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 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.
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|
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.
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.