An Orlando pet shelter is betting on a bit of magic to help boost adoption rates for its toughest customers – i.e. bully breeds, including pit bulls. Much like students who don the sorting hat and await assignment into the proper Hogwarts house in the enduringly popular Harry Potter franchise (which turned 20 this year), Pet Alliance of Orlando is sorting dogs into four sections of its “Pawgwarts” kennels, based upon their personalities, abilities and interests rather than their breeds. It’s working like a charm.
“It’s a fun, lighthearted way to get people to start looking at ending breed discrimination,” Executive Director Stephen Bardy told PEOPLE of the campaign, which started in late September and has resulted in a 10-percent year-over-year increase in adoptions in October. “It’s about engaging a conversation. Instead of ‘I want a black lab,’ we want to people really think through choosing a pet. ‘I love to jog in the morning, so I need a dog that’s got good energy.’ Or, ‘I love to binge watch Stranger Things on the couch, so I need a dog that’s quieter and calm. Or, ‘My husband had knee surgery, so we want a dog that won’t jerk on the leash.’”
Sections of the shelter bear names that any Harry Potter fan will recognize: Gryffindogs, Ravenpaw, Hufflefluff and Slobberin. Before a dog is placed, it’s put through its paces by a canine behavioral specialist, who closely watches how the dog plays with toys and interacts with other dogs in a play yard, learns tricks, etc. Though placement is “not scientific by any stretch of the imagination,” Bardy says, it’s proven effective based on common traits.
“If it picks up ‘sit’, ‘stay’ and ‘come’ quickly or tries to figure out how to escape the play yard, a really crafty, intelligent dog – that’s a Ravenpaw,” he explains. “Very athletic dogs that like to run tend to fall into Gryffindog. A Slobberin is a dog that’ll try anything. He’s cunning, ambitious, a natural leader and can climb our A-frame agility structure pretty quickly. And if it loves everybody and just wants to lay on you, it’s probably a Hufflefluff.”
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The boost in October adoptions and a marked increase in both foot traffic and visits to the shelter’s website (where upwards of 90,000 people have completed an online quiz to find out which house their pets would be placed) back up studies showing that breed labels can negatively – and often inaccurately – affect perceptions and hinder adoptions.
In a 2014 study conducted at Florida’s Orange County Animal Services, shelter staff removed all breed assignments from their kennel cards and online adoption profiles. In the 12 months that followed, pit bull adoptions rose from 52 percent with breed information included on the kennel card, to 64 percent once breed information was removed. Plus, euthanasia of pit bull-type dogs dropped by 12 percent.
In fact, all other breed groups showed an increase in adoption after removal of breed information, including working breeds, which jumped eight percent. Adoptions of boxers increased 11 percent, Mastiffs 15 percent and Dobermans 12 percent.
In another study by Pomona, California’s Western University of Health Sciences, half of dogs labeled as pit bulls by shelter staff and veterinarians actually lacked DNA signatures of breeds commonly classified as pit bulls.
That’s key to helping to end breed discrimination, Bardy says.
“The reality is that only about three percent of a dog’s genome is visible.”
RELATED: Why Everything Negative You Think About Pit Bulls Is Wrong
Bardy recalls one recent visitor whose reaction to a shelter pet proved just how absurd such perceptions can be. The woman had driven two hours to the shelter to adopt a pet and quickly fell in love with a particular pup, but was dismayed to learn that is was of the Slobberin house. In the Harry Potter films, Slytherin is notorious for housing the more cunning and villainous characters.
“She left the shelter and I thought, ‘Oh, this backfired,’ ” Bardy says. “Fifteen minutes later, she came back in, very emotional and said, ‘I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m about to lose a dog I really want.’ Even in the movies, each house has core values and at the end of the novels, Harry Potter himself says, ‘I would be proud if my son were a Slytherin’.”
Word of the shelter’s Harry Potter experience has gone worldwide, even catching the attention of Lochaven International, which provided the signature sweaters, ties and scarves for costuming the Harry Potter films. The Scotland-based manufacturer sent licensed scarves and ties to the shelter for pets to don in promotional photos.
So far, though, no word from Harry Potter creator and avid pet lover J.K. Rowling.
“If she’s ever in Orlando, we’d love to give her a tour,” Bardy says.