An Easy Dog: Learned Helplessness in Racing Industry Greyhounds
by Rain Jordan
Copyright © 2017, 2018 All Rights Reserved.
Given ex-racing greyhounds’ inordinately high rate of out-of-nowhere leg breaks, sending traumatized adopters speeding to emergency vets while confused dogs suffer excruciating pain, followed by the dreaded yet now expected diagnoses, followed ultimately by the unnatural and much too early osteosarcoma-caused deaths (osteosarcoma can be particularly prevalent in retired racing greyhounds), it’s quite amazing how so many people keep filling up their hearts and homes with rescued racing greyhounds.
Unlike the first symptoms that bring other breeds into a vet’s office, for greyhounds, one in five has “a spontaneous fracture without a prior history of lameness” as the very first symptom. Yet in many other ways, greyhound lovers’ committed restocking of hounds to hearth is understandable. Greyhounds are sweet, deserving dogs and I wish for every one of them to land in wonderful, loving homes. But even more, I wish for them, as I do for all sighthounds and animals in general, to be truly seen, as we like to say in our culture, and respected.
When my first greyhound was receiving care for osteosarcoma, her oncologist shared with me—unsolicited—what she found to be the implications of her data: That the training for racing that greyhounds receive as they are growing creates the environment for bone cancer to grow, and that it is comparatively rare for non-racing industry greyhounds to develop osteosarcoma. She also mentioned that in female racers, the disease may be encouraged by the drugs given to keep them from going into heat. The U.S.A.’s foremost expert in greyhound medicine, Dr. Guillermo Couto, reports that osteosarcoma is the cause of death in 25-30 percent of all the dogs from racing lines (Email exchange January 2018). Other experts have told me their informal research suggests the number is higher. I include these comments as a sort of prologue because even though osteosarcoma in racing hounds is not this article’s focus, it is a constant, serious concern for most of those who love greyhounds. That same concern, which became a subtle mental nagging, drove me to write this article once it became clear that greyhounds are suffering another horrible, largely preventable illness in even greater numbers.
As the director of a sighthound rescue, I meet a lot of greyhound guardians. The fact is, we are surrounded by greyhound guardians, not only because there are so many of them, but because greyhound adoption is only slightly short of a cult—whose members proudly admit it and rarely leave the flock. (I can say this because I was one of them–one who did not leave in the dark of night.) I too started with greyhounds—first one, then a year later, another. The ‘culties’ will tell you when you join that “you can’t have just one,” and they usually are correct. How did I get out? That’s not important here. What is important is why so many people get in and stay in.
Processing our own adoption applications for non-greyhound sighthounds helped me come to understand, though I was a stubborn learner, repeatedly hopping on an increasingly familiar roller coaster: The good news high of experienced sighthound adopters who understand the need for sighthound rules and caution, followed by the bad news drop of realization that greyhound adopters are, generally, a radically different breed than other sighthound adopters. Of course there are exceptions, and thanks to exceptional people, we have had some successful placements of non greyhounds with‘greyhound people.’ What usually happens, though, is something more along the lines of “I think we’re just looking for an easy dog,” or “My greyhound has never tried to jump my 4-foot fence.” I’m not criticizing them. They are simply accustomed to the ways of their greyhounds just as their greyhounds were accustomed to the ways of their own long-held conditions; these adopters may have been told that this is the way, even the natural way of their dogs. Ex-racing greyhound adopters often believe that their greyhounds are incapable of jumping even a low fence—even though many of them have been trained to leap into their own stacked cages. When my first greyhound wouldn’t get into my vehicle on her own, the director of the rescue from which she came told me that not only could she jump in there on her own, but she could jump over the car if she wanted to. So why didn’t she? Keep this in mind for later.
I asked a random group of strangers why greyhounds are their preferred breed. In the first 30 responses, the word “easy” was given six times, while words/phrases that can also imply “easy” such as “docile,” “low maintenance,” “low energy,” “sleeps all day,” “gentle,” “laid back,” “a little movement, then lots of naps,” “don’t even bark at the door,” “non-vocal,” “quiet,” “adapts to my lifestyle,” “wash and wear,” “couch potato,” “already housetrained,” “generally good,” “don’t eat much,” were given 33 times. The remaining answers related to the physical appeal (12) and affection levels (6) of individual dogs, and there were two comments about cat safeness, as well as two about the cult of greyhound adoption. The racing industry claims these qualities as selling points of the breed, and this has served to keep some people in support of racing.
Somber hypothesis: What has made greyhounds so popular, their “easiness,” indeed, what has created the enormous space for growth of the greyhound adoption cult phenomenon, is the very same thing that is responsible for the overpopulation of greyhounds—by that I mean for their homelessness and resultant shipping, e.g., to Asia, their injuries, illnesses, suffering, early deaths, and even worse fates: The greyhound racing industry. But let me be more specific. I further posit that our beloved ex-racing greyhound’s reputation as “easy” is not an inherent trait of the breed, nor is it a result of any claimed good training provided by the those in the racing industry, but rather, it is a symptom of Learned Helplessness resulting from prolonged, constant confinement, *poor treatment and/or handling, and/or improper training while being bred, brought up, prepared for, kept, and/or working in the racing system.
The “easy” ex-racing greyhound may not always be a misnomer, but given the conditions under which s/he was forced to live 24/7/365, often for multiple years, I believe the “easy” greyhound is frequently a shut-down greyhound—more specifically, a greyhound suffering from a degree of Learned Helplessness that has become so commonplace that the public believes it to be not just normal for greyhounds, but a highly sought after perk of the breed as well as the main reason for adopting them. It’s a dark hypothesis that becomes a bit darker as I am reminded of the objections and worries of some adoption group members whenever there is talk of ending greyhound racing. Some members rejoice at the thought of ending the forced confinement and injurious races, while other members denounce the celebrating with concerns of where they will get their pet greyhounds if racing ends.
Psychologist Martin Seligman’s experiments on dogs provide a glimpse into the alarming reality of the Learned Helplessness condition: A “naïve” dog, i.e., one who has never been exposed to the experiment that is coming, is placed in a Shuttle box, and trial one of electric shocks are begun. The naïve dog experiences severe panic and as a result soon accidentally escapes; on trial two, the dog escapes more quickly; on trial three, more quickly still, and so on the trials go: “the pattern continues until the dog learns to avoid the shock altogether.”
These results are then compared to the results of the same experiment with dogs who were first given “uncontrollable shocks,” i.e., shocks that had first been administered to dogs held in an inescapable contraption called a Pavlovian hammock; each dog from this second group is thereafter placed in the escapable Shuttle box and retested. Without having had the benefit of Seligman’s “avoidance training” that the naïve dog had in the Shuttle box, the results for the second group, who started in the Pavlovian hammock, is markedly different. Although initial reactions tend to be the same when moved to the Shuttle box—panic—these dogs soon cease panic behaviors (running, howling, defecating, urinating, etc.) and instead of attempting to escape, simply sit or lie down, whining quietly, until the shocks terminate.
Unfortunately for these dogs, the experiments continue for second, third, and subsequent trials, wherein “the dog continues to fail to make escape movements and takes as much shock as the experimenter chooses to give.” The second dogs developed what human and animal behaviorists now recognize as “Learned Helplessness”; in Seligman’s study, it became very easy for the dogs’ tormentors to lock up and shock the dogs as the experimentors pleased, even though the dogs were not actually locked up.
Seligman performed the Shuttle box tests on over 150 dogs who had first been shocked in the Pavlovian hammock. Of these, two-thirds remained in the Shuttle box, never escaping even though the exit was always available to them. By having first mistreated these dogs in the Pavlovian hammock, from which the dogs quickly learned it was impossible to escape, Seligman had taught them to behave as if there was no point trying to get away from another, escapable shock chamber: Even when they did have the ability to escape in that next set of experiments, they didn’t bother to escape or even try to investigate the possibility of escape. (Seligman, Martin E. P. Learned Helplessness, U of Penn, 1972).
