Retired racing greyhounds are running off out-of-state tracks and into Niagara County homes to start new lives as pets.
The dogs, bred for speed, trained to race at more than 40 mph and live a limited kennel life, quickly adapt and become comfortable and content in households, say those who own them. Their new adoptive families find that the quiet, gentle, and entertaining ex-racers are so accustomed to a structured routine that they easily adapt to a household schedule.
They do not require the exercise they did, are effortlessly walked on a leash, and do well in small homes because they are used to crates.
The greyhounds' racing lives come to an abrupt end when they stop winning. In the past, that meant euthanasia for the dogs, but over the past decade, greyhound rescue organizations have stepped in to give the healthy dogs a chance at a new life.
Most of the greyhounds go directly from a racetrack to a foster home for acclimation, evaluation, and home living training for two to three weeks. They train easily, because they are curious about children and pets.
Stairs almost always present a new challenge to the ex-racers. In their first few attempts to go up or down, the greyhounds might balk or try to leap up and down the flight at once.
But once their few idiosyncrasies are overcome, adoptive owners sing the praises of their greyhounds.
"While all pets are work, ex-racers are full-grown and spare owners the often frustrating puppy stage," said Donna Drabek of Depew, who owns two greyhounds, Dean, nearly 7, and Barbie, 12.
Frances Lavigueur of Youngstown who, with her husband, Ernest, and their son, Jonathan, 15, own ex-racers Leia, 4 1/2 , and Maggie Mae, 3 1/2 , said, "It amazes me how affectionate greyhounds are, based on the limited human contact they had at the track. It was a big step going from owning an 18-pound schnauzer to owning a 71-pound greyhound."
Mr. and Mrs. Lavigueur adopted their dogs from Buffalo Greyhound Adoption, Inc. (BGA), headed by Mrs. Drabek. The other independent adoption group in Western New York is Greyhound Rescue Adoption Team (GReAT), headed by Dr. Sharon Smith of Snyder, a physician at Children's Hospital of Buffalo.
The purpose of both non-profit, all-volunteer groups is to place retired racing greyhounds in homes. GreAT also educates the public about the racing environment and stresses that thousands of greyhounds are euthanized or sold to research laboratories after their racing days are over.
BGA and GReAT are among about 200 similar groups across the United States, which, Mrs. Drabek reports, has 49 greyhound tracks in 15 states.
"BGA has placed about 100 greyhounds in Niagara County, and about 800 greyhounds throughout Western New York since the group was incorporated in November 1991," she said. Dr. Smith reports that GReAT has placed three greyhounds in Niagara County and 17 in Western New York since the organization's inception last April.
"A wide variety of people adopt retired racing greyhounds," she said. "They include singles, couples and families from all socioeconomic backgrounds."
BGA has a 13-member board of directors. Three members of the board are from Niagara County: Shirley Posner, one of the group's first volunteers, and Gail Graff, both of North Tonawanda, and Marilyn Westphal of Niagara Falls. Of the organization's 46 foster homes, five are located in Niagara County, and 75 of its 200 volunteers who help with home training, fund-raising, publicity and seminars, live in the county.
GReAT has six board members and 15 foster homes, and five of its 60 volunteers live in Niagara County.
Greyhounds are one of the oldest dog breeds. Drawings of greyhounds appear on the walls of tombs of Egyptian royalty.
The dogs placed by BGA and GReAT are eligible to be registered, or are registered, with the National Greyhound Association. Most of the dogs that both groups place are about 3 years old.
"Healthy greyhounds will live to be 12 to 15 years old," Dr. Smith said.
Dr. Harry Newman, a veterinarian at Georgetown Animal Clinic in Amherst and a member of BGA's board of directors, treats each greyhound before BGA places it. A minimum donation of $240 pays for securing and evaluating the dog, and the vet treatment. GreAT requests at least $250 for similar services primarily administered by Dr. Malissa DeHart, a veterinarian at Buffalo Small Animal Hospital in Buffalo.
Because there are no dog racetracks in New York state, most of the greyhounds placed in Western New York come from West Virginia, New Hampshire and Connecticut. But Mrs. Drabek said they may come from any area with a surplus of retired racers. BGA volunteers bring in a group of dogs when at least six people have requested them.
"Most greyhounds start their career at about 16 months and finish between 2 and 4 years old," Dr. Smith said. "They may retire due to injury, lack of skill or slow speed."
Neither group operates a kennel, although Mrs. Drabek said having a kennel would be beneficial for training, bathing and housing a few dogs, as well as storing supplies.
Adoption usually takes four to eight weeks. Obtain an application by contacting Mrs. Drabek at P.O. Box 1096, Cheektowaga, N.Y., 14225; her e-mail address is www.b-g-a.org. Dr. Smith's address is P.O. Box 196, Buffalo, N.Y. 14207.
Applications ask an applicant's name, address, phone number, why he or she wishes to adopt a greyhound, how long the dog would be alone each day, and the number of individuals in the household. Children's ages are requested.
Suitable applicants are contacted by a representative for a home visit. He or she brings a greyhound to the home to evaluate the reaction of the family and pets to the dog and vice versa.
Neither organization requires fenced yards, but representatives recommend that applicants consider installing a fence. After having Leia for a month, Mrs. Lavigueur discovered that it was feasible to have the fence repositioned.
"A greyhound is never safe outdoors without a safety collar and leash unless he or she is in a fully fenced area," Dr. Smith said. Because the dogs are sighthounds, that can see movement as far as a half-mile away and any movement may trigger their instinct to chase. Greyhounds do not understand moving vehicles, but tend to stand in the middle of the road watching them approach, or try to outrun them.
Leia worked out so well that Mr. and Mrs. Lavigueur adopted Maggie Mae less than two years later. The family finds both dogs very entertaining. Unlike Maggie, Leia barks, usually at nothing. When she hears an echo of her bark outdoors, she barks more.
Leia initially resisted climbing stairs. Mrs. Lavigueur says that the first time she coaxed her to ascend them, Leia would not budge. The first two or three days, Mrs. Lavigueur held her by the collar to prevent her from tumbling.
The Lavigueurs are so pleased with their dogs that adjusting to two big dog beds in their bedroom and having two huge crates in their living room is not a big deal. Lavigueur faithfully walks Leia and Maggie Mae once or twice a day.
Mrs. Drabek recalls watching Dean react to his reflection in the glass panel of a lamp and in mirrors. "He didn't know why that other dog wouldn't leave when he barked," she said.
Mrs. Posner, secretary of BGA, who has trained, shown, and bred dogs since 1958, owns four greyhounds: Myth, 4, Rebel and Gilligan, 8, and Mitch, 5. She enjoys taking them to nursing homes as much as they like going. "The dogs are the height of the beds, so it's easy for patients to see them," she said.
Because BGA and GReAt are non-profit, volunteers rely on donations and fund-raising. Once a month, GReAT volunteers staff a booth at Walden Galleria Mall, Media Play in Niagara Falls and Hamburg, and Honey Hill Pet Center at Eastern Hills Mall. Adoption applications can be obtained at these places.
Once a month, BGA volunteers appear at Honey Hill Pet Center, the McKinley Mall and the Nature Company at Walden Galleria Mall. They also staff booths at the Niagara County Fair, Erie County Fair, Genesee County Fair and Cattaraugus County Fair, where volunteers hand out applications and other literature and answer questions.
BGA raises money by sponsoring spaghetti dinners and craft shows. Volunteers also sell candy and T-shirts and groom dogs in their homes. GReAT recently raised $95 by collecting returnable bottles and cans in a North Buffalo neighborhood.