27 December 2011

It's a dog's life - The other side of the greyhound track (Pt III)

I've been meaning to finish blogging about my work experience for a while now - ever since August in fact -  but since I've started back at university and now run Puppy School classes, my time just seems to have evaporated.

However, I do want to share what the final part of my work experience provided me  -  the opportunity to see behind the scenes at Nottingham Greyhound Stadium.

I'm well aware of how the racing industry polarises opinion and I don’t want to get into the rights or wrongs of racing, this isn’t what my blog is about.  As previous posts have explained, I want to work with retired greyhounds, and their owners, post-racing and to do this I feel that I need to understand how these hounds have been nurtured before their retirement life as a sofa surfer.

I can only blog about what I saw - not what may happen at other tracks or at other trainers.

A 'civvy' goes trackside
It's pretty rare for a ‘civvy ‘to see what goes on behind the scenes before, during and after a race.  To attend a greyhound race as an official handler, you need a licence from  the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, (GBGB) which is the governing body for regulated greyhound racing in the UK.  Jane approached GBGB on my behalf and I was granted a temporary licence as a kennel hand.

Nottingham stadium
Nottingham Stadium. Photo: John Wardell
For me, attending a racetrack as a handler was something I felt I needed to do.  I wanted to see for myself how a greyhound is treated and what checks and procedures are in place trackside. 

I also wanted to use the opportunity to observe greyhounds’ behaviour before and after a race – not something you can easily do as a spectator.  At university, we’re encouraged to observe behaviour from a scientific point of view, which can be very hard when you have an emotional attachment to a breed or dog.

Greyhound Board of Great Britain
The Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) is the governing body for greyhound racing at licensed tracks in the UK.  GBGB came about as a result of the 2007 Lord Donoughue report  into greyhound racing.  The report was commissioned in the wake of reports of greyhound welfare issues, notably at Seaham, Co. Durham, which – quite rightly – created a media storm and alerted the public to some of the welfare problems surrounding the sport during the passage of the Animal Welfare Bill.

At the time greyhound racing was overseen by two bodies – The British Racing Greyhound Board and the National Greyhound Racing Club.  As a result of this report, GBGB was established in January 2009.  However, GBGB is only responsible for governing the racing at GBGB licensed tracks and not the unlicensed 'flapping' tracks.

At the track
For many kennel hands, track days are long days.  You’re on the go from early morning until at least 11pm/midnight.

The hounds that are racing on that particular day are carefully checked at the kennels - they are weighed, groomed and checked to make sure they’re in full health prior to racing.   Then mid-afternoon, the hounds are prepared for their journey to the track and are put in the van, in individual crates/compartments, ready to go the track.  Depending on the trainer, most vans are equipped to transport between 6-12 greyhounds.

When we arrived at the track, we unloaded the dogs one by one.  Our first task was to let them go for a pee and a poop  (there was a sandy area especially for this, fully equipped with bins and shovels).  If I timed it right I realised I could position the shovel in the right place – as anyone who’s read my previous post will know that I couldn’t manage the flick of the poop onto the shovel! - and 'catch' the poop before trying to make a mess of scooping it.

Then each dog was taken into the kennel area.  This is an air conditioned building, with an outside paddock area, where the hounds are checked and gathered immediately before a race, and rows of internal kennels.

The amount of checks each hound underwent were phenomenal.  When you arrive in the kennel area, you provide the dog’s name to a member of the track staff and then the checks begin… Firstly, the dog’s ear tattoo (or tattoos if he/she is a dog of Irish origin) is checked and compared against the name and database information.  Then the dog is scanned for his/her microchip – again to check that the dog isn’t a ringer.  These details then appear on a TV screen above the scales, where the dog is weighed.  A racing greyhound's weight can only fluctuate within 1 kilo of his/her last racing weight - if the hound is over 1 kilo heavier or lighter they will not be allowed to race.

First bend at Nottingham
Racing at Nottingham. Photo: David Yanez on Flickr

Once the identity of the dog has been checked and verified, it was time to go through to the kennel area - when entering this area, the dogs have to be muzzled.  The dogs are then checked by the vet before being admitted to their individual kennel.  The vet checks their gait, general health and re-checks the ear tattoos.

