Following on from my last post about greyhounds, I’ve had several people ask me about what greys are actually like as dogs. Contrary to concerns about public perceptions of greyhounds as athletes, no one thought that greyhounds have kelpie levels of energy, so we’re probably past the days of the general public thinking that all greyhounds are long-distance runners.
Unsurprisingly though, the general consensus was that greyhounds are just quiet, subdued dogs who live their whole lives in tiny kennels and don’t want or need anything else. That they are boring and non-interactive just because they are greyhounds. It occurred to me right around the third such conversation that my last blog post had discussed what greys weren’t, but not really done much by way of introducing non-greyhound people in the sheltering world to greyhounds! So, to make up for this, tonight I’m writing a ‘get to know greyhounds’ post!
Now, I’m a firm believer that you can’t truly love another person or animal unless you understand them. This goes equally well for both our human and animal companions – you really have to respect and appreciate the whole being before you can say that you love them (even the bits that smell bad or are just plain old annoying). Bearing this in mind, my goal for this post is to simply describe what I’ve observed and learned from greys and greyhound people – no good or bad judgements, just dogs bred for a job being dogs while learning to fit into a different world.
So, regarding their energy levels, greyhounds are typically moderately quiet but most love to stretch out and have a burn too. That burst of energy is usually only a couple of minutes long and needs to be within a large, securely fenced, and relatively flat and clear area, as they turn like a cruise liner and tear like a tissue. As I said in my last post though, whacky, wonderful, and excitable dogs exist in all breeds and greyhounds are no exception!
Greyhounds are also sensitive souls and they typically respond passively to stress. This means that when they are feeling unsure or unsafe, many greyhounds do what amounts to essentially nothing. This quiet and subdued behaviour is a stress response, so it’s important to recognise the difference between a happily quiet greyhound and one that is not coping well. In my experience, these two are often confused so if you want to learn about greys and how to keep them happy, you need to practice your observation skills!
Stressed out but passively coping greyhounds just don’t engage with the world – they look like they have no interest in interacting with or investigating their environment because they are trying (and failing) to keep the outside out. Oftentimes, these guys will seem to be working hard to ignore things, people or other animals in their environment – another dog walks straight past their nose and they don’t acknowledge it at all. They step on a stone or in a puddle and other than a quick misstep with no change in their facial expression, you’d never know. Anyone who has heard the ‘greyhound scream of death’ will appreciate how very non-dramatic that response is for a grey!
Not all greyhounds are passive copers though, and ‘fizzy copers’ (that’s my very technical term) are not uncommon despite being a smaller proportion of the greyhound population than the ‘stare at the ground and hope a hole opens up to swallow me’ crowd. Fizzy copers wind-up in response to stress – they barge gates, pull on the lead, boof into your leg while looking at everything in the environment, bounce around, and generally exude nervous energy. Fizzy copers can look an awful lot like naturally active dogs, if you don’t know how to tell the difference.
Active dogs are relaxed, will sit or stand still when the opportunity arises, they move with rhythm, and can focus their relaxed but active energy on whatever catches their attention. Conversely, Fizzy copers can’t be still even when they want to, except when you are helping them bring their focus back into their little bubble – if your ‘active dog’ slowly relaxes into a nice rhythmic scratch on the neck and suddenly starts seeming less intense while breathing more deeply, there’s a fair chance that what you are seeing is stress, not activity level, and the dog will crash hard and sleep well as soon as they feel safe.
You can’t really tell how active or otherwise either of these types of dogs are until they’ve adjusted to their new environment and are feeling comfortable and safe. Sometimes this can happen quickly – I’ve sent dogs home with a warning that it will be several days before they take a proper breath and just relax, only to hear the next day that they went home, made themselves a nest in their bed and crashed out hard! Other times, it takes days, weeks or sometimes months for a dog’s personality to come out when they finally decide their new home and family are safe.
There’s also a third category of greyhounds who show their stress in an entirely different way (bearing in mind that coping behaviours don’t fit into neat categories) – these are the sweary introverts. They usually swing more towards a passive coping style when they are a bit uncomfortable, but the sweary introverts know all the curse words and aren’t afraid to use them. These guys will share even their most prized possessions with their besties but will snark if someone they don’t trust pushes their buttons. Some sweary introverts take exception to being handled by strangers – peanut butter and black pudding go a long way to helping them feel better about wandering hands. Some resource guard in stressful environments – these guys need their beds and bowls in a quiet corner if they live in a busy household, and they are surprisingly receptive to chicken falling from the sky. I must admit that I feel an affinity for sweary introverts because I am one and in case you were wondering, cheese is my weakness!
