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Coat Color of Shelter Dogs and Its Role in Dog Adoption

In: Society & Animals
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  • 1 Department of Animal Protection, Welfare and BehaviourFaculty of Veterinary Hygiene and EcologyUniversity of Veterinary and Pharmaceutical Sciences Brno, Czech Republic
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Abstract

Coat color influenced the likelihood of a dog being reclaimed from a shelter as well as the length of stay (LOS) of abandoned dogs at the shelter. The shortest LOS was found in brindle and multicolor dogs (median time until adoption: 17 and 18 days, respectively) followed by white, fawn, red, brown, black and tan, and grey dogs. Black dogs had the greatest LOS (median 32 days). In lost dogs, coat color had no significant effect on the time spent at a shelter, the median time until a dog was reclaimed by his/her caretaker being one day, irrespective of the coat color. However, the results of our study suggest that black, brown, and brindle dogs are more likely to be abandoned by their caretakers, and that fawn, black and tan, grey, and red dogs, if lost, have a better chance of being reclaimed by their caretakers.

Abstract

Coat color influenced the likelihood of a dog being reclaimed from a shelter as well as the length of stay (LOS) of abandoned dogs at the shelter. The shortest LOS was found in brindle and multicolor dogs (median time until adoption: 17 and 18 days, respectively) followed by white, fawn, red, brown, black and tan, and grey dogs. Black dogs had the greatest LOS (median 32 days). In lost dogs, coat color had no significant effect on the time spent at a shelter, the median time until a dog was reclaimed by his/her caretaker being one day, irrespective of the coat color. However, the results of our study suggest that black, brown, and brindle dogs are more likely to be abandoned by their caretakers, and that fawn, black and tan, grey, and red dogs, if lost, have a better chance of being reclaimed by their caretakers.

Introduction

Dogs admitted to animal shelters either return to their caretakers (dogs who escaped or became lost and were sought by their keepers) or stay in the shelter (dogs who were intentionally abandoned by their keepers and found as strays or dogs relinquished to the shelter). The latter are subsequently adopted into new homes or euthanized. In many countries, killing dogs who are not reclaimed by their keepers within a given period is the general policy. In contrast, the law in some countries forbids euthanizing shelter dogs unless they are severely ill. There is also a “no kill” policy in some facilities in Great Britain and the United States (Brown, Davidson, & Zuefle, 2013). In these cases, dogs can remain in shelters for extended periods of time until they are adopted (Normando et al., 2006). Some authors reported dogs remaining at shelters for over 1 year (Brown et al., 2013) or even over 5 years (Wells, Graham, & Hepper, 2002). Furthermore, dogs held in close contact in shelter conditions present a significant risk of transmission of diseases and even risk for public health, considering the zoonotic potential of some pathogens (Sareyyupoglu, Mustak, Cantekin, & Diker, 2014; Voslarova & Passantino, 2012).

Several studies have monitored the adoption potential of shelter dogs. The factors affecting adoption success may vary regionally and depend on the preferences of potential adopters (Brown et al., 2013; Normando et al., 2006) as well as on temporal fluctuations in the availability of animals (Normando et al., 2006; Patronek, Glickman, & Moyer, 1995). Significant differences between shelters regarding the admission characteristics of dogs, lengths of stay, and outcomes were observed; it is important to characterize these differences so that government policy can be informed by factors affecting shelter demographics (Marston, Bennett, & Coleman, 2005). Furthermore, recognizing the traits of dogs in a specific shelter and the characteristics desired by adopters is critical to improving the welfare of animals served by that shelter (Brown et al., 2013).

Besides other factors, the coat color of sheltered dogs has also been reported to influence adoption success (Diesel, Smith, & Pfeiffer, 2007; Lepper, Kass, & Hart, 2002; Posage, Bartlett, & Thomas, 1998; Wells & Hepper, 1992). When choosing to adopt a dog, people may spend very little time interacting with the dog, and their choice of a particular dog is likely to be based primarily and initially on physical features of the dog. Coat color may be an especially salient feature of dogs for human observers (Fratkin & Baker, 2013). However, there have so far been only a few empirical studies examining the role of coat color in dog adoption, and the results are equivocal.

