by   David Hancock

In 2015, only 34 Greyhounds were registered with the Kennel Club, and sadly only 41 in 2016; with the Racing Greyhound industry in freefall, these are desperately worrying times for the future of this remarkable sporting breed. There are of course plenty of Greyhound lurchers, some of them easily mistaken at first glance for the pedigree version, but for the pedigree breed to become endangered like this is deeply disturbing. For over a century the coursing Greyhound, competing in the Waterloo Cup, was truly king of the sprinting hounds, famed the world over and bred as a superb canine athlete, with distinguished kennels from Ireland to Wiltshire and Cumberland to Cornwall. In the racing Greyhound industry, equally impressive performers graced the track, producing splendid sprinters and hard-running hurdlers to draw a huge following. With coursing outlawed and racing declining, the show ring offered some solace - but not on the last two years' figures. As a breed the Greyhound could be lost to us in the next half-century.

In his wide-ranging  An Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports of 1870, Delabere Blaine wrote: “The cultivated English Greyhound exhibits a model of elegance, and a combination of symmetric proportions, probably unrivalled by any other animal but the race-horse. The perfection of the mechanism for speedy progression is apparent throughout his structure. Whether we regard his organs separately or conjunctively, they are admirably adapted for vast powers of locomotion: nor can we view him without being struck with surprise at the great alterations which can be effected in the animal frame by culture…” In those rather quaint words, he is pointing out that man not nature created the Greyhound and for a specific purpose. The appearance of the Greyhound has been shaped by man for speed, linked to a hunting or sporting role, and, whilst this role was valued, this design prevailed. Modern man, willing to discard the role of so many companion rather than working dogs, has the relative luxury of breeding for a subjective desire of appearance rather than the objective one of performance. Unless we respect the Greyhound’s role, we ignore the long distinguished history of this type in the service of man.

There is every need to respect the noble heritage of the Greyhound, this breed is so much more than a 'grey-hound'. The inclusion of the letter 'Y' in the Greyhound's breed name gives an immediate hint that this breed earned its title from being a hound coloured distinctly grey. As with far too many breed titles, with those of the Tibetan breeds of dog standing out as classic examples, that of the Greyhound is misleading. The word grey, meaning colour, was not used by medieval writers when listing the coat colours of this hound. The importance of this misnomer lies in the fact that gre-hund meant a 'noble, great, choice or prize-hound'. Three notable authorities: Jesse, Dalziel and Baillie-Grohman, all agree on this and their word is good enough for me. A Welsh proverb stated that a gentleman might be known, and judged, "by his hawk, his horse and his greyhound". By a law of Canute, a Greyhound was not to be kept by any person inferior to a gentleman. The Greyhound was clearly the companion of noblemen and deserves the more distinctive title of Grehund or noble hound.

In her Bridleways through History, published by Hutchinson in 1936, Lady Apsley wrote of the famous Celtic hounds, “They were universally praised as brilliant in the chase of wolves and deer and magnificent in appearance. They were the grae hounds, or hounds of grew or gre – i.e. ‘high degree’ – which became in Old English gradus, ‘graded hounds of the best breed’, wrongly translated sometimes as ‘greyhounds’…it is likely they were smooth-coated, of the modern greyhound build and much stronger and larger, very courageous, clever and hunted by scent as well as by sight…” She quoted an ancient Irish law regarding hounds that valued a trained Irish grae-hound belonging to the King at a pound, with an untrained one worth 120 pence. In his masterly Researches into the History of the British Dog of 1866, George Jesse wrote: “Originally it was most likely grehund, and meant the noble, great, choice, or prize hound”, pointing out it was written as greihounde by Chaucer and Edward, Duke of York (in his Master of Game), grehounde by William Brocas in Henry VI’s reign and by Dame Julyana Berners too. He added that the word gre in time became obsolete. It is unlikely that the word grey in Greyhound referred to coat colour.  

Confusingly, in the Middle Ages, the word Greyhound was used loosely, before the introduction of the word sighthound, to refer to such diverse types as the Irish Wolfhound, the Scottish Deerhound and the dainty diminutive Italian Greyhound. Such dogs were the close companions of men involved in war and travel to far-off countries. It is therefore most unwise to link the contemporary breed of Greyhound with portrayals of such men. Greyhound researchers usually make much of an early reference to the breed in England by Dame Berners in her Boke of St Albans. But her memorable description 'Heded like a snake, and necked like a drake. Footed like a cat. Tayled like a Rat' is a clear plagiarism of Gace de la Buigne, written some time previously and not in England. The Ancient Greeks prized their sighthounds, Arrian writing: "...the fast running Celtic hounds are called vertragi in the Celtic language...these have their name from their speed...the best bred of them are a fine sight." The Italian for a Greyhound is veltro, veltre in Old French, from the Celtic word guilter. The Spanish for a Greyhound is galgo, derived from gallicu, a word meaning Gaullish hound.