The next thing to know about greyhounds is that they aren’t brave… if a greyhound seems brave, he’s probably a fizzy coper who is way out of his depth. There’s a lot of talk in the broader greyhound enthusiast world about whether greyhounds are all just genetically anxious, or whether they are just struggling during a major life transition, or whether rearing conditions contribute to their generally poor resilience. As a general rule, I’d say ‘All of the above’ – these are not mutually exclusive influences on a dog’s behaviour. Resiliency and anxiety both have a strong genetic basis but the expression and intensity of these behaviours are also heavily influenced by both current living conditions, and by rearing conditions, particularly a lack of novelty and opportunities to experience successful coping with adversity during growth, or repeated or extreme exposure to stressful experiences that the animal can’t successfully resolve or control.
You can help your greyhound become more brave by giving them little challenges that they can successfully navigate, once they are settled in and feeling safe. If they want the roast chicken chunks sitting in full view, they work out how to navigate the two stairs to the raised deck in the backyard where the chicken is sitting. Same with learning about different floor surfaces, or that new food you spent a fortune on because greyhounds are supposed to love it, or the new bed or coat – make it worth their while and give them a chance to work it out, and they will get better at trying new things. Clicker training (or any reinforcement-based training) helps enormously too, as does being brave yourself – like kids, dogs gain a lot of confidence when their adult humans model confident, calm and supportive behaviour.
Now, when I say that greyhounds need some time to adjust, that means weeks or more of just living in a new space with no extra life challenges and lots of rewards for just giving it a go. To really understand how fundamentally different the racing life of a greyhound is to the life of a pet dog, you need to learn about how greyhounds are reared and kept during their working life. Here in Victoria, the best place to learn this is Greyhound Racing Victoria’s ‘Greyhound Care and Standards’ website. It contains a bunch of articles like this one on Best Practice Rearing of Greyhounds which are written by the industry and tell you about how greyhounds live until they retire.
The short and sweet version of ‘this is your life – greyhound style’ is that greys are raised in their litters, usually in long runs or paddocks, until they reach 10-12 months of age. Their exposure to racing-related experiences prior to formal breaking-in depends entirely on their owners and trainers. I’ve met dogs and trainers at both ends of the spectrum in this regard with dogs raised in home-like environments to those that haven’t worn a collar until they go to the breakers. Some trainers use treats and proactively train their dogs to perform behaviours, while others opt for a more traditional ‘slow and steady desensitisation’ approach – there are no hard and fast rules in this space, so don’t assume anything about your greyhound’s life experiences during rearing.
What growing up with your siblings in an outdoor environment means is that ceiling fans, TVs, stainless steel appliances, low ceilings, glass doors… it’s all new to greyhounds who grew up in the great outdoors. The list goes on of stuff that greyhounds are experiencing for the first time after retirement, so there’s no need to go crazy and take your greyhound on ‘socialisation walks’ when they first arrive home – they have plenty enough to keep their minds busy for the moment. As a general rule of thumb, you should start adding in new stuff to your greyhound’s world when they start to look for it – if they look excited when you go the fridge or start investigating stuff around the house, it’s time to add in new challenges at home or try out that new walking route past the primary school.
Now the thing about growing up in litter groups is that many greys have had little free interaction with adult dogs or unfamiliar dogs – they are the ‘free-range, home-schooled kids’ of the dog world. This means they aren’t always socially savvy with unfamiliar dogs and their skills in a free-play situation range from ‘I have no idea why I am here so I’ll stand in the corner hope it ends quickly’ to ‘jerky teenager who thinks it’s funny to push other people’s buttons’. Given guidance and the opportunity to learn from behaviourally healthy pet dogs, many greyhounds learn to bust a move like pros. Greyhounds also have the single best play solicitation happy dance – I call it ‘stompy-stomp circle work’ (again, another highly technical term) and you can’t help but laugh and join the fun when you see it.
