“Greyhounds (here the word is used to denote sighthounds, DH) are by far the commonest hunting dog to appear in late medieval illustrations…illustrations show them in all manner of domestic situations, in living- and bedrooms, at the board when their owners are at meals, sitting by the fireside and even at mass. Of all dogs, they appear to have been the most constant of companions of their masters during journeys, in war and at home.”
Richard Almond, in his Medieval Hunting, Sutton Publishing, 2003.
“Sighthounds share common personality characteristics. They exude dignity and a sense of self-importance, but can also act like court jesters. Occasionally, they may ‘fire up’ and stand firm according to their own perceptions and thresholds. The Borzoi in the clown suit, for instance, can quickly become a frightening force to reckon with: a large, powerful hound with lightning-fast reflexes, and the inherent abilities that enabled him to pull down and pin a wolf in years past. The wolves may have gone, but the Borzoi’s imprinted genetic code is not forgotten. Instinct is a powerful force.”
Denise Como, in her Sighthounds Afield, Howell House Books, 2004.
“We hear a lot about what different breeds will bring into the lurcher – Saluki for stamina, Greyhound for speed, collie for toughness, Deerhound for coat, Whippet for take-off speed – but each breed brings in mental as well as physical attributes and these are given less importance or even forgotten when people are thinking of getting a lurcher…these character attributes will make all the difference to how it will respond to training and how it will behave when it goes through developmental fear periods and rebellious stages. Once mature, the lurcher will work – can only work – according to its genetic legacy.”
Lurcher expert Jackie Drakeford, writing in The Countryman’s Weekly, 7 Sept 2011.
“The fact is, that for perfect working a considerable degree of mental activity and quickness is required, which shall enable the dog to do enough to distress the hare, without distressing himself. A good greyhound is never a fool, whatever may be said by some old-fashioned coursers. Depend upon it, that a greyhound soon learns to know all the motions of the hare, and is prepared to defeat them; and this tact he learns often before he has ever seen a hare, by chasing his companions in their play. Cunning is often acquired in this way…”
JH Walsh in his The Pursuit of Wild Animals for Sport, 1856.
“The greyhound is said to be deficient in attachment to his master and in general intelligence. There is some truth in the imputation; but, in fact, the greyhound has, far less than even the hound, the opportunity of forming individual attachments, and no other exercise of the mind is required of him than to follow the game which starts up before him, and to catch it if he can. If, however, he is closely watched he will be found to have all the intellect that his situation requires.” Those words are from William Youatt’s The Dog of 1854 and reflect the timeless view of many on the running dogs; those who know them well rate them, those knowing them only from afar misjudging them. And they can be aloof, withdrawn – away from the hunting grounds, undemonstrative and reserved. They will never have the vivacity of a Jack Russell or make the demands for affection of a spaniel. In many cases you have to earn their affection, rather than expect it.
Using their Brains
In his book The Dog – Structure and Movement of 1970, RH Smythe, sportsman, vet and exhibitor, writes: “When galloping on a circular race track the fore limb nearest to the centre of the course takes the greater part of the weight and so becomes the leading leg. If by any reason the dog is thrown temporarily off its stride and changes legs, there will be a loss of speed and the winner is more often the dog that uses its brain to retain its balance and maintain the same type of gait throughout the race.” When you see a sighthound tearing round a track at flat-out speed, it is difficult to consider the racing dog using its brain, either to learn from experience or to adjust quickly to a split-second problem. But such a hound can so easily be underestimated; the great winners are often the brainiest dogs too. The hunting dog instincts work on the track as well.
Born to Hunt
Many of these breeds are glamorous, like the Afghan Hound, physically beautiful, like the Saluki, aristocratic, like the Borzoi, and seemingly gentle-natured, like the Deerhound. But they were designed and then bred to hunt and kill, whatever their gentleness away from the hunting field. They are favoured by some because of their sheer handsomeness and I have no criticism of that. But I am concerned that such attractive breeds can end up being valued only for their looks and their spiritual needs overlooked. Their instinct to chase and catch other animals too needs to be acknowledged. There are dangers in overlooking the basic fact that sighthounds were selectively bred and specifically intended to kill small mammals. Instincts, however deeply buried, are still there. They need to be exercised but in a controlled way.
