by Dennis McKeon
The Importance of Population
I wish some of the late racing professionals who began the process and who envisioned the concept of comprehensive adoption for retired racing greyhounds, could see the way things have worked out. No doubt, they’d be pleased.
It was a quantum leap of faith back in the late 70s and early 80s, to imagine that racing greyhounds, a breed that had been publicly and raucously vilified by the jackrabbit crusaders and their media allies, could someday have become the sensation they are today in adoption.
This was a time when most young greyhounds, before they were trained to chase a lure on the training track, were allowed to course after live game, specifically the pestilence of jackrabbits.
Even though a good “jack” can run a good greyhound right off his legs, even though greyhounds have been chasing hares since prehistoric times, this method of pest-control provoked an outcry from the animal rights activists of the era. The crusade to outlaw the coursing of live jackrabbits was successful in some states, but at a great cost to the greyhound.
He was said, by those jackrabbit activists, to be “trained to kill”, and to be “bloodthirsty” and “vicious”. The public lapped up this nonsense, regurgitated by the old media at every opportunity. Needless to say, the great jackrabbit crusade and its attendant propaganda inhibited the progress of those early adoption pioneers, who were not only attempting to evolve culture within the racing community, but who now had to deal with re-educating a thoroughly misinformed public.
Fast forward to the present day, and we see the same sort of ignorant and sometimes willful misinformation prevalent in all forms of media. The most galling aspect of this mythology, to any of us who ever have worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, caring for greyhounds, would have to be the accusation that racing greyhounds are “abused” and treated cruelly, as a matter of routine.
This is preposterous for many reasons, not the least of which is that people generally gravitate towards working with greyhounds because they love dogs. It also should go without saying be that greyhounds are very expensive, and require a significant financial and physical commitment to be raised to the stage where they are track-ready, and finally able to win back some of that investment capital. The fact that this blanket condemnation still has traction, even as thousands of retiring greyhounds each year beguile and fascinate their enchanted, new adoptive owners, is a testament to the power of pure propaganda and shameless bias in media and pop culture.
The idea that such universally abused and cruelly treated dogs, who are not even “bred to be pets”, could have become the pet sensation of the canine world, flies in the face of everything we know to be true about canine disposition and temperament.
Greyhounds have been universally acclaimed for their sweet and loving nature, and their unassuming, level temperament. These and other attributes manifest within a population, as a cause and effect of bloodlines, breeding, raising, training, handling and environment.
Greyhounds, like all other canines, are the sum total of all these things. The racing greyhound is who he is, with all his affections, charms, instincts, quirks and foibles, because of his racing genetics, his racing background and his racing life experience–not in spite of them, as popular greyhound mythologists would have us believe.
It should go without saying, that making the complete life adjustment from racing athlete to family pet is no mean feat. Yet retired greyhounds do just that, by the thousands each year, to near unanimous acclaim. It could hardly be inferred by anyone of even modest critical thinking ability, that horribly abused and traumatized dogs would, without so much as a pang of conscience, make it their first order of business when beginning their lives as pets, to commandeer the living room couch.
Even though, when entering their new lives as pets, they are without their pack mates for the first time in their lives, they adjust.
Even though they are facing brave, new, challenging and intimidating objects, environments and routines for the first time in their lives, they adjust.
Even though they are among strange humans, whose voices, commands and mannerisms are unfamiliar to them, still they adjust.
And they are able to adjust, because they have learned to trust the humans they have encountered during their lives. That’s how dogs work, and no amount of hateful propaganda can change that.
Now, without a doubt, there are timid, nervous and skittish greyhounds, for whom this process of completely re-habituating themselves is more problematic. Some of these are “Omega” personalities, who, within their pack, were always the followers. Some of them are just high-strung, and hard-wired to be reactive. Much of greyhound temperament is highly heritable, and “racing temperament” is a fundamental feedback that breeders use to select which greyhounds will be bred. Yet we must remember that “pet-ability” is never a concern or a consideration among racing greyhound breeders in the process of selectivity, and “petability” has nothing whatsoever to do with racing ability.