Each dog is given a kennel which is numbered and allocated by race.  The kennels are the size of a large crate (as in crates used by many pet dog owners) and provide enough space for the hounds to stand up, move around and lie down.  Each kennel has clean bedding of the vet bedding variety and is airconditioned/well ventilated.

Before the dog is popped into their kennel, a member of staff checks the ear marks again and scans the microchip.  Once the hound is in their kennel, the door is locked.  The reason the door is locked is to prevent any tampering with the dog before a race.

Race time
When it's time to prepare the dog for his/her race there are another series of checks to go through. When collecting a dog from their kennel, I had to provide the member of the track staff with the dog's race name, the race he/she was in and their kennel number.

The member of staff then unlocks the kennel to let the dog out.  The dog's ear marks are re-checked and then I was able to put the dog in their racing jacket, fix their race muzzle and attach their leather fishtail collar and lead.   The dog is then led by the handler into the paddock area, where he/she is scanned again for the microchip and another vet check is undertaken.

When given the signal the handler leads the dog out onto the track, where the dog is announced to those attending the race.  Upon another signal each dog is taken to the traps and they are placed individually into the relevant trap.  They are only in the trap for a matter of seconds before the race begins.

(Video is of my greyhound Stevie & was provided by his racing owner prior to his retirement . This race took place before GBGB was established)
At the end of each race the vet is there to check each hound after he/she has finished the race.  If any hound has sustained an injury the vet is able to treat them.

Once the race is finished each dog is taken back to the paddock by the handler and checked over.  Their faces are washed to get rid of any sand and their paws are washed and checked to get rid of sand and to make sure there are no cuts.  They are then taken back into their individual kennel and provided with a fresh bowl of water.  The track is very stringent about leaving each dog in their kennel for a minimum of 15 minutes after the finish of each race (instead of taking them straight back to the trainer's van).  Again, this is to ensure that the health is not compromised - if there was an issue that did not present itself immediately after a race, the time lag ensures that if there was such an injury the vet could attend to it.

The track at Nottingham is 437m in circumference and on the occasions I was at the track I witnessed one accident where a pair of hounds bumped each other and one ended up doing a somersault.  This is the part of the sport that I, and from the trainers I spoke with, dread.  Everyone wants their dog to come home safe and injury-free.  In the race where the bump happened, both the dogs seemed to be fine and were checked by the vet. However, another dog which was not involved in the bump had gone lame and was attended to by the vet immediately after the race.

Welfare Observations
At one of the races I attended I was interested to see that there was a Greyhound Welfare Officer listed in the programme and present at the track.  I spoke with him as I was intrigued to understand his role. He is responsible for ensuring the welfare of the dogs both at the track and those who are about to retire. If he feels that the welfare of a dog is compromised, my understanding is that he is able to take relevant action to tackle it.

With the number of checks in force at the track I visited it would be very difficult to tamper with any dog or substitute a ringer once they're at the track. GBGB also has a stringent approach to anti-doping. At any GBGB licensed track, random urine sampling and tests can be undertaken to test whether a dog has been doped.

I was especially interested to observe the dogs' behaviour when they were with their handler, waiting in the paddock just before the race started.  I was on the look out for stress signals such as hyper vigilance, lip licking, crouched body posture, panting and shaking.  Whilst I did see signs of stress in some dogs, I did not see signs in all dogs. And those that were exhibiting stress signals were not the extreme signals of stress that I have sometimes seen at general dog shows and in rescue kennels. In contrast there were some dogs that showed signs of anticipation that we would probably term as excitement (think how excited your dog may get when he/she is shown their lead).

Overall, I was impressed with the facilities and standards of care I saw at the track.  I understand that injuries may happen but, in my opinion, injuries can happen as equally off the track as on (just ask my dog Mina).

The future of racing
So what does the future hold for greyhound racing in the UK?  Track attendances are dwindling and there are calls to ban the industry.

What would happen though if greyhound racing was banned?  There would certainly be an economic impact for those who run racing kennels and those connected to racing – staff at tracks and kennels, manufacturers (pet food, bedding etc), along with the rehoming charities and rescue centres.  And what about the dogs themselves?  If greyhound racing was banned tomorrow, would it lead to mass euthanasia of the thousands of dogs in racing kennels?  How and where would these dogs be homed?