In The Kennel Gazette of April, 1891, the report covering the Greyhound entry at the Kennel Club’s 35th annual show contained these words: “These were far larger classes than usual at Kennel Club shows, and were particularly interesting from the fact of Col. North’s entries of Huic Holloa and Gay City for competition, and Fullerton, Young Fullerton and Simonian not for competition. Five dogs of a similar high running form have never before been seen at a dog show. Fullerton is a very much better looking dog than ever Master McGrath was, showing more quality and much better made in front. He was exhibited in most perfect condition, full of muscle, and his feet and legs were a treat to see; in this respect Young Fullerton is also very good, although of course he has not the power of his older brother. Simonian is a beautifully topped dog with immense quality, but his feet will never stand the work of either his brothers.” At this show the top coursing dogs were on show from the leading coursing kennel of the time. The sentiment behind the report was the crucial link between function and form. 

The show Greyhound fanciers might argue that they never expected their hounds to compete at the Waterloo Cup. But that argument is destroyed by the wording of their breed standard. This is a breed clearly designed to run fast, very fast. The section under 'Gait/Movement' asks for a "Straight, low-reaching, free stride enabling the ground to be covered at great speed. Hindlegs coming well under body giving great propulsion." The need for a good slope to the pelvis to allow great forward extension in the hindlegs is not mentioned. Strangely, too, the characteristics of the breed are listed as: Possessing remarkable stamina and endurance. No mention of speed, the principal value of the breed to man down the ages. But as far as word pictures for breeds of dog go, this one is well-written. A show Greyhound is expected to be: strongly not finely built, upstanding i.e. have presence, generously proportioned – a curvaceous rather than an angular dog, a dog of substance with great suppleness of limb, a clearly defined torso and be muscular without being loaded. The hindquarters should hint at great propelling power and the foot should not be too cat-like but more hare-footed than many judges deem necessary. The dog should be a graceful mover and a genuinely handsome dog.   

A judge’s critique from a 2011 Greyhound Club conformation show, after stating that many of the entry carrying too much weight that affected movement and the elegance the breed should have, went on to comment: “I feel for the racing owners as they strongly support the breed at all levels; although all Greyhounds come from the same foundation stock, the racing dogs simply do not conform to the show standard (i.e. the written breed standard, DH) and are usually placed down the line…” In other words, dogs that are useful are less valued! In 1928, the Greyhound Primly Sceptre won Best-in-Show at Crufts, the first to win the new award. Racing Greyhounds have been regularly shown and entered for Crufts, perpetuating a long tradition. In 1929, the entry was 252 from 187 Greyhounds, of which only 17 were show bred, the coursing entry prevailing. Ernest Gocher’s brindle 70lb dog Endless Gossip is the most famous racing Greyhound to appear at Crufts; he won the 1952 Greyhound Derby and performed well at the 1953 Waterloo Cup. An outstanding show Greyhound, Treetops Golden Falcon, won Best-in-Show at Crufts in 1956, only the second member of the breed to win this supreme award. It is good to learn that Ireland’s annual Dublin show is to schedule special racing Greyhound classes, with each of the 22 tracks asked to send one dog to compete. At Crufts in 2009, in the racing/coursing entry, there was a striking black bitch Luvina Lexine Lacers Louise, which perfectly exemplified the correct conformation for the breed.

Poets have paid homage to the sheer antiquity of the Greyhound:

"The Greyhound, the great Hound, the graceful of limb,
Rough fellow, tall fellow, swift fellow and slim;
Set them round o'er the earth, let them sail o'er the sea,
They will light on none other more ancient than he."

but surprisingly have usually paid less attention to the reason for that long history: the dog's astounding speed. Dogs can achieve astonishing speeds when serving man. On the racetrack, the records are fairly constant: over 500 yards from 1927-1962 winners’ times ranged from that of Oregan Prince at 27.17 seconds in 1961, to that of Entry Badge at 29.01 in 1927. Over 525 yards between 1930 and 1974, Easy Investment ran at 28.17 seconds against Mick the Miller’s previous best of 29.96. Over 700 yards in the same period the fastest was O’Hara’s Rebel in 39.54 seconds, against the earlier Mick the Miller’s best at 41.31. In 1976, Butcher’s Trac set up a track record of 52.44 seconds on the 845metre Wembley track. Over the middle distance sprints there is nothing to match a Greyhound, even amongst the other sighthound breeds. But speed alone does not make a successful sporting Greyhound, the dog’s agility, especially on the turn or ‘wrench’ and athleticism over or around obstacles decides hunting success, not sheer speed.

