Showing posts with label animal welfare bill. Show all posts
Showing posts with label animal welfare bill. Show all posts

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.

02 March 2010

'Gone to the dogs' - a look at greyhound racing

Everyone who knows me, knows I love greyhounds...

I'm a committee member and volunteer for a local charity which rehomes retired racing greyhounds and given half a chance I can bore for England on the joys of living with these most noble of hounds.

When I'm out and about with the hounds, I'm often asked whether I race them, to which my retort is usually: "No. I can't keep up with them!"  The next question is usually about what my views are on greyhound racing...
Two of my hounds are retired racers; Jasper (pictured above) and Stevie (pictured later in this post). Mina was a stray, and to my knowledge, has never raced.

Greyhound racing is an emotive subject which is often in the news. I 'd like to state that I am neither for, nor against greyhound racing, which may seem at odds with my love for the breed. I have spent time at racing kennels.  I have been to greyhound races at different stadia in the UK and, through the Lincolnshire Greyhound Trust, I work with retired racing greyhounds looking for their forever homes.

What is apparent to me is that the majority of the dogs I have seen have been well looked after and well cared for - both on and off the track.  It is unfortunate that what appears to be a minority of trainers with little or no regard for their dogs' welfare make the news, but then again 'bad news' sells newspapers! There is still no excuse though, for mistreating these animals and one ill-treated hound is one hound too many.

The charity works closely with a number of trainers and we have waiting lists for dogs to come into our kennels. The hounds we rehome come to us at all ages... some are young and have no chase instinct, some are not successful racers, some have had injuries and have retired early, and some come to us at the end of their racing careers.

It is true to say that greyhound welfare needs to be improved by those making money out of the sport. New legislation is being introduced by the UK Government in April 2010, which goes part way to redressing this and influential charities such as The Dogs Trust are continuing to campaign for improvements to greyhound welfare. A campaign which I support fully.

In the USA many states have banned greyhound racing; racing is per se illegal in 36 States and Massachusetts is the latest State to ban commercial dog racing. In the UK many tracks have closed with Walthamstow closing in 2009.

However, what would happen if greyhound racing was banned in the UK? Would it be driven underground to independent (illegal?) flapping tracks, which may have even less regard for the hounds' welfare? What would happen to the thousands of dogs that used to race at licensed tracks? What would happen to the breed as a whole? Unlike pedigree show dogs, racing greyhounds are bred for strength, fitness, health and stamina NOT for looks. A show greyhound does look somewhat different to a racing greyhound.

The list of question goes on as will the debate over whether it's right or wrong to continue greyhound racing...

Finally, I would like to share a view of greyhound racing from a friend of mine, who owns several retired racing greyhounds and who, by her own admission, is an "animal rights placard waving lefty."  Reproduced, with kind permission from my friend, Jayne, here is her take on the world of greyhound racing:

"Last Friday we went along to Peterborough to watch Chapelane Mac race. Now, no-one was more surprised than me to find myself there: I am your stereotypical tofu munching, knit your own tea bags ,tree hugging animal rights placard waving lefty when it comes to stuff like this.Yes I am the sort of person who thinks the Grand National should be banned and I've put my money where my mouth is when it comes to anti fox hunting etc etc.So you can guess that I was probably never going to feel too comfortable with the idea of dog racing.

Anyway I went along because I wanted to see for myself what its all about and try and get an informed view of what the dogs' experience of track life actually is.

The dogs were there for all to see getting prepped up for their race.We watched the trainers go through the pre-race stuff and the dogs all looked happy and some were obviously very excited and couldn't wait to be off.  Chapelane Mac (Jock) was looking beautiful and was very perky and impatient for his race.  Fine looking boy that he is, I'm sure he'll create a wave of adoration when he retires!

As they were paraded up and down the track I really enjoyed seeing how alert and proud the dogs looked.  It was lovely to see them in the peak of physical health and so beautiful. The atmosphere was very exciting.

The call came and the dogs were put into the traps.  I dont like seeing this bit as to me it has looked like they are positively stuffed into them against their will. But into the traps they went and the bell rang.The dogs took my breath away as they flew out of the traps.  I couldn't believe the power and the speed.  It was one of the most exhilarating things I have ever seen. Jock looked like he was having the time of his life and before I knew it I was yelling my head off for him to run run run!

At the end of the race the hounds all bounded up to their trainers not looking the least bit tired and it was back to the kennel block. This was the bit I was really impressed with.  I watched the staff carefully towel down and clean each dog.  Faces were washed free of sand and feet were washed,inspected and nicely dried too.  They all had plenty to drink and time to recover.  Much like we all do with our own hounds really-there seemed that same kindness and care.

After a few more thrilling races I decided to get a closer look at the dogs going into the traps so went down to trap side. Ok some of them didn't look terribly keen on going in, but they didn't look terrified either. They weren't being 'stuffed' in-they were being lifted in!  It amused me to see one or two trainers whispering in their dogs ears as they waited-I like to think they were giving them a last minute pep talk but they were just probably keeping them calm.  Once in, it sounded like the dogs were excited about what would come next judging by the pawing and yapping!

I loved the whole experience to be honest.  I know I only saw a tiny window on what greyhound racing is really like and fortunately no dogs were injured but the dogs really did seem to love it.  Of course I wasn't really expecting to go down there and see nasty people beating poor exploited Grey's into racing their little hearts out without so much as a bowl of water afterwards but I did have preconceived ideas about how I felt about making money out of dogs etc .And I now feel more at ease with the whole idea.

I also feel like I understand my own dogs a little bit more now that I have a tiny insight into their 'other' life.  Especially Seamus who loves to run still and regularly acts the fool and tries to get me running him on his lead.

I'm so glad I went and it certainly wont be the last time.  I'd recommend it to anyone else like me who doesn't really know much about the world of racing or who hasn't made up their mind about what they feel about it.  I feel more confident about dispelling some of the myths that the general public tend to bring up at meet and greets too.  I know that we have some really responsible trainers who contribute here and I have already been able to tell the public about the additional support that they provide to the trust.So...yes...give it a go.  And its worth the trip for the carpet in the main bar alone! "

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