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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

THE LIFE OF A RACING GREYHOUND


by Anita Hammond, Guest Blogger

AT THE FARM

Greyhounds are bred and raised at specialized greyhound “farms” which have facilities tailored to the needs of racing dogs. Until they are weaned, the pups stay with their mother in a small enclosure called a “whelping box” which is has clean, soft bedding and is climate-controlled. The whelping box has plenty of room for the brood mama to stretch out and for the puppies to explore safely. There is also an area where the mother can get away from the pups to relieve herself, eat, and get some exercise. As soon as they are born, the pups start to receive handling from people. Many farms are family businesses, so the pups may be handled by children as well as adults. It is important that the pups be socialized at an early age. If not, they will be hard to handle during later training.

1 week old puppies
After they are weaned, at about 8-10 weeks of age, the pups remain together as a litter and are moved to a larger outdoor run with dog houses. The houses are usually insulated with straw for warmth, and the pups always have shade and water and are fed several times a day. In hot weather, they are usually given a kiddie pool to cool off in, or they have a spray mister. By the time they are 3 months old, they get ear tattoos which identify their litter and their date of birth.

 3 month old puppies

At about 6 months old, the pups are divided into pairs or small groups and moved to long parallel runs, from 100 to over 400 feet long, with individual or group dog houses. They love to run back and forth along the fence lines, chasing each other. All this running helps them build muscles and prepares them to race. At this stage, they are trained to accept a muzzle and walk on lead, they learn basic voice commands, and they are introduced to the “squawker” which will be used in later training.

 Dogs in a long run
At about a year to a year of age, the young dogs are moved to a kennel building similar to the one they will live in at the track. Each dog has a crate (sturdy metal cage) which is 3 feet wide, 4 feet long and 3 feet high. There is plenty of room for the dog to stand, turn around, lie down and stretch out. Crates are stacked two high; the male dogs go in the lower crates and the females are taught to jump into the upper ones. The crate will have some kind of bedding or padding for comfort, and the kennel will be air-conditioned and heated. Although some people think it is cruel to keep greyhounds in crates, many hounds feel secure and cozy in their crates and look forward to getting back to them after an outdoor run. The dogs can see each other, and there are people around, doing their routine jobs. A radio is often left on at night to keep the dogs company and drown out little noises that might otherwise startle them.

 Kennel crates
The dogs are “turned out” in groups into a large pen four or five times a day for about 45-60 minutes for exercise and elimination. They wear muzzles to protect themselves from accidental injuries while playing. Their crates are cleaned and bedding is changed daily while they are outside.

The dogs are fed once a day, plus an evening snack. There is a myth that racing dogs are fed impure or diseased meat. This is not true. The dogs get a balanced, nutritious diet which is designed to keep them at their racing weight. The main food is raw meat, mixed with vegetables and rice or pasta, plus nutritional supplements. The amount of food is calculated to keep each dog at its ideal racing weight. People sometimes think that greyhounds are starved because they look skinny, but they are solid muscle and bone, with almost no body fat. Greyhounds are athletes, and just like human athletes, they have to have exercise and eat a nutritious diet in order to perform at their best.

While living at the kennel, the dogs are taken twice a week to the training track where they learn to run on the oval track, use the starting box, and chase the lure. They develop their strength and speed in preparation for racing. Some large greyhound farms have their own training track. Others take the dogs to a specialized training facility.

Hounds chasing a lure

AT THE TRACK

When they are 18 months old, the dogs are moved into kennels at the track. The litter is not usually kept together at this point, and they may not all go to the track at the same time, or even to the same track. The dogs have “schooling” or practice races on the actual track and they go through the same routine they would for a regular race. The trainers keep records of each dog's performance and watch for any bad habits that need correction. After the required number of schooling races, a dog may be entered in a maiden race, sent back for further training, or if not suitable for racing, sent immediately into an adoption program.

There is a range of experience levels, or grades, in racing. Dogs start in the lowest grade. If they race well, they move up to the next grade. If they perform poorly, they are downgraded. A successful racer usually races until he or she is 4 years old. Exceptional dogs may continue racing to age 5, which is the mandatory retirement age.

And they're off!