Many parts of England achieved fame for their locally-bred Greyhounds; renowned at various times were the High Wolds of Yorkshire, the farms of Cornwall (especially for the early show dogs, especially from the famous exporter of Greyhounds to America, Harry Peake), the flat fenland of Cambridgeshire, the Sittingbourne area of Kent, from where the earlier King Edward took greyhounds to hunt in Gascony, and the East Riding of Yorkshire, where it was claimed the stock were the descendants of the wolfhounds once used there to hunt down the remaining wolves of England. The Lancashire dogs, like those of the Fawcetts, were often trained on the Fells to increase stamina; the Norfolk dogs were renowned for their long-distance sprinting powers. The Wiltshire dogs had their own imprint and reputation – well into the twentieth century, with the highly successful ‘Melksham’ kennels of Henry Sawtell, which were near the town of that name. Melksham Tom was the fastest dog of his day and the sire of more coursing winners than any other dog of his time. This dog was sired by Staff Officer, who produced four out of five Waterloo Cup winners between 1921 and 1925. Melksham Tom’s sheer pace was legendary but he was not always a great winner – on his debut at Avon Valley he led by seven lengths but was still beaten. His two sons, Melksham Endurance and Melksham Denny ran successfully in Ireland, where their father retired to stud in 1925. All three were very handsome dogs, very symmetrical and sleekly muscled but not huge dogs.

In the Duke of York’s The Master of Game of 1406, the size of the Greyhound is considered important: “The good greyhound should be of middle size, neither too big nor too little, and then he is good for all beasts. If he were too big he is nought for small beasts, and if he were too little he were nought for the great beasts.” These words may have referred to French sighthounds or levriers and not the Greyhound breed of today, but it does indicate the need to link the size of the quarry with the size of the pursuing running dog. On the track and in the coursing field there never was a need for a 100lb dog; the coursing dogs were the first show winners. Track Greyhounds range from 65-80 lbs for males and 55-70lbs for females. This is a breed that can get too big for its actual function. In the 120 years to the early 1970s, coursing Greyhounds increased in size by roughly 10lbs or 16%. From 1970 to 1990, they grew by a further 20lbs or 28%. A dog called React Fagan won the 1989 Waterloo Cup weighing 95lbs., but he crashed out of the very first round of the Altcar 1000, a £1,000 sweepstake for 8 dogs. In his book The Greyhound and Greyhound Racing (Sporting Handbooks Ltd) of 1975, Roy Genders writes: “But the larger weights serve no purpose, for some of the smallest dogs were the best and are so today. They are able to turn better when coursing and are more easily able to negotiate the bends round the tracks.”

Greyhounds at great pace possess injury-susceptible feet and legs; firm going makes it not only difficult to work their quarry as needed but can inflict quite serious injuries. This problem has been multiplied by coursing dogs achieving such substantial size increases since the early 1980s. Then, dogs over 70lbs were considered too large by some, most averaging 66lbs. By 1990, most would weigh over 80lbs, with two successive Waterloo Cup winners being over 90lbs. This trend shows the Irish influence in coursing Greyhound breeding. In most Irish ‘park’ coursing, only the run to the first turn decided the course and so sheer short-sprint power became the fashion of the day. In dry weather the course was watered, like a race-course and the surface then broken up, to lessen the impact on the running dogs’ feet and the subsequent leg strain. As long ago as 1887, Hugh Dalziel was writing in his The Greyhound that: “…to breed Greyhounds for coursing in enclosures of half-a-mile in length is to take the most certain means of destroying one of the most valuable qualities of the breed…”    

The racing Greyhound community is not short of handsome dogs, despite the over-riding priority given to performance. I do have concerns about two aspects of this industry: the number of dogs abandoned to the rescue system (about 35,000 are bred; only 14,000 get adopted) and the penalties to so many dogs of bend racing. Hard surfaces and heavier dogs combine to increase the danger of serious injuries to Greyhounds when racing round bends at tracks. Statistics show that over the years, by the time the Greyhound Derby final is run each year, at least 40 of the entries will have sustained injury (Sweeney, 1980). I suspect that the heavier dogs receive the highest injury rate. Greyhounds have very vulnerable feet and legs, especially over sun-baked or frozen going. Expecting them to cope with unyielding ground and considerable weight is not wise.