It may surprise you to know that despite the number of greyhounds that retire from racing each year, the Greyhound is listed on the Kennel Club’s native vulnerable breed list.  In 2010 only 65 pedigree greyhounds were registered with the Kennel Club and up to the end of September 2011 only 12 greyhounds have been registered.

I don't know what the answer is and I can see both sides of the argument for and against racing.  At the end of the day the greyhound is an amazing breed and one that I hope I will always have the privilege of working and sharing my life with.

Please do comment and share your views.*

*Please keep responses polite.  Any abusive comments will not be tolerated and will be removed.

PS You can read my previous posts on my work experience here:
It's a dog's life - A look at greyhound racing kennels (Pt I)
It's a dog's life - A 'school' for greyhounds (Pt II)

15 October 2011

Cooking for Canines - Sardine Squares

I love baking - for humans or hounds - there's nothing quite like home baked treats.  The great thing about cooking for canines is that I know and can control exactly what goes into my home baked training treats.

Liver cake is always a favourite with Mina, Stevie & Jasper, but it's not for the squeamish and isn't suitable for use when training puppies ( need to be careful with the vitamin A content).  So, Ive had a go at fish alternative...Sardine Squares which you can make it in the microwave or oven.

For speed, I thought I'd try it in the microwave - experimenting with optimum cooking times.  The results were great and were definitely appreciated by the hounds.  I also tried it on the puppies in my Puppy School classes and it went down a treat!

If you'd like to have a go, here's the recipe:

2 x tins of sardines in oil (tins are around 85gm)
2 x eggs
300gm rice flour
2 cloves of crushed fresh garlic (optional)
60ml water
Teaspoon fresh chopped parsley

1.   Whizz sardines and garlic in food processor
2.   Add eggs, flour and whizz until mixture comes together
3.   Add water and chopped parsley
4.  Whizz in processor until mixture is a medium dropping consistency
5.  Transfer to greased and lined baking tin (if baking in traditional oven)
6.  Bake for around 20-25 minutes at 180C (Gas Mark 4) until firm.
7.  If baking in microwave, transfer to a greased (I used 3 plastic containers) container
8.  Microwave on full power for 4½ minutes (based on 1000 W oven)
9.  Allow to cool, turn out and cut into small squares
10.  Keep in airtight container in fridge for up to a week or freeze for up to 3 months.

Mina seemed to love it too and did very well keeping her nose out of temptation's way... that's what I call Impulse Control!

"Aww, Mum please can I have a sardine square?"

If you try the recipe do let me know how you get on, or share your dog's favourite training treats and leave a comment.

22 September 2011

Do You Ever Get The Feeling....

The salad dressing that thinks it's a volcano
....that someone's trying to tell you something? If my last two mornings are anything to go by, someone, somewhere seems to want to tell me something! I've just not figured out what it is yet.

Yesterday, I thought I'd try to be organised and prepare myself  a healthy packed lunch and salad.  I had a lovely new M&S salad dressing (Sicilian lemon - I'm a sucker for 'new' flavours) and, as per bottle instructions, shook it gently to mix it..big mistake...HUGE mistake!

As I unscrewed the lid, the bottle did an amazing impression of Mount Vesuvius and erupted everywhere, gushing lemony, oily salad dressing everywhere losing half the contents in the process.  On the plus side, all that oil proved to be very good for my hands as they were lovely and soft after being covered in it.

Fast forward to today... I was getting ready for work (no packed lunch or salad today) and whilst I was upstairs, I heard Tula, the cat, running about.  Nothing odd there you may think.  However, Tula has a very distinctive type of running sound - especially when she's brought me a 'present.'

The sparrow before the rescue mission
I ran downstairs to spy feathers in the kitchen.  Not a good sign.  Tula, however, was in the utility room looking slightly crazed and focused on the side of her litter tray. I gingerly looked down the side of the tray (it's one of those covered affairs) and saw a petrified, very much alive (phew) sparrow. What to do?

Firstly, and somewhat uncremoniously, I dumped Tula outside and locked the cat flap.  Cue Tula turning into a feline battering ram, trying to get back in. I grabbed a towel and tried to catch the poor bird - failing miserably.  The poor thing was so frightened it flew down the side of the freezer, under the work top.

The rescue mission was turning into a two person job. Luckily, hubby is off work this week so I ran upstairs to wake him from his slumbers. He was not best pleased but once awake, joined the search and rescue team.

When he managed to move the freezer, the poor sparrow flew up and into the unused tumble drier vent.  We tried to get the front of the vent off so it could fly into the garden but it was firmly stuck to the wall.  There was only one thing for it... I had to don gloves and exercise my 'sparrow wrangling' skills. 

Thankfully this story has a happy ending. I caught the sparrow and it flew free away from the garden.  It does make me wonder what tomorrow morning will bring though, as (if you're superstitious) things are supposed to happen in threes...

Finally, I snapped this photo this morning too, before the rescue mission.  I wonder what Stevie and Mina are trying to tell me? Any guesses?
Stevie & Mina trying to tell me to something

17 September 2011

Gateaux and Gatherings

Today was G day for greyhound lovers in the UK as it was the day of the 5th Great Greyhound Gathering (or GGG as it's affectionately known). The GGG is organised by the Retired Greyhound Trust and brings together retired racing greyhounds from across the country.

I missed the first ever GGG but have been for the last four years and it's always a greyt day. This year had the added excitement of meeting some of my and Jasper's Twitter friends. (Jasper has his own Twitter account - @JaspertheHound - he's a very intelligent hound).

Spot the Dog o Nine Tails bags
The skies were a tad overcast and I'd packed my waterproofs along with Jasper and Stevie's raincoats too. The heavens opened not long after we'd arrived and we quickly saught shelter under my friend, Lisa Rees', store - Dog o Nine Tails - which meant I just had to buy a new bag.

Hounds & humans meet for tweet up (pic courtesy of: @blueskinnydog)
Once the rain clouds had cleared and several tweets, texts and phone calls had been exchanged we met up with our Twitter friends: @MaxiSaluki @Dino_Matic @BarneyGalgo @blueskinnydog @RoloHound @ceddergreyhound

It was so nice to meet the hounds and humans behind the Twitter avatars. The hounds were all impeccably behaved & greeted each other with the doggy equivalent of human handshakes aka the greyt butt sniff!

Dino's 'humum' kindly made some delicious pasties for the humans and I brought along some homemade liver cake (gateau de foie) for the hounds.

It's for hounds, not humans!
It seemed like the liver cake/gateau de foie was a hit, so especially for @blueskinnydog, and hounds everywhere, here's the recipe:

500g (1lb) liver
500g (1lb) organic porridge oats
2 large free range eggs
2 cloves of garlic* (crushed)
3 tablespoons natural yogurt

1. Pre heat the oven to 180o (Gas Mark 4)
2. Grease and line a 30cm square ( 12 inch square) baking tin
3. Whizz the liver in a food processor until smooth
4. Add the crushed garlic, egg and oats and continue to whizz until smooth
5. When mixture is smooth stir in the natural yogurt
6. Pour into baking tin and bake in oven for around 30 – 40 minutes
7. When cooked should be firm & light brown colour
8. Remove from oven, allow to cool slightly before turning out of baking tin
9. Cut into small bite size pieces and keep in fridge for up to a week or up to 3 months if frozen.

*Garlic is part of the Allium family, such as onions, which are toxic to dogs. Small quantities of garlic, such as in this recipe, should be fine.  If you are worried, omit the garlic and add in some grated, smelly cheese instead.

Only another 364 days to go until the next GGG.... we're already on countdown!

24 August 2011

It's a dog's life - A 'school' for greyhounds (Pt II)

Before my work experience I’d always wondered how a greyhound was trained to chase the lure.  I know some people say you can’t train a greyhound to do anything – I beg to differ – but that’s a topic for another blog post!