Following Seligman’s model, it seems within reason to hypothesize that approximately two-thirds of modern-day racing industry greyhounds leaving the system are, at the very least, at high risk of having already developed Learned Helplessness. Indeed, because of their sensitive natures, a trait that several sighthound breeds share, greyhounds might be even more susceptible to Learned Helplessness than the average dog.
I should clarify here that the goal of this article is not to attack an industry, but rather to save a lovely breed from a debilitating malady that so far has been unrecognized by the industry working the breed. To accomplish such a task, claims must be supported with evidence, and therefore what follows are some unfortunate examples of previously documented and published abuse of U.S. racing industry greyhounds—examples of the sorts of acts that can lead to Learned Helplessness:
In 2017, it was discovered that more than 140 ex-racing greyhounds were being kept sick, starving, dehydrated, dying, and even dead in squalid outdoor conditions by a Texas “pet blood bank” where it was soon revealed that for years, they and many more like them had been abused, over-bled for profit, neglected, and even slaughtered and buried on the property. Photos and video of these dogs lying limp, barely alive, in urine-soaked, dirt-floored pens, with only jagged plastic cartons for beds, could have been poster children images for Learned Helplessness. They lay there, waiting quietly for their next bleeding.
As a result of a Florida law allowing felons to be licensed in the greyhound racing industry, violent felons are sometimes directly responsible for the health and welfare of racing industry greyhounds. (Obviously, this alone is not an ‘act’ nor responsible for LH, but it seems worth mentioning in the context of items that follow.)
- In 2011, a track veterinarian filed a complaint against a greyhound trainer for allegedly kicking a greyhound. The vet stated that he witnessed trainer Alexander Hall kick the greyhound in the head, saying he did it because the dog wouldn’t walk. He later denied kicking the dog in the head, saying he had kicked the dog in the hip.
- In 2013, assistant trainer Christopher Bever was caught on surveillance video striking two greyhounds: Jerking the dogs’ leashes, he then struck one dog on the side and another in the head. Witnesses noted that one of the dogs “cowered in pain” and “was so scared that it was lying on the ground.”
- In 2012, a racing kennel employee, John Michael Schweizer, stated he hit a greyhound in order to stop him from mounting a female greyhound. One witness claimed Schweizer hit the dog once, while another stated that she saw him punch the dog in the head three times.
- In 2010, a kennel helper, James Childress, mistreated a greyhound, “grabbed the dog by the neck and twisted its skin and pulled it up[,] lifting its front feet off the ground.” He then threw the dog into the back of a truck as the dog “screamed uncontrollable [sic].”
- In 2009, the same kennel helper hit a greyhound in the neck.
- In 2010, Zachary Searls, a track lead-out worker, was suspended indefinitely for using excessive force when loading greyhounds into the starting boxes at the beginning of races. Multiple complaints were made that he would “violently swing” and push the dogs into the boxes. One witness stated that, “the head of (the) dog is just about always rammed into (the) side of (the) box not even close to making it in the hole. Note there are bolt heads and uneven pieces where dog head is hitting, not just a blow to (the) head could be cut pretty good with that kind of impact.
- In 2012, an assistant trainer was caught “manhandling” and slapping a greyhound.
The West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association has fought against state anti-cruelty policy. Sam Burdette, the president of the association was vocal in his opposition to the policy, stating that “cruelty is a very relative, subjective subject” and that a trainer may have to “pick a dog up and throw it” in order to stop a dogfight.
- This was not the first instance in which the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association president rationalized greyhound cruelty. In 2013, he defended greyhound trainer Bever for the incident mentioned previously, saying “He acted quick, and a little bit rough I thought, but I understand why he reacted so quick. You’re showing the dog what you want the dog to do and that’s the way you handle dogs and the only way you can handle dogs.”– Sam Burdette, President of the West Virginia Greyhound Breeders and Owners Association, defending greyhound abuse, WTAE, June 23, 2013.
For a time, Kansas legally declared greyhounds were not dogs. For the benefit of the racing industry, greyhounds had been uncategorized from their genus – that is how far some are willing to go to be allowed to do as they please with greyhounds. Greyhounds are considered dogs in all states now, and though there are relentless rumors to the contrary, they are not categorized as livestock, for racing or any other purpose.
Greyhounds are due the same legal protections as any other dog. Perhaps the livestock rumor is believed because of how racing greys are treated, or perhaps it started as an attempt at deflection. Along with basic deflection, a common retort by racing proponents whenever abuse cases are brought to light is that they are anomalies. Unfortunately for the hounds, the facts are that: 1. Few acts of abuse are witnessed by people willing to report them, 2. Few acts of abuse are admitted by the abusers, 3. Relatively few abuses are documented, and 4. Very few cases of abuse result in serious discipline for the abusers.
Right now, someone is probably wondering, “How does she know that?” The thing about claims is, anyone can make one, and it can be as outlandish as the mind of the maker. (Who would ever have believed the outlandish fact that a state would legally declare a breed of dog “not a dog?”). I’m not normally a fan of appealing to common sense, but in this case, I think it’s a necessary tool–every so often, you need a rubber mallet. Who really believes that the relatively few documented cases of abuse, which racing industry supporters claim are just anomalies, are the only cases of abuse that have ever taken place? Are we to believe that all the abuses that have ever occurred just happened to have been witnessed, reported, admitted, documented, and disciplined?
It is much more likely that those few witnessed, reported, admitted, documented, and disciplined cases make up the proverbial tip of the iceberg, resting atop a much bigger base that is silent and hidden but made up of the same stuff, supporting the few who draw all the negative attention to themselves and away from the much larger base.
The treatment and station of greyhounds must change because the iceberg phenomenon will not. There will never be hordes of people in the industry, who profit from that industry, willing to report what they witness. Members of the public who are confirmed “anti-racing” are generally not allowed impromptu visits into the racing kennels, the back rooms of tracks, etc., and you cannot be an “animal rights” supporter or of an anti-racing ilk and expect to get anywhere near access to what goes on behind greyhound racing’s closed doors. Invitations are publicly promised whenever a concerned citizen wants a track closed down or protests dogs’ confinement, injuries, deaths, or poor treatment, but these invitations are rarely genuine or open; surprise drop-ins are turned away; a visit is usually pre-planned and the optics highly controlled.
To consider other ways or places that Learned Helplessness can be installed in a dog, consider Popularland’s TV-Town, where Whispers have been known to haunt homes, hills, and HOA pathways. One example of the danger of pop culture’s power to make society unwittingly fall in line, to the detriment of its beloved companion animals, is explained by KPA Certified Training Partner Laurie Luck, who points out, “more often than not, what looks like success is really learned helplessness. The dog is shutting down, not learning how to behave. It looks really impressive, however, to those who are watching—the barky dog no longer vocalizes! It’s a miracle! No, it’s not—it’s unfortunate. The dog isn’t trained, it’s simply shut down. There’s a big difference between shut down and trained. They may look similar, but there’s a world of difference.”
Laurie is too polite to say exactly why the dog is shut down in those situations, but you’ve seen it. If not, try watching in slow motion.
The Pet Professional Guild offers a selection of position statements on pertinent topics. For example, on The Fallout of Corrective Training Procedures, The PPG offers the following:
“Dogs are cognitive, intelligent creatures that experience emotions such as fear, anxiety, and joy. They are subject to the same laws of ABA as any other living organism. Forcing dogs to comply to avoid being shouted at, told ‘no’ in a threatening manner, or having some other discomfort forced on them through voice control, body language or eye contact does not enhance the canine-human relationship, nor does it create an environment where healthy learning can take place. Rather, a pet repeatedly subjected to aversive stimulation may go into a state of ‘shut down,’ or a global suppression of behavior. This is frequently mistaken for a ‘trained’ pet, as the pet may remain subdued and offer few or no behaviors. In extreme cases, pets may refuse to perform any behavior at all, known as ‘learned helplessness.’ In such cases, animals may try to isolate themselves to avoid incurring the aversive stimulation. This is evidently counterproductive to training new, more acceptable behaviors.” (O’Heare, 2011)
Here again, we see confirmation of Seligman’s Learned Helplessness **theory and reinforcement of appropriate training practices to avoid causing this and other kinds of suffering in our dogs.
