Did you know that a dog’s chances of a good life, or even survival, depends very much on the colour of their coat?
If you are a black rescue puppy, you may be put down even if you’re healthy, because the prejudice against black dogs runs so deep that it’s unlikely you’ll be adopted.
It may seem a weird idea that a pet’s fur colour can be so significant but prejudice against black pets appears to be rooted in dog behaviour.
In ancient times, dogs were prized because of their guarding powers. Their amazing hearing meant they could alert their owners to burglars and enemy soldiers creeping up in the dark. That earned them lots of praise but it also backfired.
Dogs very often bark at things that we can’t see or don’t think dangerous: wandering cats, birds flying by, leaves dropping – any kind of movement. Also, some dogs love to have a good howl with each other. For them, it’s a sign of “this is my territory, so Fido across the road had better respect me” and also, “I am here, doing my dog duty.
Who else is out there?”
Sadly, we humans are very self-centred and so our ancestors didn’t always get that dogs bark and howl for their own reasons. Instead, they heard the noise and decided that dogs must be seeing something we can’t.
In ancient China, it led to a popular magical ritual where mediums would smear dog saliva on their eyelids and claim this would help them spot evil ghosts for their clients. In ancient Greece, people claimed their pets were spotting Hecate, queen of the witches, and seeing her off with their vigilance.
In the Middle Ages, a series of interesting events influenced the connection between black dogs and the devil.
In the 1400s, a plague called the Black Death devastated towns and cities all over Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The disease travelled from China through Afghanistan, India, and the rest of Asia via the Silk Road, before hitting Mecca, Baghdad, Alexandria and Constantinople, and then sweeping into Europe as far as Norway and Ireland.
Historical records talk of entire towns disappearing in weeks, all the residents killed by the plague, and corpses piling up as there were no survivors to bury them.
Back then, people didn’t understand the concept of viruses or bacteria, so they put down outbreaks of disease to the devil messing around. Stories were told of witches working his evil magic. As these grew wilder and wilder, witches were said to have familiars, the most iconic of which were black dogs and black cats.
Over time, black animals became the poster pets for evil. And by the 1580s, writers like Shakespeare began to use the image, coining expressions like black curse, black intentions and black soul – all meaning evil.
You’d think we’ve come a long way since then, but our prejudice against black has persisted.
In 2016, six studies carried out by a team from the University of New York discovered that we use a “bad is black” heuristic, a shortcut in our thinking, when it comes to social judgment. Their study showed that we associate darker skin tones with negativity – even when we’re talking about adored celebrities!
Similar work done in Asia indicates we share that heuristic. In just the last few years. China made an ad for soap powder that turned an African into a Chinese man; Thailand featured a skin-whitening pill as a recipe for success; and Malaysia ran a Hari Raya ad where the king rejects the lady purely on the basis of her black skin.
Thankfully, those ads were pulled after public outcry suggesting that we’re dumping hurtful and unhelpful heuristics. And for black pets, there is more hope because there’s a solid group of pet lovers embracing them.
“We adopted Shadow, a four-year-old mixed Malaysia breed nine months ago and she’s as playful as a baby,” says Mandy Tung, a business development manager from Cheras.
“Shadow is learning to protect our home, and she’s very good at her job – alert and protective of me and my family.”
As for the old prejudice that black fur indicates aggression, Mandy thoroughly disagrees. “Colour doesn’t play a role in pet character,” she says. “And black pets also don’t bring bad luck to owners.”
For Wan Mei Sze, a quality assurance professional, her earliest happy memories are of Duchess, the black dog who was her constant companion from babyhood to primary schooldays. “What I remember most was her friendliness, and how her eyes glittered. She was really jet black, with no other discernible colour.
“Duchess had a curly black tail which was always wagging, and she would lick me too. My parents always said she was very smart and easily trained, but I’m too young to remember that bit.”
Today Wan lives in a condo, which makes keeping pets difficult. But she still has a soft spot for black dogs. “I would adopt a black dog if I could. Prejudice against black pets is irrational. Pets are so loving, no matter what their colour.”
“I love black pets and have a wonderful black dog called Kopi-O,” says Tammy Lim, a Creative Communications professional in Kuala Lumpur. “She’s a quiet, demure, introverted girl who loves to play, run and catch rodents that dare to enter her territory.
“I don’t believe in the superstition that black pets bring bad luck. Colour doesn’t dictate the value of life. My pets have brought me joy. In fact, I think black is beautiful!”
And even more interesting, black might be a “sellable” feature.
“I’m not superstitious,” says Dee Dee Quah, a medical conference event specialist from Kuala Lumpur, with a giggle. “But we got our black Lab Bruno because he is big and black and that makes people a little nervous.
“Bruno is an adorable, happy, playful pet with the family but when I go to answer the door, having a huge black dog standing next to me is really a comfort. And it will put people off!”
At present, black pups and dogs have a rough time. But perhaps as we communicate more, especially over social media, we can step forward. Because it’s not right that little black pups don’t get a chance, purely because of their fur colour.