As adoption and rehoming programs ramp up, more and more dog lovers are starting to appreciate the virtues of greyhounds as family pets. By Cameron Cooper
Gentle and laid-back—they’re not the descriptors that have always been associated with greyhounds. Yet it is now more than two decades since vet nurses Anita Smith and Melanie Tochner came to this conclusion about the often-maligned racing dogs and decided they deserved a chance for a new life as pets.
Treating the hounds at Sandown Veterinary Clinic in south-eastern Melbourne, Anita and her husband, vet Dr Alastair Smith, and Tochner quickly appreciated that they were a far cry from a breed that had long been dismissed as muzzled and mean sports dogs with no purpose off the track.
“We looked at them and went, ‘These are really nice dogs,” Anita recalls. They decided to act, setting up the Greyhound Adoption Program (GAP) and running it for five years before handing over administration duties to Greyhound Racing Victoria when it became too big for them to handle.
Since its launch 22 years ago, GAP has managed the adoption and rehoming of about 8000 dogs. Retired greyhounds or those who do not make the grade for racing undergo a temperament test before being matched with new owners wanting a pet. “It snowballed out of the fact that greyhounds had such a bad image and we knew it was wrong. That’s how it all started,” says Anita, who has a wolfhound-greyhound cross among a “zoo” of animals at home. “They were gentle, they were placid and they were really good companion animals.”
While the reputation of greyhounds is on the up and up, the racing industry itself continues to come under fire due to the mistreatment of dogs by some owners and trainers. A Four Corners investigation in 2015 exposed a live-baiting scandal in which piglets, possums and rabbits were used to ‘blood’ greyhounds as part of their race training, along with allegations of doping and abuse of the greys. The program led to fallout across the nation for the greyhound industry, including a ban by the then Baird state government on the sport in NSW, a controversial move that has since been overturned.
Last month—two years after the ban was reversed—the RSPCA uncovered a mass greyhound grave in western Sydney, on the property of a licensed and registered greyhound trainer.
At the core of the debate is the wastage rate, with Animals Australia estimating that up to 17,000 healthy greys are killed each year because they are not suitable for track competition. In response, GAP and a number of other adoption programs promote greyhounds as home-bound pets.
In NSW, Peter and Janet Flann run Greyhound Rescue, a service not affiliated with the greyhound racing industry which with the help of about 70 volunteers has saved about 1000 greyhounds since it was officially set up in 2009. The couple were won over by the affection of greyhounds and decided they had to help out.
“Once you start getting involved with greyhounds, you get hooked,” Peter says. “They’re gentle animals and there’s a saying that they’re like a box of chocolates—you have one and you want another one. They’re beautiful.”
Of course, there are some integration issues when rehoming greyhounds. As most of them have grown up in a kennel environment, they can get spooked in homes by vacuum cleaners and other noisy household appliances. However, they typically make a rapid adjustment.
Peter and Janet are strongly opposed to greyhound racing, arguing that it leads to over-breeding and abuse of the dogs by some owners and trainers. The condition of the greyhounds that arrive at their rescue centre can vary dramatically, from those that are malnourished and have broken bones to others that are in peak health.
Peter says, “There’s even the odd tear in the eye of the trainers as they hand them over [for rehoming]. But at the end of the day even those good people don’t want them. It’s the over-breeding that’s one of the big problems. What we save is the tip of the iceberg and thousands of greyhounds get euthanised every year.”
“What we save is the tip of the iceberg and thousands of greyhounds get euthanised every year.”—Peter Flann, co-founder, Greyhound Rescue
Anita, who still supports the right of the industry to engage in greyhound racing, concedes that the negative headlines have at times tested her resolve. “That has sometimes been a hard thing to reconcile while being within the veterinary industry.”
She says the short-lived NSW ban on the sport represented a tough period for the industry, adding that many trainers came into their clinic expressing surprise at the extent of the abuses handed out by some trainers. “For a lot of us it was a genuine shock and it sent the industry into a spin. Like all shocks, though, the best thing to come out of it is a positive move forward.”
While Sandown Veterinary Clinic no longer runs GAP, it is regarded as one of Australia’s premier centres for the treatment of racing greyhounds. Alastair, Anita and their team specialise in the diagnosis and treatment of muscular-skeletal injuries, promotion of optimum nutrition, and orthopaedic surgery for the dogs. They also still actively support the rehoming of greyhounds as pets.
Anita says one of the big advantages of greyhounds as pets is their breeding. As they have been bred for racing, they are typically physiologically very healthy dogs because breeders have not bred dogs with heart conditions or ailments such as hip dysplasia. Nevertheless, with vets having closer exposure to the breed in recent years as more of them have become domestic pets, Anita says some congenital problems have become apparent, including thyroid, pannus and some blood-clotting issues.
“But as far as being a good dog from a soundness point of view, they’re fantastic. They’ve been bred purely for their physical function and that has benefited them from a physical and health perspective.”
Notwithstanding positives around the rising rate of rehoming, controversy over the treatment of greyhounds continues. For example, the practice of draining hounds about to be euthanised of their blood for transfusions to help sick dogs has drawn criticism. Janet is dismayed at such actions and has called on all vets to desist. “I know my vets wouldn’t do it, but there are some rogue vets,” she says.
She adds that greyhounds brought to her adoption centre that have not been broken in and raced typically behave like happy puppies, while racing dogs tend to be subdued. She puts the latter down to cruel treatment in and around the tracks. You can see the difference. This has to stop.”
On the subject of euthanising greyhounds, Anita is encouraged that various governing bodies have put in place strict rules and regulations for vets in regard to euthanising the dogs. “[Trainers] can’t just walk in and have a dog put down—they would be in breach of strict industry regulations. They have to prove certain criteria, including ensuring that they have genuinely tried to rehome them.”
Most greyhound owners and trainers love their dogs, says Anita, but she acknowledges that it’s often a small minority that brings everyone else into disrepute. She urges vets to continue to play a crucial role in caring for greyhounds and ensuring that people understand how to care for them as they transition to life as a pet.
No resting on laurels
Taking heart from having helped rescue hundreds and hundreds of greyhounds, Janet says it is important to continue momentum for the protection of the dogs. “It makes me cry sometimes when I think of what happens to them,” she says.
Peter believes “things are improving slowly” and is confident that greyhound racing is on a downward trajectory. He is encouraged that more people are appreciating the value of greyhounds as domestic pets, including in aged care homes where their loving nature and absent doggy smell makes them ideal. “They’re a good height to pat and you can’t trip over them like a little dog,” Peter says.
His message for vets is to take all steps possible to have discarded greyhounds fostered, adopted or rehomed before resorting to euthanasia. “They should be contacting people like us to see if a greyhound can be rehomed.”
Anita says her kids get excited when they spot a greyhound wearing a green collar—an identification sign that the dog has been adopted through GAP and been subject to a rigorous temperament assessment. She explains: “It’s one of those extremely satisfying things to know that somehow you’ve played a part in 8000 dogs getting a better future and a second chance.”