Horror stories tend to abound about how greyhounds are prepared for racing at the track or how they are trained to chase the lure.  I'd like to share my experiences here...You may have heard that live rabbits are used to encourage the greyhounds to run.  If this does happen, it certainly didn't at the kennels I did my work experience at.  It shouldn't happen for several reasons: (i) it’s cruel (ii) it’s illegal (iii) it’s against racing regulations (iv) any trainer caught doing this will face prosecution (see: Greyhound Board of Great Britain website) It also wouldn’t serve a real purpose. At the track the greyhounds need to chase a mechanical lure, not a live rabbit.

The Schooling Track

At Jane’s kennels, there is a purpose built, state-of-the art schooling track with the sole purpose of assessing a dog’s suitability to racing and helping prepare dogs for races.

The Schooling Track
The track is 440 metres in circumference (you can read more about the track here) and attracts owners and their dogs from across the country.  Jane’s reputation in schooling greyhounds in a positive and kind way, precedes her and a number of her kennels are filled with greyhounds whose owners have brought them to Jane to be schooled for racing.

The training element of my degree focuses on 100% positive reinforcement (R+) training methods and I was interested to see how R+ could be applied to the track.  Jane already uses many of the methods that we would use with our own pet dogs for training.  Only raising one criteria at a time such as distance, duration and distractions; never setting up a dog to fail; rewarding a dog for the right behaviour and NOT punishing a dog.

Starting school

So how does a greyhound begin to be schooled?  Well, it depends upon the age of the dog and their experience.  Young pups/adolescents certainly aren’t forced into traps the first time they come to the schooling track.

When a pup is old enough, he/she is brought to the track to assess whether he/she has a ‘keenness’ for racing.  What this means is ‘is the dog interested in the lure?’ and does he/she appear keen to chase it?
The pups are walked into the grassy centre of the track (not the sand track that the greyhounds race on) and, just like you’d speak to your pet dog, encouraged to look at the lure as it whizzes around the track (normally followed by a greyhound that is training).

It was interesting watching the reactions of the puppies.  Some were visibly excited and very interested in the lure, whilst others were less so.  Each puppy has several of these sessions before progressing on to ‘hand slipping.’  If a dog doesn’t have sufficient chase instinct, he/she is rehomed via the RGT (Jane has close links with Midland RGT), one of the local greyhound charities or with his/her owner.

I was also interested in watching the puppies’ body language for signs of excitement or stress.  Again, this varied with each dog.  The vast majority appeared to be excited – loose wagging tails, relaxed bodies, bright and keen eyes.  Some dogs did show some signs of stress – tongue flicks, nose licks – but not to an excessive degree.  I have seen dogs out on walks, at ‘fun’ dog shows and other dog competitions exhibit more severe signs of stress.

A slip of the hand - 'hand slipping'
On the straight
Hand slipping a younger dog takes place on the straights of the track.  As the name suggests, the dog is held by the trainer before being released to chase the lure. 

This way builds up the dog’s anticipation for the lure, as the trainer will, initially, hold the dog facing the lure and just as the lure approaches, will turn the dog and release him/her.  There is definite skill in managing the release of the dog to best judge the speed and distance between hound and lure.

From all the dogs I watched being hand slipped, the majority seemed to enjoy the chase and pursuit of the lure.  Each dog goes through the hand slipping stage several times, with gradual increases of distances, before training for starting in the traps begins.

Moving nearer to racing

I must admit, as I’m slight claustrophobic, I was very interested to see how dogs were trained to enter the traps.  Again, I suppose it is because the vast majority of things I have read have all been negative, suggesting rough handling of the dogs.

However, at Jane’s kennel this isn’t the case.  Just like an experienced pet dog owner, who understands the importance of desensitising dogs to new objects such as a head collar etc, the greyhounds are desensitised to the traps.

To begin with, the dogs are encouraged to enter and leave the traps, with both doors open.  This involves two people – one at the back, to position the dog, and one at the front to lure the dog through.  Once the dog has passed through the trap this way they get rewarded with lots of a fuss and/or a treat.  This is repeated many times before the dogs start running from the traps.  For some dogs, and to create positive associations with the traps, they’re fed some of their meals in the traps.

