Fla. — For shelter dogs, life is one long cheerleader
tryout. If you’re young, cute and perky, everybody wants
you. Older and plus-sized? Not so much.
some shelters are changing the way they showcase their
canine residents, hoping to get prospective adopters to
look beyond fur-deep — even beyond breed labels — to
see a dog’s true character and potential.
has become a national conversation," says Stephen
Bardy, executive director of the Pet Alliance of Greater
Orlando, the former SPCA of Central Florida. "We have
to get people to think about what they really want in a
dog, what really fits with their lives — instead of
having them just walk in and say, ‘I want a golden
the agency decided to stop labeling its rescue dogs by
their breed type — which was largely guesswork anyway
— and employ a Harry Potter-themed sorting system. As
fans of the wildly popular fantasy series know, Potter and
his classmates at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and
Wizardry are assigned to the boarding school’s various
houses according to their abilities, personality and
Pet Alliance calls it the "Pawgwarts" kennel,
where dogs are labeled by the toys they pick and how they
behave in play groups. The staff hung Potter-inspired
banners for prospective pet owners and posted each group’s
are dogs who’ve never met a stranger, their tales are
always wagging and they’re always excited to see
you," says Diane Anderson, an animal behaviorist who
did most of the sorting. "They love to play with
socks and fluffy toys."
is for the athletic dogs that chase tennis balls and fetch
sticks. Ravenclaw dogs learn tricks quickly and like
puzzle-type toys. Slytherin — or Slobberin’, as the
Pet Alliance calls it — is for the ambitious, fearless
types, like the Chihuahua that thinks it’s a Doberman.
you’re a Harry Potter fan, you instantly get it,"
Bardy says. "We hear people say, ‘Oh, he’s a
Hufflepuff! I’m a Hufflepuff!’ On the surface, it
sounds frivolous, but at the end of the day it has a
serious, thoughtful purpose behind it. We can now start
talking about these dogs in a very different way."
the first couple of weeks, the feedback has been
enthusiastic, Anderson says, though it’s too early to
say whether it will impact adoption rates and trends. And
Bardy sees it as one more step in the evolution of the
shelter, which tends to have an abundance of muscular,
square-headed dogs that used to be blanketly labeled pit
recent years, that’s a problem most shelters have.
people think it’s a pit bull, that always comes with a
stigma," says Diane Summers, program manager at
Orange County Animal Services. "But you can’t tell
the breed by looking" — nor can you tell a dog’s
personality by its breed, she adds.
years ago, the county shelter dropped breed descriptions
from its adoption website and kennel cards, becoming one
of the first in the nation to do so. If potential adopters
ask, staffers answer, "I don’t know. What breed do
you think it is?"
talked about it for months beforehand," Summers said.
"We thought it was going to be this huge change and
maybe people would come through demanding to know. And it
really turned out to be no big deal."
leads to breed discrimination in adoption and rental
housing, adoption advocates say, and it’s often wrong.
to the National Canine Research Council, studies show even
experts struggle to properly identify dog breeds based
solely on appearance, and "researchers have known for
decades that even first-generation crossbreeds usually
look dramatically different than either parent."
you know how a dog will behave based on its breed is even
more of a crapshoot.
2014, the American Veterinary Medical Association found
that the breeds reported to be most aggressive toward
people were small to medium-sized dogs such as collies,
toy breeds and spaniels, though their bites were less
likely to inflict serious injury than larger breeds. But
even dog bite data from hospitals show the most prominent
offenders have varied over the past few decades as certain
breeds rise and fall in popularity.
I was a kid, the dangerous breeds were supposedly the
Dobermans, the Chows, the shepherds," says Kim Staton,
director of Osceola County Animal Services. "Now, it’s
what I like to call the ‘big-headed dogs’ — pit
mixes, boxers, Rottweilers. … In reality, you’re
seeing about one quarter of 1 percent of their DNA in
still labels its shelter dogs based on suspected breed,
but like most shelters it also photographs its homeless
hounds in fluffy bows and funky neckties, hoping to
advocates admit that human behavior will be tougher to
change than canine behavior.
had a couple, both in their 70s, come in wanting a
1-year-old Siberian Husky," says Judy Sarullo,
founder of Sanford-based Pet Rescue by Judy. "And the
dog had no manners. I tell them I have nice dogs,
including another Husky, that are older and calmer and don’t
need a daily run and won’t knock you down. I try to say
that nicely. And then they call me a [expletive] and
accuse me of age discrimination."