Greyhounds – No, they aren’t all 70km/hr couch potatoes and that’s cool!

This week, I came across a picture of a previous foster dog while I was hunting for some pictures and videos for presentation. Her name was Shelby and she was a greyhound that wiggled her way into the hearts of pretty much everybody she met. Shelby’s picture got me thinking about the greyhounds who have just side-stepped every method I have in place to maintain some professional distance with the dogs I worked with. There was Lucky the sweary introvert, Sybil the hardcore extrovert who broke every greyhound rule of decorum and laughed about it, Shelby the girl who wore her whole heart on the outside, and T-Bone the tiny girl with the wicked sense of humour and huge personality.

Not one of them was an ‘ideal’ greyhound from either a working or pet perspective. Their personalities were too big, too loud, not loud enough – they were not dogs who neatly fit into a box and they were excellent dogs exactly because of that, not despite it. They probably also say a lot about my preferences in dogs generally… I will freely and unashamedly admit that I find the typical ‘ideal’ pet greyhound to be a bit boring. So, today’s blog is basically just going to be me talking about hounds and why we need to start appreciating each individual for all of who they are.

Writing about greyhounds outside of my old workplace feels a little weird. GAP Victoria was my first and only real connection to the greyhound racing industry. I don’t have a pet greyhound myself, nor do I have plans to add one to my family for a few reasons, and although I developed a deep appreciation for greyhounds (and greyhound enthusiasts) while at GAP, greyhounds aren’t in my blood the same way they are for some of my friends and ex-colleagues. I’m also from the world of companion animal welfare science, both by training and passion, so my perspective of some aspects of the greyhound racing world is strongly influenced by who I am – I’m not personally pro-racing but I refuse to vilify those people within racing that I know love their dogs and work hard to raise them to be successful both at racing and as pets (these are not mutually exclusive goals!). In fact, I call some of them friends.

From the outside looking in and with the benefit of several years working within the industry itself with a scientist’s brain, there are a few things that really stand out to me as different about racing greyhounds from both other purpose-bred working dogs and also as pets in society. When I drill down the general theme of these things, they all circle around one specific idea – retired racing greyhounds are the only purpose-bred working dogs who are readily available to the public as pets, but marketed based on traits other than those the breed has been developed to display.

This mismatch between what racing greyhounds do and what they are marketed as when they retire struck me early-on when I entered the greyhound world. So much marketing of greyhounds focuses on the ‘70km an hour couch potato’ who hangs around and doesn’t engage in much of anything, that most potential adopters have the expectation that greyhounds are easy dogs who will just fit into a pet role, often in an apartment or townhouse in the inner city or suburbs, without much hassle or training. Now don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely greyhounds who quickly learn that humans have couches and fridges and then decide that snoods, elevators, and fancy martingale collars are a small price for a dog to pay for plush comfort and roast chicken. My issue is that there are many more greyhounds who don’t fit that ideal, and this mismatch between adopter expectations and the reality of owning these individuals is creating a marketing bottleneck and setting a not small number of greyhounds up to disappoint their new owners, through no fault of their own.

The reality is that frappes and inner-city life are not what greyhounds are bred for and there are many greyhounds who want and need more out of life. As a country girl myself, I appreciate that some dogs raised rurally find the city simply overwhelming. I almost never visit Melbourne and leave without a token headache from the noise, smell, and close proximity of unfamiliar people… and I’m short-sighted and not overly excited about breaking into a run on a good day. Given that greyhounds are literally bred and raised to hang around with other greyhounds, notice fast-moving stuff in their field of view and chase it at full speed (albeit not very far), to me it’s no surprise that many of them find cities to be less than ideal living environments and not overly fun places to visit. That doesn’t make them broken, it makes them normal!

This seems so obvious that I’m not sure quite how it came to be that both the greyhound racing industry and many greyhound advocates looking to rehome these dogs, have decided that the best way to market retired racers is as super easy, low-energy dogs who want nothing more than a couch and never have an opinion about much at all. Anybody who has ever spent considerable time with dogs from the companion and toy breeds, knows that even when you select specifically for dogs who hang around the house all day looking pretty and not thinking too much, you get individuals who are just ‘too much dog’ and need to go out and get a job. This is why you see the occasional bulldog rocking out an agility course or Bichon Frise dancing on national TV or a Pekingese having some dog sport fun with their person. Given that greyhounds are first and foremost, purpose-bred working dogs with all the behavioural and physical characteristics that come along with that role, it makes sense to expect that many of them will enjoy and want to do the stuff they have been developed to do!

Now as far as greyhounds go in the working dog world, they are in a bit of a league of their own behaviourally. Most working dogs are bred to work closely with people, be that in a detection role like a conservation or drug sniffing dog, or a working herder, or a service or medical alert dog, or a group of terriers that hunt rodents, these guys are all bred with a comparatively high desire to simply do stuff with people. Greyhounds and livestock guardians are two notable exceptions to this trend as the work they do simply doesn’t require much input from people. Once the greyhound is in the starting box, they are on their own. As a result, most working greyhounds kind of see people as just a way to gain access to good stuff – humans provide food, toys, and opportunities to stretch out and chase, but not cuddles on the couch and roast chicken for making soft eye contact. That’s not to say they can’t learn that people are worth making friends with (they readily do exactly that given the opportunity) and all good dog trainers know that the ‘training game’ starts by teaching the dog that you have stuff they want, so they are already part way there!

