to advertise. To combat the problem, shelters have come up with a variety of creative measures, from reducing adoption fees to improving the quality of the photos.

"Overwhelmingly, we hear from the shelter and rescue groups that black dogs, especially the big black dogs, and black cats take longer to get adopted," said Kim Saunders, vice president of shelter outreach for Petfinder.com, the country's largest online pet adoption database.

Some have called Black Dog Syndrome a hoax, but Inge Fricke, director of sheltering and pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., insists "it is not a hoax. There is definitely anecdotal evidence. There haven't been any definitive studies to absolutely prove that the phenomenon exists but it is something commonly accepted by shelter workers as truth."

Some in the adoption business think there may simply be more black dogs and cats than animals of other colors. Others think the animals may be wrongly perceived as menacing.

Mike Arms, president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., blames part of it on typecasting. "If you think of any movie with a mean, devil dog, it's always a black dog, and if you see a witch in a movie, they always have a black cat."

Shelters will change lighting, use light colored blankets, and even dress the animals up to try to get better photos for websites, ads and fliers, Fricke said.

"The easiest way to make a black dog look friendly is to put it in a bright colored bandanna," Arms said. "Who pictures a devil dog in a yellow bandanna?"

Photographer Seth Casteel of Little Friends Photo in Los Angeles says any shelter pet can pose a photo challenge, but black ones top the list.

"I hear about Black Dog Syndrome all the time," said Casteel.

A bad picture can make a pet look sick, mysterious or even ominous, he said.

"To photograph a black dog or cat effectively, you want to capture personality, important physical traits and details and have the photo be in focus. The key is lighting and shutter speed," he said.

For years, Casteel has spent at least a day a week volunteering at shelters across the country, taking pictures of available dogs and cats of all colors.

He just launched a free, nationwide, nonprofit program called Second Chance Photos to teach volunteers how to take good photos of shelter pets. Volunteers (amateurs are welcome) can sign up at secondchancephotos.org. The program also gives shelters some ideas on ways to raise money for cameras and photo editing software.

Black pets should be photographed in the shade or on a cloudy day, not in direct sunlight, Casteel said.

"In the shade, the challenge is shutter speed. Your camera may respond by slowing down the shutter speed to achieve the proper exposure, resulting in a blurry photograph. To remedy this on a point-and-shoot camera, change your setting to 'sports mode,' which will give you a faster shutter speed and sharper photos," he said.

You can also manually set the shutter speed to 1600, he said.

"With black dogs, do your best to showcase their unique and positive personality. You can take the dog on a short run before the photo shoot so that he or she will pant, which looks like a smile," he suggested.

"A good photographer for shelter pets is worth his weight in gold," Saunders said.

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