In California, brindle and black dogs had the least likelihood of being adopted. Red, merle, and tricolor dogs were preferred over black and tan dogs (Lepper et al., 2002). In Nashua, New Hampshire, gold, gray, and white coat colors were significant predictors of successful adoption (Posage et al., 1998). In Northern Ireland, the dogs who were adopted most frequently were black and white in color; followed by yellow; then solid black; gold; and lastly, black and tan (Wells & Hepper, 1992). In Poland, black dogs were adopted more frequently than dogs of other colors (Goleman, Drozd, Karpinski, & Czyzowski, 2014). However, some other studies on adoption choices did not find any effect of coat color on adoption success (Brown et al., 2013; Diesel, Pfeiffer, & Brodbelt, 2008). Even though appearance was cited most often in a survey conducted in five shelter organizations across the United States as the single most important feature for people who adopted dogs, with color being mentioned by the adopters within this category (Weiss, Miller, Mohan-Gibbons, & Vela, 2012), color was not of particular importance for respondents of an online survey conducted in the United States when it was compared with other features (Garrison & Weiss, 2015).

Given the differences among these reported findings, efforts should be made to understand the demographics of animals and their adopters at the regional shelter level. Understanding these demographics could further improve the ability of shelters to serve animals in their care (Brown et al., 2013). Thus, the aim of this study was to characterize the coat colors of lost and abandoned dogs and their lengths of stay at shelters in the Czech Republic, where stray dogs picked up by private citizens, or by officials authorized to impound stray animals, are kept. Furthermore, the coat colors of dogs reclaimed by their keepers and those of dogs who remained at the shelters were compared. A sample of shelter dogs from the Czech Republic was also used as a contribution to the multicultural assessment of black dog syndrome. However, the primary aim of this study was to assess the role of coat color in shelter dog adoption in general.

Materials and Methods

Records on sheltered dogs were collected from three municipal dog shelters situated in different regions of the Czech Republic. The subjects of this retrospective study were all impounded dogs placed by the shelters from January 1, 2010, to December 31, 2013. For the purposes of this study, the dogs were divided into two groups. One group comprised dogs who were reclaimed by their keepers from the shelter (lost dogs). The second group comprised dogs who were not reclaimed (and thus considered abandoned and offered for adoption) and subsequently adopted. Dogs who were neither reclaimed nor rehomed within the monitored period and remained in the shelters after December 31, 2013, were not included in the analysis.

Coat color was monitored in all dogs in both groups. The length of stay (LOS) of each dog was examined to determine how coat color influenced the probability of the dog being abandoned or reclaimed by his/her keeper, and the duration of time spent at the shelter. LOS, in days, was the duration between the intake date and the date when the dog was adopted or returned to his/her keeper.

The results were analyzed using the statistical package Unistat 5.6. (Unistat Ltd., London, UK). Two independent variables were constructed from the shelter´s original information: reason for admission (2 levels: abandoned, lost) and coat color (9 levels: white, fawn, grey, red, brown, black, black and tan, brindle, and multicolor). The effects of these independent variables on LOS as a dependent variable were analyzed. For LOS, normality was checked using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test (Zar, 1999). As data were not distributed normally, non-parametric methods were used for testing.

First of all, the median for LOS was calculated for each level of the monitored independent variable in abandoned and lost dogs. The effect of the variable reason for admission was analyzed by the two-tailed Mann-Whitney U test. The effect of coat color was analyzed using Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA and subsequently using a non-parametric multisample median test (Zar, 1999) as a post-hoc test for pairwise comparisons. We also calculated the actual and relative frequencies of lost and abandoned dogs in selected categories according to color, and analyzed differences between groups of lost and abandoned dogs. Frequencies were compared on the basis of a chi-square analysis of 2 × 2 and 9 × 2 contingency tables (Zar, 1999). A p-value < .05 was considered significant.

Results

From 2010 to 2013, a total of 3,875 impounded dogs were placed by the three shelters analyzed in this study. Of these, 1,614 dogs were reclaimed by their keepers and 2,261 dogs were adopted. The number of dogs in nine color categories processed in this study and their LOS at the shelter are summarized in Table 1. The most common coat colors were black (22.94%), fawn (16.39%), and black and tan (16.00%), which accounted for over 55% of all shelter dogs. There are no data on the distribution of coat color in the population of dogs in the Czech Republic and even less worldwide; thus, it was not possible to determine whether the distribution of coat colors among shelter dogs reflected that among the general dog population.

However, the distribution of coat colors in our study differed significantly (p = .000) when comparing the group of dogs reclaimed by their keepers (lost dogs) with the group of abandoned dogs by means of the chi-square test within a 9 × 2 contingency table procedure. In abandoned dogs, black was the most frequent color, while in lost dogs, fawn prevailed. Furthermore, black, brown, and brindle dogs were significantly more often abandoned than reclaimed by their keepers (p = .000, p = .004, and p = .025, respectively), while fawn (p = .002), black and tan (p = .035), grey (p = .026), and red (p = .041) dogs were significantly more frequently reclaimed by their keepers than abandoned and offered for adoption. In white and multicolor dogs, the numbers of abandoned and lost dogs did not differ (p > .05). It seems that dogs of certain colors are more likely to be abandoned by their keepers, while dogs of other colors, if lost, have a better chance of being reclaimed by their keepers.

Table 1
Table 1

Occurrence of nine colors of dogs in the studied shelters

Citation: Society & Animals 27, 1 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341491

In our study, non-parametric Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA revealed that coat color also had a significant (p < .001) effect on the time an abandoned dog spent at a shelter before adoption (Table 2). Black dogs had the greatest LOS (median 32 days). It was significantly (p < .001) greater than the LOS of dogs of any other color, as proven by the non-parametric multisample median test (Table 3). Grey, black and tan, brown, red, fawn, and white dogs followed in descending order. The shortest LOS was found in brindle and multicolor dogs. The median times until adoption for brindle and multicolor dogs were 17 and 18 days, respectively.

In lost dogs, coat color had no significant effect on the time spent at a shelter, the median time until a dog was reclaimed by his keeper being one day, irrespective of the coat color.

Discussion

The coat color of sheltered dogs has been reported to influence adoption success (Diesel et al., 2007; Lepper et al., 2002; Posage et al., 1998; Wells & Hepper, 1992). It follows from the results of our study that black dogs are not only more likely to be abandoned by their keepers, but also less likely to be adopted. Black dogs had a significantly greater LOS than dogs of any other color. The shortest LOS was found in brindle and multicolor dogs. In contrast, brindle dogs were reported as the least likely to be adopted in California (Lepper et al., 2002), together with black dogs. However, the total number of brindle dogs in the Czech shelters was quite small, making this color relatively rare, which might have made brindle dogs more desirable than dogs of other colors.

Table 2
Table 2

Median lengths of stay (LOS) of nine colors of abandoned and reclaimed dogs at the studied shelters

Citation: Society & Animals 27, 1 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341491

Table 3
Table 3

The p-values of pairwise comparisons of median of lengths of stay (dependent variable) in nine colors (independent variable) of abandoned dogs

Citation: Society & Animals 27, 1 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685306-12341491

The desirability of rareness was also found in other studies of adoption choices (Voslarova, Zak, Vecerek, & Bedanova, 2015; Brown et al., 2013). Similarly, DeLeeuw (2008) found that merle dogs had the highest adoption rates and hypothesized that their uniqueness (blue eyes and coat) was a factor. Merle dogs were not reported to be found in the Czech shelters but the same may be true for multicolor dogs. In a sea of solid or two-toned dogs, a multi- color coat is particularly noticeable. Our other findings corroborate the results of previous studies. Preferences for lighter-colored dogs were also found in some other studies of adoption (Fratkin & Baker, 2013; Lepper et al., 2002; Posage et al., 1998).

The fact that black dogs tend to be less likely to be adopted from shelters than other dogs is sometimes referred to as “black dog syndrome.” People tend to attribute particular personality characteristics to dogs based solely on the physical characteristics of the dog (Fratkin & Baker, 2013). Black is seen, in virtually all cultures, as the color of evil and death (Adams & Osgood, 1973). Within a social-perception framework, the color black has been associated with higher perceived levels of malevolence and strength in sports team players when compared with other colors (Frank & Gilovich, 1988). It has been demonstrated that the stereotype of black dogs being aggressive still persists in East European society (Goleman et al., 2014). In a U.S. study, when shown photographs of dogs who differed only in color, participants perceived the black dog to be more disagreeable, more neurotic, and less faithful than the yellow dog (Fratkin & Baker, 2013).