In other ways, greyhounds are much more like traditional working dogs, in that we’ve developed and modified their predatory behaviour to suit our own purposes. Humans have hijacked the predatory instincts of dogs for all kinds of purposes, most of which are easy to see in working-bred dogs. Detection dogs love to hunt with their nose, often for an enthusiastic game of tug as a reward. Herding dogs work livestock with the eye, stalk and chase parts of the predatory motor pattern (and even sometimes nip, ideally without going for a full grab-bite). Protection dogs chase and grab-bite, and working terriers go the whole hog when they are hunting rodents. Greyhounds are much like terriers in this aspect, in that they move through most, if not all, of the predatory sequence in their ‘work life’ – see the lure, chase it and be the first to grab on tight for your game of tug. So you see, unlike livestock guardian dogs who are actively selected to work independently and protect the prey animals, not chase them, greyhounds come with most of the behavioural ‘wiring’ to work with people – it’s just not developed in their working lives the same way that it is for other types of working dogs.

Lastly, compared to most working dogs, greyhounds leave their working lives behind them relatively early and so they raised in a very different environment to that in which they spend most of their lives. It is not uncommon for greyhounds to exit the industry before they’ve ever visited a track or reached social maturity (which happens at around 2 years of age). These dogs are young, often eager to do something, and experiencing a lot of new things for the first times in their lives at the time the leave racing. In comparison, a detection dog in pretty much any role you can think of will work well into its senior years. Same goes for all types of human service, assistance, and medical alert dogs, and for most purpose-bred protection and herding dogs too. Once the dog has shown that they can make it in whatever role they were bred for (or ended up in after transitioning from one working program to another, as is often the case for service animals and those used in border protection and law enforcement), they stay there for the majority of their life as long as they remain physically and mentally fit to do the job. As a result, most working dog programs start puppy socialisation, development, and training from as young as 6 weeks of age (and sometimes earlier), and this intense training program continues on for 12 months or more before any decisions are made about working potential. The typical working dog program is a low-numbers, high investment per animal deal. This means that dogs retiring out of these programs into the pet market are relatively few compared to the size of the working population, and for those dogs that don’t make it in any working role, they are often placed with people who have been involved with the dog prior to retirement, or with specifically chosen homes who have been on a long waiting list for that particular type of dog.

 

What all of this means for greyhounds looking for homes is that we have a population of available dogs who are mostly older adolescents or younger adults, that come from rural backgrounds and have much of the ‘toolkit’ of a working dog but don’t yet have a massive skillset to go with it. Some of these dogs are just not keen to do much work at all, including chasing stuff – they are the ones that have Instagram accounts, cuddle with cats, take up therapy dog roles, and don’t have much trouble finding a home. Some are hard-core working dogs in every fibre of their body and are just ‘too much dog’ to be safely placed in a pet home (these absolutely exist in other working breeds too – just ask any Malinois or working line GSD person). But most are just happy, adaptable dogs who want to do stuff that interests them, with people that understand them, in an environment that they are comfortable in. These greyhounds need people who will invest the time to find out what makes them tick, engage their brains and hearts, and teach them the ways of living within a human and other animal family in a human-centric environment. They are also greyhounds who need people to understand the importance of ‘muzzle or lead’ because what is fun for a greyhound may not be fun for another dog (or it might – like this husky!), and who respect their greyhounds enough to take the time to harness their inbuilt drives and channel them productively rather than squashing them. These are the greyhounds who will come into a home and do what dogs do, like protecting their beds and toys from others, running around the house with stuff in their mouth, digging holes in the back yard and just generally being bored, untrained dogs who simply don’t know how to live with people because they’ve never done it.

Additionally, some of these are greyhounds who would very much enjoy agility and competitive dog sports, while others would like to try their paw in the obedience ring, or on a flyball course, and others still have no intention of giving up their heritage and would go nuts for the chance to show-up the conformation-bred dogs and take out an ANKC lure coursing title. Plenty of greyhounds are also more than happy to learn in a less formal way and don’t take themselves too seriously – like these guys who know how to work a blanket and take a bow, and these guys who do tandem tricks! You might even find they have special powers and end up breaking a world record in an obscure sport like canine high jump.

A fulfilled and happy greyhound knows what they want, they understand how their world works, and they aren’t afraid to engage with it in order to make great things happen – just like a working dog should!

There is no shortage of passion for greyhounds in the greyhound world. One of the things that blew me away most about my time at GAP wasn’t the dogs themselves, it was the commitment of the people who just love greyhounds for who they are, most of whom were volunteers! These people didn’t love the dogs for their racing ability (although some also loved that too), or only loved the ones who fit the ‘ideal pet greyhound’ mould, or the ones who are so uncomfortable in their own skin in they just don’t do much at all so can be placed in homes with cats. They also love the quirky ones, the active ones, the ones with a sense of humour and the ones who haven’t yet learned how to take a treat out of your hand and think that cheese chunks are weird, and most importantly, they love the ones that could be fabulous learners and great family pets if someone who understands, respects, and appreciates greyhounds for who they are takes the time help them be their best selves. We aren’t there yet, but there’s no reason why many more Australians can’t learn to love sighthounds (including their predatory parts) just the same way we love Jack Russell Terriers, staffies and kelpies – ‘prey drive’ is a pretty fun thing to harness once you know how!

Greyhounds are adaptable and their minds really are a terrible thing to waste. I look forward to the day when I can go looking and find links for Australian greyhounds out and about showing the dog world what they can do, or showing off their mad trick skills on Youtube… to my greyhound-loving friends, I expect you to consider that a challenge 😉

 

The slightly dodgey pictures this week are stills from a video of Shelby’s first ever lead walk through the bush. Just a few minutes before this, her tail was tucked and she was obviously wondering what we were doing and if it was safe. Turns out she really loved exploring – you can’t tell in the picture, but her tail was doing a full helicopter twirl as she greeted Rob in the shot on the right!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *