Greyhounds: Dogs in the Fast Lane
by Nancy Faubion
Known as the fastest couch potatoes in the world, only in recent years have Greyhounds enjoyed a newfound popularity among canine lovers. With the roots of their breed firmly planted in nobility, they have found their way into the hearts and homes of dog lovers everywhere. The most distinctive silhouette of all canines, the Greyhound's form is found celebrated in the ancient tombs of Egypt, by artists of the Renaissance, and on thousands of American buses across the country. Few people really know Greyhounds and most people don't get to know them until they walk away from the track with their newly adopted ex-racer and an instruction book in hand.
Two organizations are involved in the registration of purebred Greyhounds: the American Kennel Club (AKC), which registers Greyhounds for showing, and the National Greyhound Association (NGA), which registers Greyhounds for racing. The AKC and the NGA Greyhounds are both purebred, however they have been bred to do two entirely different things. They share many of the same physical characteristics, but they have differences, too. The AKC Greyhound is judged by the very precise conformation of each body part and how they are put together compared to the standard, or ideal Greyhound. The NGA registered Greyhounds are judged by an entirely different standard, namely, speed. Instead of a career in the show ring, the NGA Greyhound is destined for a life on the racetrack. Size, sex, color and conformation are of little interest to the racing authorities, though it makes sense that the dogs who are the best physical specimens and in the best condition will also be the ones who have the best chances of successful racing careers. The NGA registered Greyhound is the best example of form fitting function, and conforms the closest to the original purpose of the breed.
In temperament, both types of Greyhound are a pleasure to own. As a breed, the Greyhound is a gentle, affectionate, graceful and low-keyed creature who has kept human beings company for thousands of years. It has been said that the Greyhound's long history of domesticity is the reason they are among the most companionable dogs. The Greyhound family includes other sight-hounds, meaning dogs that hunt by sight rather than by smell. Classifications vary in different countries, however, the groupings in the AKC are: Afghans, Basenjis, Borzois, Scottish Deerhounds, Ibizan Hounds, Irish Wolfhounds, Italian Greyhounds, Pharaoh Hounds, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Salukis, and Whippets.
The manner in which a sight-hound developed the skill to hunt by sight is very clear: Greyhound-like dogs originated in the Middle East where the terrain was wide open and flat. A dog had to be able to see what was on the horizon and chase it down with great speed. These dogs with the ability to see at least a mile worked along with human hunting partners. Several dogs would work together when they went after large game. The eyes of a sight-hound do not necessarily differ anatomically from those of other dogs, but all the other parts of the Greyhound's body have evolved for one definite purpose - speed. The Greyhound-type physique is gracefully aerodynamic in form and function, and has basic characteristics particularly designed to enhance speed: long legs, narrow head, deep chest, sloping ribs, long toes and in some cases webbed feet.
Many people want to know what makes the Greyhound run so fast. A Greyhound's top speed on a straightaway is close to 45 mph. The answer lies in the way Greyhounds run. In addition to their aerodynamic, built-for-speed body, they maintain what is called a double-suspension gallop while running. It looks more like a cat or a rabbit than a dog or a horse. In this unique gait there are two instances when all four feet are off the ground, rather than the usual one instance seen in most breeds. One sequence of the gallop off the ground occurs when all four feet of the dog are underneath him, the other when the front and hind legs are extended to the maximum, out front and behind. The dog is covering ground during these sequences of "flight", making it a very fast gait.
Ten or so years ago, the idea of adopting a retired racing Greyhound was generally unheard of. Most people had never seen a Greyhound up close and it was commonly thought that they must be hyperactive dogs with an aggressive disposition. Nothing could be further from the truth. To begin with, greyhounds are not grey. Their color and markings make up an extremely wide variety of registered colors. Today the myths about their behavior have been dispelled and thousands of these gentle retired racers are placed in homes after they leave their careers on the track. Roughly 16,000 former racers were adopted in 1998 through the many agencies and race track adoption programs across the country.
Greyhounds make wonderful pets, but are meager watchdogs. They have a very long heritage of domesticity and they are rarely aggressive enough to bark at people. Most Greyhounds do not bark at all, but can pick up the habit if living with a dog that does. They are quiet, sensitive, playful and loving. They are affectionate and gentle. Many can learn to live with cats, but the introductory period should be closely monitored. Greyhounds can be very good with children. As with any dogs, however, they have their limits and children should be monitored.