Now, one skill that greyhounds usually excel at where most pet dogs fail miserably is simply calmly sharing space with unfamiliar dogs and not getting all worked up about them – they practice this a lot and it shows, because you can literally take half a dozen greyhounds who do not know each other at all and walk them together with little to no fuss. It’s impressive! So much so that when domestic dogs barge up to greyhounds on lead and invade their space ‘He Just Wants to Say Hi’ style, the poor greyhound usually has little recourse but to quickly and sometimes forcefully tell the other dog to back up. Now greyhounds aren’t brave, so it takes as little as one or two negative experiences like this to turn a polite greyhound into a tense, snarky beast around unfamiliar dogs – and let’s face it, no one really likes to smell a stranger’s body odour up close and personal, so can we really blame them?
OK, now on to the predatory stuff because this is where ‘who greyhounds are’ and what most people understand about these dogs deviate significantly. As I said in my last post, greyhounds are inherently predatory – it’s part of who they are, and they don’t need a lot of practice to hone their predatory motor skills. Greyhounds also have very little, if any, exposure to dogs of other breeds up until retirement – to them, greyhounds are dogs and everything else is a mammal of some description. Until they’ve had a chance to learn that pugs, chihuahuas and Japanese Spitz are dogs, not small fluffy things that are fun to chase and kill, the line between ‘friend and food’ can be pretty fuzzy. I still haven’t worked out a great way to describe dog-dog predatory behaviour to a normal dog owner or even to pet dog trainers – we’re so conditioned to recognise growls, snarls and snaps as dangerous, and wagging tails and excited faces as friendly, that there are simply no alarm bells that naturally go off when a greyhound is focusing on another dog in a predatory manner. To many people, an excited and predatory greyhound looks for all intents and purposes like an exuberant Golden Retriever who wants to play ‘let’s crash our livers together’ wrestle games… yet they are absolutely not the same thing!
My favourite ‘go-to’ phrase for describing ‘the look’ of a focused, predatory greyhound is that if you can take a snapshot picture, swap out the other dog for a rabbit and the whole picture still fits together, that’s predation!
My favourite advice for any new greyhound owner is to use a well-fitted yard muzzle for as long as it takes to get to know your greyhound. If a greyhound lunges and tries to grab another dog (or cat, or possum!) in a predatory manner while wearing a muzzle, the other animal will get a hard knock to the back of the head or neck. With no muzzle, there’s a better than fair chance that the other animal will not survive and speaking from repeated personal experience, predatory grabbing is incredibly quick. Smart dogs don’t tell the bunny that they are trying to catch it before they catch it, or they go hungry!
While that sounds horrible and will probably make some readers uncomfortable with the idea of greyhounds killing other animals, it’s simply the way it is when you are dealing with predatory dogs (of any breed). Some greyhounds will barely lift their head to watch a cat walk past their bed, while others will actively predate on large dogs of other breeds – and by far, most are in between.
You can’t love greyhounds without understanding, respecting and acknowledging that predatory behaviour is part of who they are. While proper socialisation with other breeds of dogs (preferably during social development) goes a very long way to teaching a greyhound that Pugs and Mexican Hairless are dogs and fall in to the ‘friends, not food’ category, greyhounds are predatory because that’s what they have been bred to be for almost as long as they have existed. To acknowledge this and manage them in accordance with their needs is not unfair or discriminatory, it’s respectful to them and mindful of the rest of the community who may be at risk if a predatory greyhound is managed poorly. If that means training them to love their muzzle and Muzzle Up! proudly on walks, then that to me is advocating for greyhounds – all greyhounds, not just the ones that aren’t overly predatory or who are too uncomfortable in public to show their predatory side.
There’s so much more to greyhounds than what I’ve written about in both posts, and I do hope that some of my greyhounds friends post in the comments about their knowledge and experience with greyhounds to help my non-greyhound readers learn a little more about them. As I said last time, we’re not there yet but I can’t see why Aussie dog owners can’t learn to understand and love greyhounds just like we do other breeds here in Australia – there are plenty of them looking for back yards and loungerooms to bust a stompy-stomp move in.
This week’s picture is Lucky The Sweary Introvert busting some circle-work moves in his foster home – he is a solid boy and kinda lazy if I’m being honest, so I was very impressed by his moves!