Some years ago, I lived near a well-meaning lady who rehomed two racing Greyhounds. They were delightful dogs and I support her kindness and compassion. She looked puzzled when I warned her that they needed retraining if exercised off the lead, because the only world they knew was chasing small furry moving objects. Her two new pets appeared so gentle, so unaggressive and so shy that she relaxed, a bit too much. A tradesman left a sidegate open one day and her retiring retired Greyhounds got out--and killed two cats and savaged a Dachshund within half an hour. The poor lady was devastated; but whatever their disposition, these two dogs were only doing what their inbred instincts told them they should be doing. If you own a sighthound don’t be surprised if it acts like one!
Some years before that, I used to walk to work in London through St James's Park and often passed a lady walking her beautifully groomed Borzoi. The hound was very well trained, never pulled on the lead and seemed to ignore the many wildfowl that crossed its path. Then one day a grey squirrel dared to dash across the ground moving from one huge tree to another. The Borzoi shot forward so strongly and unexpectedly that the lady couldn't hold him and the grey squirrel had a nasty surprise but met a quick end. The lady was distraught, saying that the dog had never even seen a grey squirrel before. Her chosen breed was however a hunter, one bred for centuries to catch and kill. For all their elegance and reticence all sighthounds were designed to hunt and kill.
More recently, a Whippet owner wrote in one of the dog papers that she had had a distressing incident in the New Forest with her dog. She had taken her dog into an official car park and let her dog out of the car for its usual walk, as she had many times before. On this occasion the dog suddenly dashed into nearby undergrowth and disappeared. The lady went after her dog only to see it seize a small deer by the hamstring after the briefest of chases. She was able to call the dog off but had to call a ranger to deal with the crippled creature, which was later destroyed. The lady was aghast at what her Whippet had done, understandably so in those circumstances. This dog had never hunted before but it had gone straight for the deer's hock. Canine instincts are often well buried but are still potentially active; owner empathy is essential, for we breed dogs for specific purposes and should never be surprised when their elemental nature emerges.
Of course, any dog can chase cats, pursue deer or ambush a grey squirrel. But a sighthound stands a better chance of succeeding than most. Being built for extreme speed, having exceptional eyesight, acute hearing and a good nose for air-scent, is all very well but if the hunting instinct is not there too you do not have a hound at all. In his book The Mind of the Dog RH Smythe, vet, exhibitor and sportsman, writes “ Much of the work carried out by dogs, whether it be chasing the live or dummy hare, hunting and tracking and so on, is really natural behaviour adapted to certain ends…One can only marvel at the instinct which compels a pack of greyhounds to chase a mechanical hare several times a week with no hope of ever catching it.” When dog’s natural behaviour is harnessed by man, it is reinforced by dog’s equally natural desire to please its human owner; training a member of the speedster breeds, however, is not a recommended task for a new dog owner. Dog breeds are often selected by their future owners because of their appearance; this leads to mis-matches. Owners must always be aware of the reason their potential purchase came into being – what they were for.
As Stanley Coren points out in his The Intelligence of Dogs of 1994 (Headline Book Publishing): “Sighthounds, for example, will chase things that move. This means that attempting to work or train your greyhound, whippet, saluki, or Afghan hound in a busy area, such as a park where children and other dogs will be running around, will simply make the task more difficult. If you must train outdoors, use a relatively empty field or yard…you can take advantage of these breeds’ responsiveness to visual stimuli by using large and exaggerated hand signals during training rather than simply depending upon voice commands.” In his forthright Secrets of Dog Training of 1992 (Robinson), Brian Plummer, who knew a thing or two about the use of hunting dogs wrote: “Sight hounds usually respond to commands with infuriating slowness despite the fact that when they so choose they can galvanise into action with an astonishing and often quite terrifying speed…All Middle Eastern greyhound types are singularly resistant to formal conventional training” – putting this down to a ‘rather remote disposition’. All hound breeds need a certain independence of mind as well as immense determination in order to perform their allotted task at all. This demands both a measure of control by the owner but also a recognition that the dog’s natural instincts need to be exercised.
