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Craig Brownstein knows that his new roommate, young as she is, once ran with a fast crowd, and that she was something of a loser. Given her past, his constant worries about her running away are understandable. If she takes off, he’ll never catch her.
“She’d hit 40 miles an hour in three strides,” Brownstein says of the roomie, whom he calls Scout. He adopted, or “rescued,” her two weeks ago. She’s a greyhound.
Like most domesticated greyhounds, the 1-year-old dog now under Brownstein’s care was brought up in racing. Scout ran briefly under the name Shesa Wild Child at Tri-State, a track near Charleston, W.Va. Despite good breeding—her parents, Spice’s Duchess and Flying Jupiter, had respectable careers—Scout, just like the seven brothers and sisters in her litter, never showed much motivation to catch the rabbit. After just a few failed starts, she was retired.
“She was fast when she wanted to be,” says Niva Williamson, Scout’s former owner and trainer. “But she lacked any real desire to win.”
Dog racing doesn’t have a stellar reputation among the animal-rights crowd. Horror stories abound about what becomes of unmotivated or undertalented or just plain unwanted greyhounds. But luckily for Scout, a lot of the two-legged creatures in her life before Brownstein cared about her welfare, even after she’d proved she didn’t have what it takes to make it at the track.
Williamson, for one. She’s among the growing number of those who make their livelihood in the billion-dollar greyhound racing industry to become actively involved in placement programs for retiree dogs deemed unfit to stand at stud. She and her husband, the former police chief of South Charleston, started out as hobbyist greyhound owners in the early ’80s, shortly after Tri-State opened.
Her kennel slowly grew into one of the track’s largest suppliers of canine competitors—76 of her dogs now race at Tri-State, one of 55 dog tracks operating in the U.S. (According to the National Greyhound Association, dog racing is now the sixth-largest spectator sport in the country.) Although it’s now the family business, Williamson works her proverbial tail off in her off-hours, as well, to ensure that the dogs are taken care of after their careers. She now ships her retirees to Greyhound Rescue, a nonprofit Maryland adoption agency.
Brownstein, like a lot of D.C. area residents, got his racing reject from that group. Though their popularity has increased in recent years, greyhounds aren’t among the more sought-after strains of purebred dog. Their proponents say it’s a case of public misconception.
“People have this image of greyhounds as being aggressive, hyper, loud animals,” says Denise Davis, who handles dog procurement and placement for Greyhound Rescue. “But that’s just because they’re used in racing. The reality is, that image couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Greyhound aficionados, in fact, call the animals “45-mile-an-hour couch potatoes.”
For thousands of years, greyhounds have been bred for speed—they’re the fastest dogs on the planet, and, as many advocates love to point out, the only dogs that get mention in the Bible (Proverbs 30:29-31). But they need only a 30-second or so sprint every few weeks, and when they’re not sprinting, even racing dogs in top shape will sleep or just lie around for hours at a time. Even with their great wheels, retired greyhounds make horrible guard dogs because they’re so friendly; they would attempt to befriend, not intimidate, any intruders. Sloth-loving as they are, retired racers are somehow able to retain a body-fat level Calista Flockhart would envy.
Because of their skittish reputation, deserved or not, greyhounds can be picked up rather cheaply. Greyhound Rescue charges $185 for its services—pretty inexpensive for a purebred with as much paperwork as an ex-racer typically has—and almost all of that amount goes to defray medical and transportation costs for the animals. Those who take dogs from Davis have to sign a contract agreeing not to return them to racing or turn them over to medical science.
Brownstein began wanting a greyhound of his own after a friend adopted one last year.
“Like everybody else, I thought a greyhound would be jittery and high-strung and twitchy and a real pain to be around,” he says. “But I’d never seen one outside of a track. And my friend’s dog was just this big lovable bug. I’ve been in love with the breed since I met her.”
The untimely demise of his pal’s pal taught Brownstein something about the dark side of being an urban greyhound owner. “She slipped off the leash one day and saw something in the distance and took off after it,” he says. “That was it for her. Around here, a greyhound off a leash is a dead greyhound.” A mail truck hit the wayward dog, killing her instantly.
So far, Scout hasn’t shown any signs of wanting to bolt from Brownstein. When he showed up at the adoption agency to pick her up, Scout licked his face. On the ride to her new home, she calmly stood on the back seat of Brownstein’s Volvo, since she hadn’t yet learned how to sit. (Because of their physical structure, many greyhounds never sit.) By the end of her first week in D.C., Scout had fallen into a routine where most of her day was spent curled up on the couch with a slew of bunny dolls. Despite her apparently docile nature, Brownstein knows she’s bred to run occasionally, so he’s currently looking to get Scout into one of the several “play groups” run by local adoptive greyhound parents.
Judy Chopp, an owner of two retired greyhounds, organizes monthly play-group sessions in Frying Pan Park in Herndon. Chopp says the functions, which are always conducted in fenced-in areas so the greyhounds can run free and nobody has to worry about his new best friend becoming road pizza, do more than just give the dogs a chance to bark over old times with other former racers.
“This helps get the word out about what a great animal the greyhound is, what a wonderful breed,” she says. “You see how fast they go, and how quickly they get up to top speed, and it really is something. And when you hang around greyhounds for the first time, no matter what you’ve heard about them, you realize that they really are very wonderful pets.” (Another play group for adopted greyhounds is held Sundays near the Duke Ellington School in Georgetown.)
The PR effort could benefit a lot of the greyhounds now in racing. Though the figures are hard to verify, adoption groups often say that about half the dogs in racing end up being adopted at the end of their careers. Others end up at stud. And what becomes of the rest of the greyhounds?
“Oh, I don’t know,” Greyhound Rescue’s Davis stammers when asked that question. “Well, I know. I do know. But I don’t want to talk about it.”—Dave McKenna