When the dogs start being schooled from the traps they being to wear a lightweight racing wire muzzle.  The muzzles are to help prevent any injuries at the track and to stop the dog from damaging the lure at the end of the race.
Leaving the traps

I was taught how to guide a greyhound into the traps and have to say I was a tad nervous to begin with.  Firstly, the hound is lined up outside the trap he/she is racing from.  The door is opened and then the collar and lead are removed and the dog guided in by the handler.  The guiding in involves holding the dog and lifting him/her gently into the trap.

Once in the trap, it is only a matter of seconds before the doors are released and the dog begins to race.  Dogs are not kept in traps for longer than is required.

The schooling from traps takes time and patience as each dog is individual.  To begin with most dogs will do solo runs from the traps.  When a dog has had sufficient experience of this, he/she may then take part in a training race paired with another dog.  This helps them get use to the experience of racing against other greyhounds.

When they initially start running from traps the distance is kept shorter and gradually built up.  The speed and distance of the lure from the dogs is also kept under tight control, with the trainer being in constant radio contact with the operator in the control room, whose job it is to control the opening of the traps and the speed/distance of the lure.

All this takes a different amount of time depending on the dog.  When the dog is ready he/she will then make the transition to a trial at a racing track.

Dispelling myths

From my work experience observations, I’d also like to dispel a myth I’ve heard that dogs are forced to chase.  The simple fact is that if a dog doesn’t want to chase it won’t.  They’re not forced to chase – for many it’s genetically hard wired.  They are a sighthound and for most greyhounds the sight of a fast moving object in the distance, is enough to stir this instinct.
Jasper exercises his sighthound instincts

However, some dogs have a low chase instinct, some are too slow, some prefer playing with other dogs and some, when they realise that they don’t really stand a chance of catching the lure, may give up and turn back and run towards the trainer!  Contrary to some beliefs this does not mean that all these dogs are ‘culled’ or resigned to the scrap heap.

Certainly, in the case of Jane’s kennels, any dog that isn’t suitable for racing is either retired and rehomed with his/her racing owner, or rehomed via one of the greyhound charities. 

The schooling process was fascinating to watch and to see how individual hounds responded to training.  Many of the R+ training techniques that we use as a pet dog owner are used along with playing to the hound’s natural instincts.

I know that greyhound racing is an emotive subject that evokes strong views from many, but contrast the methods used by Jane to some of those so called dog lovers who own pet dogs and who think it’s acceptable to use choke chains, prong collars, electric shock devices, sprays and physical punishment to ‘train’ a dog…I know whose methods I’d prefer...

I hope you find my work experience observations interesting - please do feel free to comment and share your views*...I look forward to reading them.

*Please keep responses polite.  Everyone is entitled to their views.  Any abusive posts will not be tolerated and will be removed.

15 August 2011

It's a dog's life - A look at greyhound racing kennels (Pt I)

As anyone who reads this blog will know, I love my greyhounds and generally anything that is greyhound related too.  However, there is one greyhound area that really polarises opinion – greyhound racing. 

I’ve heard all the horror stories and read some of them too in the national press but as with anything in life, I wanted to make my own mind up and see for myself. 

It’s not often a ‘civvy’ gets to see behind the scenes of greyhound racing however, my university studies presented with me an opportunity to do just that. As part of my degree I have to undertake a good chunk of dog related work experience: 56 hours to be precise.  I’d thought quite carefully about what experience I wanted to gain and kept coming back to what had inspired me to pursue a canine career in the first place– greyhounds.

Jasper snoozing away
It’s fair to say I’ve only really dealt with greyhounds after their racing careers and I have often wondered what has shaped the behaviour of the snoozing hound at my feet.  I want to be able to help retired greyhounds adapt to their new lives after their racing careers and felt the only way to do this is to see first-hand how they’re nurtured, raised and trained.

Whenever I told anyone that I was planning to do my work experience at racing kennels, I was constantly warned of how “tough and distressing” it would be, how “soul-less” racing kennels were, how I wouldn’t last and how upsetting I would find it.  I decided I would make up my own mind and carefully researched greyhound trainers in the area.

During my research I came across a female trainer, who along with running kennels, runs a schooling facility, with a purpose built schooling track. The trainer, Jane Houfton, places great emphasis on the welfare and training of the greyhounds in her care and after an initial meeting in April, my work experience was agreed.