Writing in The Countryman’s Weekly of 7 Sept 2011, lurcher expert Penny Taylor gave the view that: “ The ‘shape’ or ‘wiring’ in a dog’s brain is something inherited through hundreds of years’ breeding for a particular function and we must never forget the original purpose of our dogs if we are to succeed in training them. Some people say that the Saluki-type is untrainable but nothing could be further from the truth. You can’t apply ‘conventional’ training methods to a dog which was never bred for trainability in the first place and you need to think outside the conventional training box to engage these dogs on your terms.” There is an awful lot of sense in this approach to sighthound training. Equally perceptively, a fellow lurcher expert, Jackie Drakeford, wrote in the same issue: “…we may have a Deerhound stage where the pup may be a shy feeder, a clumsy great lout and not a great thinker; through a Saluki stage where the Deerhoundy cooperation is lost and a sensitive, stubborn, independent solver of problems emerges; to a Bedlington stage where fire and no reverse gear take over from the Saluki careful consideration of everything before acting; and a collie stage of hypersensitivity, cringing and refusing to leave your side…” It is so important with sighthounds to know your breed or the contributing ingredients in your hybrid.
Eagerness to Run
In their account of the first London greyhound track meeting, The Times of June the 21st 1927, reported: “The card consisted of eight races. The finishes, perhaps, were not quite so close as usual, but cleverness and experience told nearly every time, and the keenness and gameness of the dogs were indicated, first, by their howling and pawing at the doors of the starting box and, then, by their refusal to give in so long as a breath of wind remained to them. Trainers already tell stories of the older dogs’ hatred of being beaten by another dog – a hatred that far transcends the desire for the mechanical hare’s blood.” It is unwise to underestimate the powerful instincts of the sighthounds, especially their eagerness to run after a moving quarry and, most unwise to under-rate the sheer competitiveness of the speedsters. However aloof their demeanour, however gracious their movement and however reserved in nature, these dogs are ‘hot-wired’ to run and to win! Julian Grenfell, in his poem To a Black Greyhound, has neatly captured the contrast between the hound in the field and the one on the hearth.
“See him lie when the day is dead,
Black curves curled on the boarded floor.
Sleepy eyes, my sleepy-head –
Eyes that were aflame before.
Gentle now, they burn no more,
Gentle now and softly warm,
With the fire that made them bright
Hidden – as when after storm
Softly falls the night.”
For me, the most perfect Greyhound both in conformation and running style was the stunning black racing Greyhound star Westmead Poncho of thirty years ago, the beau ideal of a sighthound, combining great beauty of form with an immense desire to run.
“Greyhound faces convey every thought and feeling. Their eyes seem to reflect the wisdom of the ages. Bright intelligence shines from those eyes and captures your soul. They are soft, yet piercing, and reflect great intuitiveness and understanding. But they can convey other messages as well. At different times they express sympathy, sensitivity, amusement, keenness, anticipation, mischievousness, and sometimes, just plain stubbornness. ‘Just watch me!’ is a challenge many owners have met in their Greyhound’s eyes.” The Book of the Greyhound by Sue LeMieux, TFH Publications, Inc., 1999.
“ The mild, affable, and serene aspect of the greyhound in its domestic state constitutes no drawback to its innate sagacity, or grateful attention to its protector; of which the unfortunate King Charles the First was so truly observant, that the remark he made during his troubles is upon record, and strictly, just as applicable to the instinctive fidelity of the animal, as well as its satirical effect upon the herd of sycophants who surrounded him. In the course of a familiar conversation, respecting the canine species in general, a doubt was started what particular kind of dog was entitled to pre-eminence, when it was universally admitted to rest between the spaniel and the greyhound; to which the monarch gave a polished finish in favour of the latter, by saying it possessed all the good nature and solicitous affability of the spaniel without the fawning.” The Sportsman’s Cabinet of 1803.
“Of all dogs, the greyhound is the one which requires the greatest amount of freedom. His great activity makes it essential that he has space upon which to gallop and roam at will. His conformation and nature demands it from earliest infancy, and it is a fact that young greyhounds, if shut away, never do any good. Even in the first two months of life they can be malformed to an extent which it is for ever impossible to counteract. The greyhound is one of the most peaceable of dogs, and is as happy as the day is long when wandering about on a farm.” The Greyhound – Breeding, Coursing, Racing, Etc., by James Matheson, Hurst & Blackett Ltd., 1930.
(This advice can of course be applied to most sighthound breeds, not just the Greyhound).
“Greyhounds were in fact so various in size that they were used for hunting all manner of game, and were so constantly with their masters that they were as much companions as working dogs.”
Compton Reeves writing of the 15th century sighthound in Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England, Sutton Publishing, 1997.