To show further correlations between racing greyhounds’ experiences and an increased risk of greyhounds developing Learned Helplessness (called “LH” in my comments below), I wanted to gather details on the types of training and handling that racing greyhounds to date have experienced during their time in the industry. Not too surprisingly, such facts are hard to come by in the secretive world of track-greyhound training, and verifying the facts of past training is impossible unless 24/7/365 video recordings turn up somewhere—and from a wide variety of sources. Nevertheless, a little of what is being said seems pertinent to the query. My inferences are in parentheses:
From GPA Nashville: What Your Greyhound Would Say If It Could Talk:
“If I’m going to sleep in my crate, walk me to the crate and say ‘kennel up’ or ‘crate up.’ If I look at you like I don’t know what you’re talking about, toss a treat in. Or put my front feet in and give my butt a firm but gentle push while repeating ‘kennel up’ or ‘crate up.’” (Increased risk of LH. The type of handling shown in white italic—force without means to refuse or get away—is one of many ways the industry increases risk of behavioral/emotional fallout.)
“Because being away from the track and other hounds and in a new place is a little scary, I may whine or whimper at night. Just tell me to hush. If the whining continues, use a squirt gun to get my attention.” (Increases risk of LH by repressing a natural or contextually normal behavior and/or dog’s expression of fear, anxiety, or discomfort, especially with aversive methods and being confined, therefore unable to escape the aversive stimulus.)
“When you need to leave – whether it’s for 20 minutes or five hours, always send me out to do my business beforehand. Don’t make a big deal out of leaving me. Put me in my crate.… I may howl a bit or rattle the crate door. Don’t let that bother you. I’ve lived most of my life in a crate. It’s familiar and a source of comfort.” (If this howling and rattling is expressing Separation Anxiety, it most definitely is cause for concern and should be attended to by a behavioral specialist, not by crating and ignoring. Moreover, if the crate were a source of comfort, perhaps the dog would not be howling and whining when left in it.)
“If I yank on the crate bars or tear up my bedding, put my muzzle on me.” (Separation Anxiety is not treated or resolved by muzzling, but it help might expedite Learned Helplessness, when combined with forced crating and isolation.)
From the Greyhound Racing Association of America:
“Perhaps because they are raised in a kennel environment, they have never learned that they have the ability to be high-jump champs….While a greyhound could easily clear a 6’ fence, they seldom question any barrier placed in their path.” (Increased risk of LH. The next time someone says his greyhound has never jumped nor questioned any barrier, however small, I challenge you to not think of Seligman’s tormented dogs and the Shuttle box. The very fact that racing greyhounds jump into their own second level (stacked) cages at the track is proof enough that they do have the ability—and know they have the ability—to jump an average fence. And yet so many ex-racers have access to low fencing in their adoptive homes. Perhaps some of them don’t jump because of Learned Helplessness.)
“Greyhounds know they are dogs and understand ‘pack order’…Because they are trained to race, they understand that the humans are the ‘Alpha’ and will act accordingly.” (Demonstrates incorrect/questionable training and canine knowledge and therefore may imply improper training methods. Believing that humans should be “Alpha” over dogs is worrisome and makes one wonder what worrisome training and handling tactics are in used.)
“Greyhounds are very sensitive dogs and are easily disciplined with a sharp word or scolding.” (Suggests aversive training methods are being used as the ‘easy’ option; this would be considered unacceptable/unnecessary by modern trainers, especially for sensitive dogs like greyhounds.)
