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)
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