Racing Greyhounds are bred to be bold, tenacious, courageous and athletic race competitors. Some of the most dead game, aggressive and totally dominant greyhounds who ever set foot on a racetrack, however, were edgy, skittish, or nervous submissive sorts when not competing. Yet many greyhounds of this type were also quite successful as breeders. Hence, those traits they expressed, both on and off the racetrack, were passed onto sons and daughters, and so to future generations.
One of the reasons for this Jekyl/Hyde conundrum we find in some greyhounds, is what they call in Ireland and the UK, “keen-ness”. The much-desired attribute of “keen-ness”, that is, being “keen” to chase and compete, is rooted in the greyhounds’ heightened powers of observation, his acute awareness of his environment and his surroundings, and his natural place in the evolutionary scheme of things as a sight, chase, catch and kill hunter.
“Keen” greyhounds are hyper-sensitive to everything going on around them. They are super-focused.
They can be the alpha-predator or they can be the prey in any given moment or situation.
They are always on the lookout for something that offers the possibility of a chase, or anything that constitutes a threat.
In an unfamiliar environment fraught with novelty, this aptitude can sometimes be paralyzing, or even render them oblivious of their owners. The latter situation is especially so, when something they feel might be fair game is interpreted by them as being afoot, or when something they may perceive to be an unknown threat catches their notice. Their natural “fight or flight” instincts lie very close beneath their thin skin.
The Racing Greyhound colony and pack is all things canine, from the stalwart, detached alpha personalities, to the ebullient and envelope-pushing betas, right on down to the timid, supplicating, sometimes even pathologically fearful omega types. His diverse and ancient bloodlines assure us that there will be a plethora of personality types in the racing and adoption colonies, none of those personalities the result of fashion or fancy, and all of them sharing the common heritage of pure, unadulterated functionality, breathtaking speed, thrilling athleticism—and a dauntless, competitive spirit, when their blood is up.
In pop culture today, the Greyhound holds a unique place. He is widely viewed as a victim of human greed and ruthless exploitation. This, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, in the form of hundreds of thousands of loving, well-adjusted, retired greyhound pets. This is still the misconception, despite the fact that not one greyhound from among that remarkable racing population has ever been bred to be a pet.
The Racing Greyhound is still regarded by many low information, misled critics, as an object of pity, rather than the brilliantly adapted athlete and superbly tempered “hunter” he is.
Some even wring hands and gnash teeth over the supposed indignities, cruelties and abuses their own greyhound has been subjected to, without knowing anything about their greyhound’s individual history. Their concern is touching, but most times unfounded in the greyhound’s reality.
Of course, there are cases of cruelty, and there are greyhounds who have been treated with coarse, unthinkable insensitivity, as there are anywhere fallible human beings interact with animals. But these isolated cases have no more in common with the vast majority of greyhound professionals than do the actions of Michael Vick have with the general pet owning population.
Nevertheless, there is a chasmic “disconnect” among many greyhound lovers, between the individual greyhound(s) they love so dearly and the greyhound population.
Without a genetically diverse, splendidly adapted and supremely functional population, we cannot have an individual greyhound who expresses those many attributes that emerge from such a population—which are the very things that endear the greyhound to all of us.
At the cellular level, your retired Racing Greyhound is the embodiment of nearly a century of the genetics, the inputs and the feedback of track racing alone. Racing is the one and only thing that supports the Racing Greyhound population, by far the largest of all greyhound populations in the world.
When a population contracts to the point whereby irreplaceable DNA strains and entire female families of greyhounds are lost forever, we have irreparably damaged that population. For each one lost, we have reached the point of no return. The more a population contracts, the more problematic the breeding of sound and well-adapted specimens becomes.
So while it is heartwarming to see all the love and concern that is showered upon individual greyhounds by their adopters, we have yet to see that concern translated, within the popular greyhound culture, to the greyhound population–which is the wellspring of all greyhounds, past, present and future.
Those original pioneers of greyhound adoption understood this immutable interconnection. They cared for the individual greyhound, but understood the crucial importance of the population, and from where, how and why the objects of their affections came to be.
You can’t have one without the other.