From Fast Friends Foster Manual:
“When the cat runs off and the Greyhound wants to follow, give his leash a slight jerk and say, ‘No.’…. If he looks as if he is going to lift his leg, or squat, jerk on the leash, say, ‘No,’ ….Introduce the foster dog to your cat indoors with the Greyhound muzzled and leashed. Hold the leash tightly in your hand. Leave the cat on the floor. Walk slowly toward the cat.If the dog pulls or lunges, give a sharp pull on the leash and shout, ‘NO!’ Keep the dog on a leash for the first few days when the cat is present. Correct the dog every time it shows interest in the cat. A spray bottle with water is helpful. (Increased risk of LH: Suggests pain/fear/force while leashed (unable to avoid/escape) as the normal and taught way to deal with natural behaviors, rather than re-teaching newly rescued dogs with positive reinforcement. This is important to note because fosters are an entirely new and huge group that become the fingers and branches of a sick tree reaching out into their communities, spreading these teachings to exponentially more people and more unfortunate dogs being trained with risky, outdated methods.)
A few statements from a group called Bay Area Greyhounds corroborate the results of my survey from Part I, with one sad, and one alarming addition:
- “They have become legendary for their gentle, quiet, docile nature.”
- “By nature, greyhounds are quiet and relaxed and are not barkers.”
- “They have never had the opportunity to really be a puppy.”
- “Greyhounds do not know how to defend themselves except by flight. They often ‘freeze’ if attacked. Greyhounds do not typically bite.”
That last statement is known as fact by multitudes of traumatized, heartbroken greyhound guardians who have witnessed their gentle, incredibly meek greyhounds be attacked, mauled, or shredded by strange dogs. Could this tendency to remain frozen while being attacked be part of Learned Helplessness, after all, rather than just a quirk of the breed as people seem to believe? Could greyhounds finally get off the same old incidental tracks that have kept them going in circles, never gaining anything?
Greyhounds may never be fighters, but preventative protection from Learned Helplessness can at least give them a better chance at Flight. (Though perhaps a retorting nip would be enough to back off a testy dog every now and then.). We’d all like fewer stories of greyhounds bloodied and worse during their morning strolls.
At the risk of overselling the point, consider this statement about greyhounds, from Kief Manning, excerpted from an interview by KGUN 9 news at a greyhound racetrack:
“They’re really easy to take care of because they have been so regimented
in their lives that it’s not hard to get them on your regiment at your house,
they’re used to doing what they’re told….”
Perhaps someone out there will declare I’m overreacting.
Consider these words of erudition from the renowned applied behavior analyst, Dr. Susan G. Friedman, Ph.D.:
“The power to say no is perhaps the most overlooked provision in the lives of companion animals. It is the freedom to use behavior to escape events perceived as aversive to the individual. Blocking an animal’s escape responses works against its nature to behave for an effect. If response blocking persists, animals can learn that their behavior is ineffective. This leads to learned helplessness, depression, learning disabilities, emotional problems and even suppressed immune activity. We can empower companion animals to say no by ensuring that they have an escape route, a runway, to move away from imposing hands, and unfamiliar people and items, whenever possible.” [emphases mine]
“Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is at first prevented from escaping aversive stimuli. Later, when escape is possible, the animal continues not to respond as if helpless, choosing instead to give up and remain passively in the presence of the aversive stimuli. This research has been replicated with cockroaches (Brown, Hughs & Jones, 1988), dogs, cats, monkeys, children and adults (Overmier & Seligman, 1967). Further, Seligman’s (1990) research suggests that we can “immunize” learners from the effects of lack of control by providing them with experiences in which their behavior is effective. In this way, the effects of exposure to uncontrollable outcomes, which is inevitable in all our lives to some degree, can be minimized.”
Friedman also notes her sense that this lack of control likely explains pathological behaviors such as self-mutilation and phobias. Dr. Friedman is one of the foremost experts in R+, aka positive reinforcement, training and behavior modification, nowadays called ABA. These few words and acronyms represent the best path currently known to improving the emotional and behavioral lives of greyhounds and other animals.
As we revise how greyhounds and other animals are trained and handled in order to address and avoid future Learned Helplessness, it’s important to encourage and support all aspects of change. That includes, for dog lovers and their dogs, releasing the insidious stranglehold of beliefs such as the “pack” metaphor and its relative, dominance theory. The practice of dominance as an acceptable or effective training method has long been set aside, as has the idea that dogs are wolf-like pack animals and must be treated as such, lorded over by an “Alpha,” whether a human or a single ruling dog.