Life in a racing kennel
Following all the warnings people had given me about racing kennels, I half expected the them to be a mix of Alcatraz meets Colditz – cold, grey and faceless with uncaring staff.  Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
The real Alcatraz NOT a racing kennel

The Kennels were set up exactly like many boarding kennels although, as the case in the UK, greyhounds are kennelled in pairs.  Each kennel consists of an indoor sleeping area, with a raised bed and plenty of bedding, and an outside run.  Contrary to popular myth, the greyhounds were not confined to their sleeping areas for 22 hours out of 24.

What really struck me was the dedication of the staff and the evident love and affection for the greyhounds in their care.  All the hounds received regular, positive human contact and plenty of affection from kennel hands.  I didn’t witness any incidents of rough or callous handling – quite the contrary. 

Cleaning, feeding, caring for and schooling over 100 greyhounds is no mean feat and for someone who’s normally based in an office – like me – it’s hard, physical and demanding work.

Breakfast is served!
The greyhounds’ needs are top priority and the first job of the day is letting them out after their night’s sleep and giving them breakfast.  So, at 7.30am on a weekday (8am on Saturdays – hounds need a lie-in too) breakfast is served!  Breakfast is a blend of dried dog foods (a bit like doggy muesli), which is covered by special milk compound.  Working as a team, the kennel hands start with breakfast service.  Outside each kennel two bowls are put down, the next person goes down and puts in scoop of the muesli, followed by next person who covers this with the milk.
Tonto & Ranger look forward to breakfast

Then we start feeding the hounds.  There are three kennel blocks and each block is provided with their breakfast service in turn.  The kennels are opened up and dogs are fed on a one in one out basis - one eats in the outside run/paddock area to their kennel and the other in the sleeping area.  Once they have all eaten, bowls are cleared and the dogs are let out into their kennel’s paddock area.
Then we start over on the next kennel block, and once that’s completed the third and final block.  At the same time this is happening, the pups are being fed and taken into the exercise paddocks.

The kennels

Once all the hounds have been fed, it’s poop, scoop and clean on a massive scale!  All kennels are cleared of poop and any dirty bedding.  This is back-breaking work (and rather smelly too).

Unlike the well practised kennel hands, I couldn’t seem to master the art of just being to scoop and flick the poop onto the shovel (well, not unless I wanted to flick it over myself) and had to use a scraper to help.  Once all poop had been cleared away, sleeping areas and the outside run were brushed, disinfected and hosed down and beds were topped up with clean, fresh bedding.

Once all 60 kennels have been cleaned the humans get a chance for a coffee break and a bite to eat.

Grooming and health checks
After coffee break, it’s time to groom the hounds, check their health and weight and give them any treatments.  How many pet dog owners can truthfully say they thoroughly check their dogs on a daily basis? At the kennels, every dog is weighed on a daily basis and their weight recorded.  For racing dogs their weight can only vary within 1kg of their last race weight.

Dogs are groomed, teeth are brushed and any worming or flea treatments are also given.  For any dogs that may have an injury, these are also treated. An ultra sound machine is used on any sore muscles (I tried it too and it really helped my back) and for any hounds that may have a cut or laceration there is an amazing laser machine which helps to promote healing.

During this time, many of the dogs are also exercised in the grassed paddock areas.

Once treatments have been completed it’s soon time for lunch – but this time the humans get to eat before the hounds! Once the human lunch break is over, it’s time for the hounds’ lunchtime service.  The food is weighed according to individual dog’s needs and put into a bowl with the dog’s name on it and the feeding routine begins again.  Each dog is fed a specific amount depending on a combination of their weight, age, whether they’re racing or retired and their specific nutritional needs.

After lunch, poop scooping takes place again and the hounds are free to run in their outside run/paddock areas.

Treats and walkies
Over a weekend many racing owners come and visit their dog(s), bringing them treats and taking them out for walks.  Owners are actively encouraged to come and visit their dogs and I met several, very dedicated owners who religiously visit their dogs on Saturdays and Sundays and, when their racing careers are over, take them home with them to live out their retirement on a sofa.