A dog usually races once or twice a week. The length of the race is from 330 yards (3/16 mile) to 770 yards (7/16 mile) and it's over in less than a minute! The dogs scheduled to race that day are fed lightly in the morning so they do not have a full stomach at the time of their race, which could make them susceptible to gastric torsion when turning corners at high speed. It's not true that they are “starved” on race day to make them run faster. Greyhounds naturally love to run and to chase things. Before the race, the dog is weighed, examined by a vet and taken to a holding area. When it's time for the race, the dogs are dressed in their numbered racing jackets and each is led by a handler to the starting boxes. The dogs wear special racing muzzles which aid in determining the winner in photo finishes. When the box opens and the lure (usually a stuffed toy rabbit on a mechanical arm) starts moving, the dogs burst out of their boxes to give chase. The lure moves just fast enough to elude the fastest dog. After the race, the dogs are led off the track by their handlers. They are bathed or hosed down to cool off and are taken back to the kennel to rest before having their meal and getting turned out.

Many people ask about injuries at the track. Injuries happen, just as they do in any sport. The rate of injuries for racing greyhounds is similar to the rate for other working dogs and active family pets. Track Data Systems, a company that keeps racing statistics, estimates 1 or 2 injuries per 1000 starts. The trainers and track owners do everything they can to minimize injuries by making sure the dogs are fit to run and that the track is in good condition. An injured dog can't run, so can't make money for its owner. There are vets who specialize in greyhounds at the track during the race and vets on call at all times at the kennel. Ideally, an injured animal is treated and returns to win races again. Good racers who are injured and can't return to racing may be sent back to the farm for breeding. Dogs who recover but can't race well can still make great house pets. The ASPCA and other anti-racing groups overstate the risks to the dogs from racing, and are lobbying to eliminate dog racing altogether. Remember that in greyhound racing, all injuries are reported, and most injuries are minor ones such as sprains.

LIFE AFTER RACING

Nowadays, about 95% of retired racers become pets through an adoption program or retire permanently to the farm where they grew up. Some racetracks, like Gulf Greyhound Park in Texas, have their own adoption programs. Off-track non-profit adoption groups may have kennels of their own, or they may depend on individual foster homes to keep the dogs while they are awaiting the right home.

Most dogs are from 3 to 5 years old when they come up for adoption, but there may be some younger ones who didn't race well and some older ones who have been used for breeding before adoption. They live to be 12-14 years old on average, so you will have many years of companionship with your adopted hound. Because these dogs have always had a lot of interaction with different people, they usually adapt quickly to family life.

Texan in his foster home
My husband and I have adopted two retired racing greyhounds, and we are serving as a foster home for racers waiting for homes. Our first greyhound never raced, and went straight from the farm into a foster program. Our second is a racer from a champion bloodline, who came to us after having two litters of puppies, who are now racing. We work with a small non-profit adoption group, Fast K9's Greyhound Adoption, which works with several local farms and trainers. Our job as foster parents is to make sure the new dogs get basic house training and have been introduced to strange new things like stairs, mirrors, life with cats, getting into and out of a car, and walking on slippery floors. The foster parents also bring their dogs to an open showing at a local pet store twice a month where they meet potential adopters. We make note of any behavior quirks or personality traits of the foster dog that might be a problem. For example, a dog with a strong prey drive would not be placed in a home with cats or small dogs which might be seen as prey. A dog that shows anxiety when left alone would be placed in a home with another dog or with people who are home most of the time and are willing to work with the dog to overcome its fears. Finally, our foster families and adoptive families serve as dog-sitters and vacation boarding homes for each other, so that our dogs are cared for when we are away by someone who knows and loves greyhounds.

Shirley, our first greyhound

1 comment:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this article on racing greyhounds! I had always heard only the negative side of the sport and the dogs, so reading such a well-balanced article was refreshing. The only thing I take issue with is the locking up of the dogs in the crates after they are 1 year old.
    Let me first say - I'm fully aware and appreciate the benefits of a crate. My own German Shepherd dog is crate-trained and it was the first thing I did when I brought her home. She's a rescue and was abused, so when I opened the door and threw in some treats, she went right in and would in stay there by my desk during the day. That are a valuable tool, I agree.
    But the part I don't understand - why lock these dogs up all day and only "let them out 4 or 5 times" - they're racing dogs, so why not let them roam in outside kennels in small groups and keep up their exercise / socialization all day?
    That's my only beef with the way the dogs are handled...dogs are such social-oriented animals, that it seems to me that would be incredibly boring and stifling to their otherwise quality lives.
    Thanks for writing this - it was very informative.

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