An organization called Greyhound Watch monitors track injuries and some of their findings cause concern. In 2010, the number of runners not finishing their race or coming in having slowed down was 4,513. 1,812 broke down or pulled up lame. Hock fractures were found to be common on oval tracks, with 2,315 out of 5,565 runners falling, with a breakdown of: turn one:1,309; turn two: 283; turn three: 272; turn four: 81; other: 370. Long bone fractures occurred in some falls. In Britain, up to six dogs are pitted against each other on a track basically made up of two straights leading into tight bends. The sheer force generated through the dogs’ limbs on negotiating the turns, the likelihood of losing footing and inevitable bumping, are key elements in the distressing amount of injury suffered by these runners each year. Nearly 2,000 of the runners listed in the injuries total never raced again, giving the rescue organizations huge challenges. This is a problem needing to be faced on welfare grounds alone.  

On the credit side, the Greyhound seems resistant to the worrying increase in cranial cruciate ligament rupture in dogs. A study of 821 cases of this disorder found that 77 were Rottweilers but not one a racing Greyhound. The straighter stifle joint of the Rottweiler may play a part in this tendency but it is encouraging to note the greater robustness of the Greyhound's hindlimbs. The Greyhound is less liable to hip dysplasia than any other breed. On the debit side is the worrying sensitivity of the Greyhound to anaesthetics, due to its lack of body fat. It is scarcely surprising for a breed capable of such speed to suffer more injuries in the chase; injuries creating a need for the administration of anaesthetics before treatment do however cause concern in the breed. Bloat has been reported as a problem in this breed; cardiospasm, an affliction of the oesophagus, is listed as a common problem in American dogs; Greyhounds have higher blood pressures, their cardiac output is higher, their blood volume is higher and their packed cell volume is higher than other breeds. But their red blood cell count is lower. The breed can be characterized as having a naturally occurring, significantly higher mean arterial pressure and cardiac output than other breeds (see Medical & Genetic Aspects of Purebred Dogs by Clark and Stainer, Forum, USA, 1994).  

With Greyhound welfare in mind, it’s good to see new legislation in Ireland on this in their Welfare of Greyhounds Bill, 2011. This bill affects all Greyhounds in the racing and coursing industry, not only those on premises registered as a Greyhound breeding establishment under the bill. Ireland’s Greyhound industry sustains around 11,000 full-time and part-time jobs, mainly in rural areas and accounts for an estimated £M451 in funding for local economies. Designed to regulate the operation of breeding premises, the bill applies to any person who breeds, trains, rears, transports, races or courses a Greyhound. Activists have argued for some years that far too many racing Greyhounds are being bred and far far too many of these later being discarded to an uncertain fate. The Greyhound bill in Ireland limits to six the number of litters a bitch may have, restricts the breeding age to a minimum of 15 months and bars puppies born outside those limits from being registered for racing or coursing. It was good to learn that in America, nearly 3,000 fewer litters were recorded by their racing body in 1995 than in 1991, although three states have actually banned Greyhound racing, with three others due to follow suit.  

It is significant that in lure-racing in Canada over the 1970s and 80s the most successful hounds were the 'half-and-halfs', i.e. show-track crosses. They were found to have greater endurance and recuperative powers. Track dogs possess greater speed but are not bred to run several races in quick succession. Thirty years ago, in the United States, the Coursing Greyhound of the Year was the American show champion Strider; he was a show-track cross. Here there have long been links between bench, track and field, but with coursing no longer on the breed agenda, the racing dogs will be only ones judged on performance alone. This is a factor to be appreciated by all true Greyhound devotees. The field dogs always needed far greater agility than the track ones; that agility needs perpetuating.

As Frank Townend Barton MRCVS wrote in his Hounds, Long, 1913:  

“Speaking in an Irish kind of manner, a Greyhound is no Greyhound if it is not kept in constant training; both heart, lungs and muscular system must be maintained in the highest standard of vigour. If exercise is insufficient or irregularly given the muscles become soft, the heart becomes weak, and its power to respond to increased exertion fails; being a hollow muscular organ, there is a tendency for its fibres to degenerate when thrown into a state of comparative ease. When the muscles covering the skeleton are manipulated they should convey the sensation of being hard as boards, and the outlines of the individual muscles be plainly discernible; and the more vigorous the exercise, provided such is carried out with regularity, the better the muscular development.” An unfit soft-muscled unexercised Greyhound looks just that and reflects poorly on its owner.

Of all breeds of dog, this one was meant for exercise and physical fitness. The Greyhound is the supreme canine athlete. Our Greyhounds have been exported all over the world because of their athletic excellence. If this deserved fame is to be retained, the show fraternity has a responsibility too, to respect those past sportsmen who strove to develop for us this 'great hound'. It should be a joy rather than a burden to respect this legacy. Let's keep our quite remarkable Greyhound!