The greyhound has a more illustrious history than you might know.
Greyhounds are the only canine mentioned in the Bible. They were a favorite of General Custer and Abraham Lincoln. English commoners were once forbidden to own them. They are the oldest purebred dog. Paintings of greyhounds appear in the tombs of the Great Pyramids.
So what happened to the regal status of this dog?
Turns out they’re also the fastest breed. Greyhound racing gradually became a popular form of entertainment, and by the 1950s, racetracks became a big money-maker in the U.S. The result was a lot of dogs with short racing careers, and the question became what to do with them.
But by the 1980s, greyhound adoption programs began forming; in 1998, Greyhounds of Shamrock in Louisville was begun. An off-shoot of the Shamrock Foundation, also based in Louisville, this organization rescues retired racing greyhounds.
The group is headed by Jean Varble and Jennifer Watkins. Together they coordinate the rescue of greyhounds from tracks and farms and place them with approximately 50 foster parents in Kentucky and Indiana. The goal is to place these dogs in permanent homes: so far, more than 400 greyhounds have been adopted through the program.
Jean and Jennifer had owned and loved greyhounds themselves for years—it was a natural next step to start rescuing and transporting greyhounds. As word spread among states with racetracks, more calls came in asking them to help. Gradually, transportation teams were formed to bring greyhounds to Louisville.
“Greyhounds are considered livestock,” according to Jean. “Some come from what we call ‘dead-end’ tracks,” where a dog who cannot race faces a dubious future.
It’s not a pretty picture. Greyhounds are born and bred only for racing, not as a pet, and a puppy not deemed a good racing candidate may be culled. If a dog does make it to the racetrack, it runs the risk of being injured. At one time, an injured dog would have been destroyed. But through groups such as Greyhounds of Shamrock, the public began learning that greyhounds can be wonderful pets. Breeders and trainers have been very involved in coordinating the release of greyhounds to adoption groups.
As Jennifer notes, “There are indeed good people in the racing business.” Jennifer gets more and more calls from breeders and track operators with dogs who no longer have a racing career but would be good pets.
It’s a bit of an anomaly. Dog tracks across the country continue to lose money every year; it’s a dying industry. Tracks look for ways, such as partnerships with casinos, to continue their business with the dogs. And yet, while dogs are viewed as little more than money-makers, breeders and track operators are making much more of an effort to see their dogs placed in a happier setting.
The U.S. is spearheading the effort in greyhound rescue, the first country to recognize the plight of these dogs.
But, Jennifer notes, “It’s even worse for dogs in Europe, where rescue organizations are only in the beginning stages. Dog racing is a much greater tradition there. But rescue people are coming here to learn from us how to get their own organizations started.”
Jennifer and Jean emphasize that not everyone associated with greyhound racing are bad people—they have in fact developed many cooperative relationships with racing tracks. Breeders and owners come together to transport dogs to rescues such as Greyhounds of Shamrock. It started as a result of public pressure, true, but Jennifer and Jean are seeing more people in the racing industry make an effort to help these dogs.
The goal of Greyhounds of Shamrock is two-fold: not only are efforts made to find homes for these rescued greyhounds, but the public needs to be educated about the nature of these dogs. Greyhounds as pets is a relatively new concept, and they have special needs.
Jennifer, who has adopted several greyhounds herself, says, “Greyhounds were once considered vicious. But people started bringing them into their homes and discovered they are great companion dogs.”
Jean adds, “They’re actually lazy dogs—they much prefer to be couch potatoes. People think they want to run all the time, but that’s not really true.
“And don’t get a grey thinking it’ll be a good guard dog—they rarely bark. And as sprinters rather than distance runners, they’re not good jogging partners.”
But if you’re looking for a loyal companion—Jean calls them “Velcro dogs”—a greyhound may be just what you’re looking for. Greys are quite people-oriented, directing their attention to people over other dogs.
A lot of that is due to being raised on the track, where people are all they’ve ever known. Jennifer notes that they are very naïve dogs when first placed in a foster home—they’ve never seen a TV, car, washing machine, or couch.
“You can’t just bring a greyhound home and expect it to fit in immediately. They are adaptable, but they’ve got to be socialized, more so than other rescued dogs. That’s why we place our dogs in a foster home first, where the dog can become acclimated to a new lifestyle, learn to be around other dogs, and show us any behavior that needs attention.”
And they’re not physically hearty dogs—they need to live indoors. Heat can be deadly to them, and due to low body fat cannot be exposed to the cold for long.
Jean and Jennifer take care to adopt their dogs to appropriate homes, where the dog will be properly cared for the rest of its life.
“We live in an odd, contradictory society,” says Jean. “People bring dogs home, spend great amounts of money on clothes, bedding, and food. But in the end, dogs are disposable. Look at all the people who move or have a baby, and suddenly the dog is out of the picture.”
Adopters of greys should realize it’s a long transition process for the dogs, as long as six to 12 months. Adopters should educate themselves about greys first, and be sure they can give that dog a lifetime of commitment.
“And don’t forget senior dogs,” Jean says. “They make excellent pets, and often are already socialized and trained.
“Don’t be scared by the few years you’ll have with a senior—short years are a lifetime to that dog.”