Retired Racing Greyhounds: Growing Up in the Fast Lane
Early puppyhood for most Greyhounds from good farms is much like puppyhood for other dogs who are bred by responsible breeders. Good breeders recognize that handling and nurturing is critical. They take the time to introduce their pups to lots of different kinds of people and prepare them for the sights, smells, and sounds they are going to experience at the track. These owners and kennel operators believe that happy hounds are better racers. Greyhounds who aren’t handled and nurtured as puppies are problematic when they reach the track — they don’t train easily, they usually don’t run well, and they’re just plain difficult to deal with. Unlike most other pups, Greyhound puppies are kept with their littermates for several months.
Before the puppies are 3 months old, they are tattooed with their National Greyhound Association (NGA) identification numbers. These tattoos uniquely identify each dog. No two racers have the same ear tattoos. The tattoo in a Greyhound’s left ear is his litter registration number, which is assigned by the NGA. The tattoo in his right ear identifies a specific puppy in that litter. The tattoo in your retired racer’s right ear identifies the month and year of his birth and the order in his litter in which he was tattooed. The first number refers to the month he was born, the second number is the last digit of the year he was born, and the last digit is the order in which he was tattooed (which may or may not be his birth order in his litter). So if your retired racer’s right ear tattoo reads 24C, it means he was born in February (2) of 1994 (4) and he was the third pup in his litter to be tattooed (C). These numbers are sometimes difficult to read. If you can’t read them, try shining a flashlight behind your hound’s ear.
The stages of life
When the pups are about 6 months old, they are separated into groups of up to four pups. These pairs will spend the next six to eight months together, playing with old plastic bottles, running up and down the fence lines racing the pups in adjacent runs, digging holes, playing hide-and-seek, and hanging out in a wading pool in the summer heat. They are taught manners like leash walking, and they get their noses bumped for jumping on people. The pups learn basic verbal commands that will become important in their racing lives. They are introduced to muzzles, and occasionally they go to the racetrack for very slow runs. Responsible owners encourage these kinds of activities, which promote good behavior and personality. Sound temperament and training is as important in racing as it is in the living room.
At 12 to 14 months of age, the dogs’ training begins in earnest. They are moved to a kennel room along with their littermates and the dogs from two or three other litters. In the kennel room, they are housed in wire crates stacked one row above another (with the females usually housed in the upper row). A radio plays around the clock to help block out noises from other kennel rooms, arriving and departing vehicles, and other noises that may disturb the Greyhounds. Four times a day, the Greyhounds are turned out (let out into a fenced area for about an hour each time). When they are out of their crates, they have a chance to eliminate and to play with the other racers from their kennel room. During this time, the crates are cleaned and bedding is refreshed. They return to their crates and get some ear rubs, treats, and petting before the crate doors are closed.
Between the ages of 12 and 14 months, the Greyhounds are taken to the training track once a week. From the age of 14 months until they move to the track permanently (at about 18 months of age), they are taken to the training track twice a week.
When the pups arrive at the track, their early experiences with handling and exposure to new people and situations again play an important role. If a racer wasn’t handled extensively as a puppy and exposed to lots of new people and situations in positive ways, the transition to life at the track can be stressful.
Life on the track
When the Greyhounds have permanently moved to the racetrack, they race about twice a week, competing against other dogs who are also novices. Greyhounds who don’t do well are retired, even though they may only be about 2 years old. If a Greyhound wins, he begins to climb in grade and race against better and better dogs. As a dog ages, he begins to lose and moves down in grade. He may also move down in grade when he returns to racing after he recovers from an injury. Eventually, he will be retired from racing. Some exceptional dogs will be used for breeding. The lucky ones, when they’re retired, will be adopted into homes like yours. The unlucky ones are killed.
Many adopters want to know what the people in the racing industry are like. Although not all adoption groups will agree, the people who breed or own racing Greyhounds, train racers, or operate racing kennels are as diverse as any other group of people. That means they are as good, bad, or indifferent as any group of people. Some owners don’t remember their dogs unless the dogs make money and have no interest in their dogs’ futures when their careers end. Other breeders or owners take pictures of each dog before they send him off to the track to begin his career. They say goodbye with a hug and kiss and include a note to the kennel owner or trainer with information on each individual dog.
The movement toward adoption
Before the 1980s, nearly all racing Greyhounds were killed at the end of their careers. In the early 1980s, reputable industry people and public attention combined to focus attention on this problem. At that time, some conscientious breeders were already placing their Greyhounds in good homes at the ends of their careers, but there was no organized effort to do so. At one time, it was estimated that 60,000 Greyhounds were being destroyed each year. By the early 1990s, the industry began to provide estimates of the numbers of adoptions based on their records. In 1991, approximately 52,000 Greyhounds were born, but only 7,000 were adopted.
In the past ten years, thanks to the efforts of people in the industry and the work of more than 200 dedicated adoption groups, there has been a dramatic change in the fate of retired racing Greyhounds. By 1999, the number of racing Greyhound puppies born had dropped to about 33,000. The estimated number actually available for adoption each year is about 25,000. For the past several years, the number of retired racers adopted has leveled off at about 18,000 annually. Although the racing industry is doing a great deal to reduce the numbers of racers being bred and encourages breeders and trainers to make retired racers available for adoption, the number of racers born is still higher than the number being adopted. A lot of work still needs to be done to ensure that racers are placed in loving homes like yours at the end of their careers.