Ideopathic Fear and Withdrawal In Greyhounds

by Dennis McKeon
One of the most educational aspects of working with large populations or colonies of Greyhounds in racing, is to watch how the pack interacts, and to observe the dynamics of it. Greyhounds have always been pack animals. Not just historically, but in actuality. They have hunted and coursed in packs, and today they race in packs. There is a lot of discussion today attempting to debunk the very existence of certain pack dynamics and interactions, based on a study of wolves. Greyhounds aren’t wolves, and anyone who has ever worked with colonies of greyhounds, would dispute the popularly implied conclusions of that study.

Greyhounds are kept with their dams much longer than most, if not all breeds, and they begin their socialization training within their own family units. Within that unit, a pecking order develops. There is usually always a dominant individual, and depending upon the size and nature of the litter, there might be both an alpha male and female. Often, they are the play leaders. The alphas are not always the best athletes or the fastest in the litter, and they can often seem to be “above the fray”, particularly when mature adults. Occasionally you come across one who is noticeably “above the fray” and who is intently focused, to the point of appearing to be aloof. Sometimes they turn out to be superior performers on the racetrack.

More educational, is when these small packs are introduced to the larger pack of the kennel, either at the track, or on the breeder’s facility. It is simply fascinating to see how they integrate themselves within the pack, and the dynamics of it. Sometimes it can mean trouble, when introducing future colony alphas to current colony alphas, or to one another. You have to be able to read dog body language well, and to recognize instantly when there is a disturbance within the pack “force”.

Now the alphas are not the only ones that require your attentions. Betas, who are sort of less detached individuals, can be in constant need of your supervision, as they often push the envelope of the pack’s serenity, and while not seeking dominance, can sometimes seem to almost invite correction.

Greyhounds at the bottom of the pack hierarchy are “omegas”. These are often high strung, nervous, shy, retiring, submissive types, who are only followers. Sometimes this “follower” mentality results in a racer who doesn’t want to lead the pack at all. But more often, the omega personality is simply a tightly wound follower, lacking in self-confidence, and somewhat introverted. We used to call these types “touchy” or “squirrelly”. They are not necessarily that way when competing on the racetrack, however.

Occasionally, adoptive owners of omega and other lower ranking pack members, mistake their dog’s “personalities” as being the result of inattention, or even rough or inappropriate handling and a lack of proper socialization. This may be the case in some instances. More likely, their natural nervous energies and absence of self-assurance is amplified by the extremely challenging life adjustment from the racing kennel to the family domicile—where all sorts of new and intimidating objects and arrangements confront them. Good and empathetic pet owners are patient with these dogs—and there are many more of them than there are alpha types—and they slowly acclimate and re-habituate them to their new lives. It has all worked out splendidly, as we know, and retired greyhounds are phenomenally popular as pets. Even the shy, touchy types seem to find their forever homes.

We have to remember, however, that greyhounds are bred to be highly reactive to anything within their field of vision, which commands 270 degrees. They are hunters and coursers of game, and have been so for thousands of years. They notice things, and they respond in kind. Novelty can upset them terribly.

One of the great mysteries of the Greyhound world, and the canine world in general, is the “spook” phenomenon. There seems to be very little information available on this anomaly. “Spooks” are greyhounds who are pathologically fearful of everyone and everything with which or whom they are not intimately familiar. They are profoundly terrified of any sort of novelty. Spooks are genetic. Many great and hugely influential greyhounds in pedigrees were spooks. Westy Whizzer, Representation and Unruly are three who have had enormous impact upon the breed, and who occasionally threw spooks, just like they were. Spooks who are bred, tend to throw a higher percentage of spook offspring, though some never pass the anomaly on.

All dogs develop a natural fear response at about 8-12 months of age. For some reason we don’t quite understand yet, sometimes this natural fight-or-flight instinct appears to go haywire, and the dog becomes entirely anxious, fearful and withdrawn. Anyone who has ever raised a litter of spooks—and I have—is always heartbroken when they see this phenomenon developing, and are powerless to do anything much to remedy it.

Some very astute observers of greyhound behavior are of the opinion that the spook phenomenon may be a form of canine autism. According to PetMD: “Profound fear and withdrawal of unknown cause (so called idiopathic fear and withdrawal) has also been noted in certain dog breeds, including the Siberian Husky, German Shorthaired Pointer, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Bernese Mountain Dog, Great Pyrenees, Border Collie, and Standard Poodle, among others. There appears to be a strong familial component, with the likelihood of a genetic influence.”

While the racing greyhound who develops idiopathic fear and withdrawal syndrome can behave quite normally around his/her handlers and familiars, they become completely withdrawn and terrified of any new people who are introduced to the kennel environment, as well as when being placed in novel situations.

Naturally, they are a true challenge to potential adopters, and only greyhound savvy individuals with a great deal of empathy, time and patience would be advised to adopt a greyhound who exhibits this unusual disorder. These aren’t simply shy, touchy, squirrelly omega types, or just high-strung greyhounds. As a matter of fact, I’ve handled at least one spook who was the alpha female in a racing kennel. Their anxiety and fear can be somewhat mitigated if they are adopted into a small pack, or by those who already have a well-adjusted and confident greyhound.

The rewards, needless to say, of winning the trust and love of a true “spook”, are well worth the time and energy required, and the implementation of a punctual and reliable routine, absent novelties, as much as is possible. When you finally bond with them, they will follow you anywhere. It’s almost as if they’ve kept themselves all bottled up, to finally shower down the cloudburst of their affections upon you, once you have finally broken through those vexing personality barricades.