Obedience training can be very beneficial - it is recommended by adoption agencies that the dog be on a leash if it is not trained. It is not in the best interests of the untrained dog to let it off leash because it may run off. Greyhounds are friendly by nature and socialize well. Racing Greyhounds are often used to being handled by as many as six or eight people a day. They have been around other dogs all their lives, so most do very well with other dogs.
Racing Greyhounds usually retire from the track between two and four years old. If a dog is still racing when it is five, it is an exceptionally good racer. These healthy athletes enjoy many years of good health. With proper care they can live to be twelve or fourteen years old.
Living in a kennel at the racetrack, Greyhounds may have limited experiences compared to other canine breeds. Perhaps they have never looked out a window. Perhaps they have never climbed stairs or walked on smooth kitchen floors. They probably have never played with balls or Frisbees. They may not know what a swimming pool is. All of these things can be introduced to the Greyhound and he will adapt very well. He will promptly find the softest place in the house to lie down, be it your sofa, favorite chair or the bed. You need to provide your dog with a blanket, a dog bed, or something padded for him to sleep on. Greyhounds often sleep as much as a cat.
The health concerns of the retired racing Greyhound are minimal, with the exception of racing injuries. These dogs have to be in top condition to race to their full potential. Consider them the professional athletes of the canine world; dogs that are not healthy cannot perform at their best. Common racing injuries include healed fractures and torn ligaments, pulled tendons and muscles, dislocated toes, and various cuts scrapes and bruises. Racing Greyhounds have been bred to perform like professional athletes and are kept in good physical condition.
Physiologically, Greyhounds have a larger than average heart, a slower pulse rate, and higher blood pressure than other breeds. They also have a higher red blood cell count, and a lower white cell and platelet count. Some people think a low level of thyroid hormones is typical of Greyhounds, but others do not. There is often controversy about whether or not to supplement it. Perhaps the most vulnerable part of the Greyhound is his thin skin. They are prone to get lacerations because of the lack of coat and fat layer for protection. To have a Greyhound come off the track with a few minor scars is routine. They are far less prone to other skin problems than most breeds, and rarely suffer from skin allergies.
The lower amount of body fat provides very little insulation for Greyhounds, making them more sensitive to temperature extremes. In winter, provide them with a coat or sweater. Liver function and the low proportion of body fat make the Greyhound extremely sensitive to certain types of anesthesia and sedatives. Some drugs are absorbed by the body fat to lower the level in the bloodstream. If there is not enough body fat to do this, the drug stays in the system longer and can be deadly. Isoflurane gas is reportedly safe for anesthesia, but using any pre-anesthesia drugs with barbiturates or sulfur is dangerous. Certain insecticides are also harmful for the same reasons.
Greyhounds are known to have some miscellaneous hereditary disorders, but they are not common. The dogs are bred for physical fitness and speed, not looks; therefore there are not many hereditary problems. Hip dysplasia is almost never heard of in Greyhounds. Only the fittest of the fit are schooled and trained. The more money a dog makes during his career, the more desirable he or she will be for breeding.
Cynthia Branigan, author and noted Greyhound adoption activist, declares that there are two types of people for whom a retired racing Greyhound is ideal: those with families and those without. Greyhounds have a great deal of patience and tolerance for children. Greyhounds get along well with other dogs inasmuch as they are constantly around other dogs from the day they are born. They are kept with their litter mates longer than most dogs. When training and while racing they are always with other Greyhounds around the clock.
For people without children who are looking for the ideal, affectionate, low maintenance, loving pet, the Greyhound tops the list. They thrive in a household setting and take to it eagerly as if they've been denied such luxury all their lives.
"By choosing to share your home and life with a Greyhound, you are participating in an act nearly as old as civilization itself. These are the same dogs that slept alongside the pharaohs, hunted with the noblemen of the Middle Ages, and have inspired artists and poets for thousands of years. Without a doubt they are worthy of us. The question is: Are we worthy of them?" (Branigan, Adopting the Racing Greyhound, p. 4.)
There are many sources of information about Greyhounds for the interested person. Cynthia A. Branigan's Adopting the Racing Greyhound is one of the most comprehensive books containing information on everything from choosing the right dog to history and health care, training and special needs. For more about adoption, see the references listed below and the website www.adopt-a-greyhound.org. This most informative website is produced by Greyhound Project, Inc. Part of the valuable information contained therein is a complete listing of all the adoption agencies in the United States and several other countries.
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