Challenging my perceptions
I realise I’ve only had a snapshot of what life is like for a greyhound in a racing kennel but I have to say, although it challenges my perceptions of the life my pet ex-racing greyhounds have, it is a different life but not necessarily a bad one.

So, is life in a racing kennel bleak?  In my opinion – no.  Yes, it is different to that of many pet dogs (my own hounds included) but contrast it to the millions of pet dogs that are left alone at home for hours at a time whilst their owner goes to work, with no-one or anything for company; or the working dogs that are kept in outside kennels and not allowed in the home; or even the breeds that struggle to adapt to modern family life as it’s not what they’ve been bred for.  Which dog has the better life?

In my next blog post I’m going to look at how the greyhounds are schooled and trained for racing and my final post in this series will look at what happens behind the scenes at a greyhound track. 

I hope that by sharing my experience it will provide a balanced view of such an emotive subject.  Please do feel free to comment and share your views*...I look forward to reading them.

*Please keep responses polite.  Everyone is entitled to their views.  Any abusive posts will not be tolerated and will be removed.

PS You can read my previous posts on my work experience here:

It's a dog's life - A 'school' for greyhounds (Pt II)
It's a dog's life - The other side of the greyhound track (Pt III)

12 July 2011

A dog walk of rhubarb and cat-astrophes

Most of the time I love village life.  Quiet(ish) roads. Fabulous scenery.  Lots of open space.  Pleasant dog walks and plenty of poo bins! Chatty neighbours and a sense of calm and chance to unwind at the end of a hectic day.

Our village playing field
On other days it can really irritate me.  People who don’t cut their hedges back – making it impossible for me and the hounds to walk on the pavement, without emerging with scratches.  Roaming village dogs – with a tendency to poop wherever they like.  The looney drivers who seem to think the 30 miles speed limit doesn’t apply to them.

Tonight though, I was reminded why village life is great.  At the moment, I’m walking the hounds in two shifts.  Since Mina’s had her toe amputated, and the dressing has only just come off, I’m building up the duration of her walks.  It doesn’t seem fair to take her to the playing field where Stevie and Jasper can run off lead and where she’d have to watch from the side lines.

Shift one of the dog walk duties (Stevie and Jasper) had been completed and Mina and I embarked on shift two.  I thought we’d have a quiet walk – just the two of us – with Mina stopping and sniffing all the pee-mails she’s missed over the last eight weeks…however, I was mistaken, as Tula, our cat, decided to join us!

We’d only just managed to cross the road when I heard the tinkling of Tula’s bell and saw her crossing the road to join us.  I picked her up and crossed the road again and put her in our front garden and then re-crossed the road to start our walk.

Tula takes root in the garden
Who was I kidding?  In a few seconds I heard the unmistakable sound of Tula’s bell coupled with the sound of oncoming traffic.  I tried to call her to me but she was having none of it and was sitting very serenely in the middle of the road, with no intention of moving.  Cue for me to step out into the oncoming traffic in the style of a demented Traffic Cop/Lollipop Lady and put my left hand out to stop the traffic.  My right hand was holding onto Mina’s lead very tightly and once the traffic had stopped, my left hand managed to scoop up Tula.  Heaven knows what it must have looked like to the approaching drivers – a greyhound and cat nose to nose, with a mad woman picking up the cat.

After this escapade Tula was put back in the house and the cat flap locked, so she could not follow us again.  Mina and I set off again to complete the walk, with Mina stopping every 10 steps or so to catch up on the important and aforementioned pee-mails.

Mid-way into our walk we passed Arthur’s house.  Arthur reminds me of my much loved and dearly departed Granddad - he’s in his 80s, lives by himself, grows his own veg and always has time for a chat when we pass by.

Tonight was no exception.  On our way back, Mina and I stopped and had a quick chat (well I chatted, Mina looked up adoringly for a fuss) and before I knew it my spare hand was carrying a bag full of home-grown rhubarb.  All in exchange for a chat and the promise of a small rhubarb crumble as way of thanks.

If only Mina was called Roobarb and Tula was known as Custard – it would have been a real life version of one of my favourite children’s cartoons.
Mina does her best Roobarb impression
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