Black dogs, as depicted in folklore, literature, and popular culture, have earned a consistently unpleasant reputation; for example, in the folklore of the British Isles, a black dog was a ghostly being whose appearance was regarded as a portent of death (Woodward, Milliken, & Humy, 2012). In Polish society, the term “black dog syndrome” refers to an irrational fear of black dogs (Goleman et al., 2014). Responding to questions on the appearance of aggressive and dangerous animals, most people selected large dogs of a black color. However, despite existing stereotypes, data collected in Polish animal shelters indicate that black dogs are adopted more frequently than dogs of other colors (Goleman et al., 2014). The results of two separate studies in the U.S. indicated that, according to the participants’ ratings, breed-specific features were more powerful predictors of interpersonal trait attributions than the color or size of the dog (Woodward et al., 2012).

Most shelter dogs analyzed in our study did not belong to any recognized breed. Thus, the effect of breed might have been less important than other factors. Furthermore, Woodward et al. (2012) suggest that the reason more large black dogs are found at animal shelters, and that more are euthanized after failing to be adopted, is that there are simply more large black dogs in the population. Considering that black was the most common coat color in shelter dogs in our study, the fact that black dogs had the greatest LOS might have been a consequence not only of stereotypes regarding this color but also of the abundance of such dogs in shelters.

However, it is important to consider the possibility that there may actually be behavioral characteristics associated with coat color in dogs. Coat color in domestic animals is often closely associated with temperament; this hypothesis is based on the fact that the pigment melanin shares a common biochemical synthesis pathway with the catecholamine group of neurotransmitters (Podberscek & Serpell, 1996). Behavioral characteristics associated with coat color have been reported in several dog breeds. In Labrador Retrievers, chocolate dogs were more “agitated when ignored” and showed more “excitability” than black dogs, and lower “trainability” and “noise fear” than both yellow and black dogs (Lofgren et al., 2014). In English Cocker Spaniels, solid-colored dogs were rated as more aggressive than parti-colored dogs, and red and golden dogs were found to be more aggressive than black dogs (Amat, Manteca, Mariotti, de la Torre, & Fatjo, 2009; Perez-Guisado, Lopez-Rodriguez, & Munoz-Serrano, 2006; Podberscek & Serpell, 1996). Fawn-colored Korean Jindo dogs were found to be less fearful and display less submissive reactivity than white dogs (Kim et al., 2010).

Surprisingly, all these studies found behavior traits that tended to contradict general perceptions; that is, lighter colored dogs exhibited behaviors that might be considered undesirable by potential adopters more frequently than black dogs. Since behavior is ultimately more important to the success of dog adoption than physical appearance, it is important for animal shelters to realize this and thereby help potential keepers pick the “best” dog for them. In addition, knowing that black dogs are perceived more negatively, shelters may want to “market” these dogs differently, so that they are not overlooked easily. In general, simply bringing this issue to the attention of potential adopters may help them to realize that some dogs are commonly overlooked for cosmetic reasons such as color, and not because of their behavior or suitability for adoption (Fratkin & Baker, 2013).

On the positive side, people have complex preferences, and the features which are important vary widely across individuals. If an animal shelter has a great variety of dogs available, it is more likely that the set of features of a particular dog will match an adopter’s preferences. People make tradeoffs based on all the attributes that make up dogs; they do not look for a single feature, as demonstrated by an online survey conducted in the U.S. (Garrison & Weiss, 2012).

Conclusion

It was found that coat color influenced the likelihood of a dog being reclaimed from a dog shelter, as well as the LOS at the shelter for abandoned dogs. The shortest LOS was found in brindle and multicolor dogs (median time until adoption 17 and 18 days, respectively) followed by white, fawn, red, brown, black and tan, and grey dogs. Black dogs had the greatest LOS (median 32 days). Considering that black was the most common coat color in shelter dogs in our study, it might have been a consequence not only of stereotypes regarding this color but also of the preponderance of black dogs compared to other colors.

In lost dogs, coat color had no significant effect on the time spent at a shelter, the median time until a dog was reclaimed by his/her keeper being one day, irrespective of the coat color. However, the results of our study suggest that black, brown, and brindle dogs are more likely to be abandoned by their keepers, and that fawn, black and tan, grey, and red dogs, if lost, have a better chance of being reclaimed by their keepers. Understanding potential adopters’ preferences and the likelihood of individual dogs admitted to the shelter being adopted is crucial for shelter personnel to establish effective procedures for rehoming shelter dogs.

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