Showing posts with label racing greyhounds. Show all posts
Showing posts with label racing greyhounds. Show all posts

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)

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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