The folks at Petfinder.com have designated this week (September 19-26) as “Adopt-A-Less-Adoptable-Pet” week. Surely they could have come up with a better event name, but I am all for the cause of advocating for those pets who languish in shelters, or are euthanized, because they are old, or have special needs, or aren’t the right breed, or happen to be black. Anyone who is involved in sheltering or rescue will tell you that black dogs (and black cats) are the hardest to place. There’s even a name for it: black dog syndrome. It’s interesting to me that year after year, Black Labs are the most popular breed, according to the AKC, yet if a black dog ends up in a shelter, it is at high risk of not finding a home. Theories about this abound.First, black dogs do not photograph well, and with so many adorable pets pictured on internet adoption sites, a black dog’s photo may not instantly connect with viewers. Lighting in shelters is typically not optimal for photographing pets either, and a black dog’s eyes and expression often will not show. Second, the human eye is attracted to patterns and colors. In the “speed-dating” atmosphere of a shelter or internet site, black dogs may appear less appealing.
Fortunately, I didn’t know any of this the Sunday afternoon, years ago, when I visited my local shelter, looking for a companion for our recently adopted handful, Marmaduke, who had become an escape artist. At my wits end, I thought another dog would keep her company during the long hours we were at work. Marmaduke had been my husband’s choice, so I didn’t tell him where I was going lest he again gravitate towards the largest and most problematic of the shelter’s many orphans.
As I browsed through the aisles, accompanied by a chorus of barks and plaintive whines, I stopped at a corner cage, which held three dogs. This shelter was always full to capacity and most cages housed multiple dogs. As I read the cage card, the largest of the three, a gentle, all-black female that looked like she might be a black lab-setter mix, stepped tentatively toward me, and slowly wagged her plume tail. I leaned down and scratched her chin through the chain link cage. One of the other dogs tried to shove her out of the way, but I stroked him too. I got the feeling the black dog was trying not to get her hopes up; that she had been passed over before.
The attendant led her to an outdoor exercise yard, where we could get acquainted. I could see that she was gentle and kind, and that cleaned up a bit, she would be a beautiful dog. I drove home to get my husband. We got back to the shelter only 15 minutes before closing time, and decided to adopt her. As I signed the paperwork, the attendant hugged Molly, the name I had given her because she seemed to be part Irish Setter. Then the attendant turned to us and said, “I’m SO glad you’re adopting her. I’m not allowed to say anything to influence your decision, but she was scheduled to be put down tomorrow.” Molly had been found wandering in the mountains by some hikers, but no one had come to claim her. After three weeks in the shelter, her time was up. We later determined she was probably a pure-bred Flat-coat Retriever, and she had obviously had some training. How she ended up in the shelter, hours away from death, is forever a mystery, but we got a gem. In the words of a shelter worker, “Beneath the plainest exteriors are the kindest hearts.” That was certainly true of Molly. Seven years later, when Molly and Marmaduke died of cancer just a few weeks apart, they inspired my book Angel Pawprints.
So this week I think of Molly, who came so close to being a victim of “black dog syndrome.” May all the black dogs find forever homes, where their inner beauty can shine.