A former colleague and I were talking about her newly adopted dog a few years ago. She began explaining how the rescue where she got the dog had instructed her and her husband that they must dominate the dog, be the Alpha. I was about to embark on an effort to dissuade her when she told me that her husband had tried it on the dog: He stood over the dog, “got really big” (she showed me the body position—monster shape with scary face and fists), and then sort of flexed and curved over the dog like an Incredible Hulk. The dog took a bite out of his lip, and off went Incredible Hulk to the hospital.
If all dog guardians decided there must be a human Alpha who must control the “pack” in each home, my bet is there would be many more injuries per household, and soon, many fewer households with companion dogs. If all multiple-dog guardians enforced/encouraged a single canine “Alpha” who controlled everything the “pack” did, I would have many questions. Here are a few: What if the Alpha wants to urinate on all the other dogs’ sleeping areas every night at bedtime? What if s/he must chew every piece of furniture before anyone can use it, or after anyone uses it? What if no one but the Alpha is allowed access to you—perhaps beating up, or worse, all comers—unless you lock the Alpha away in another room, and the Alpha then destroys that room? What if the Alpha doesn’t like the movie you’re watching and keeps changing the channel to hockey or the Oxygen network?
While tough guy and bad girl humans move freely among us promoting wolf pack methods, The Association of Professional Dog Trainers offers some beautiful facts to counter those antiquated approaches. The reality is that in nature, not even wolves are dominated by aggressive “Alpha” figures—in fact, there is very little aggression or fighting for dominance among wolves in nature. Those who are not yet ready to give up the Alpha attachment and their reliance on dominance may want to consider the fact that using the term “dominant” to describe a dog is incorrect usage: “Dominance is not a personality trait. Dominance is primarily a descriptive term for relationships between pairs of individuals” and moreover, “the use of the expression ‘dominant dog’ is meaningless since ‘dominance’ can apply only to a relationship between individuals.” Furthermore, this presumed dominance “is not achieved through force or coercion but through one member of the relationship deferring to the other peacefully.” This relationship dynamic is often fluid in households, with dogs congenially exchanging status depending on the item, situation, etc.
When someone says their dog aggresses with dominance, this person has misinterpreted crucial indicators of fear or other anxiety, not “dominance.” If that person extends his own ill logic into action by way of mishandling and improper training tactics, he could be setting himself and his dogs up for problems in the short and the long term. Various studies suggest that aggressive training increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior. There are so many studies of this nature that including references to all of them here would be very cumbersome; indeed, this concept is becoming so well-understood that it may soon be considered common knowledge. One example of source material is here.
Approaching greyhounds’ training, handling, or even day to day exchanges via “Alpha,” “dominance,” or misunderstood “pack” mentality–because these belief systems by nature are not R+ systems—therefore also increases the risk of installing Learned Helplessness in your dog(s). This alone should be enough reason to forget the word Alpha, forget about pack theories, give up attachment to “dominance,” and stop making the dogs shoulder all the associated baggage. If you need another reason, I submit this: The most common things people say they love about their greyhounds are their ease and gentleness, as mentioned previously. Are your greyhounds also loving? Do they bring you happiness? If your hounds bring ease, gentleness, love, or happiness to your life, isn’t that alone an unequivocal reason for you to do the same for them? Greyhound guardians who truly care about their dogs are right this minute issuing a unified “of course.”
There’s a very easy way to get started on a better path for these dogs, and it does not matter whether you are anti-racing or pro-racing—anyone who is honest in claiming s/he loves these dogs can start right now. Your very easy way to get started is by just not doing something: Not using “dominance.” Not using harsh treatment/training. Not using tightening, pinching, choking, shocking collars or other aversive equipment. Not using “corrections.” Not scolding, squirting, tail yanking, leash jerking, kicking, hitting, or whatever else hurts, scares, intimidates, or forces a dog. Just think about how easy it is to not do any of this draining, soul-crushing behavior.
And then, how very freeing, to just give your greyhounds the kindness of force-free, pain-free, intimidation-free lives, just as they give you kindness every day.
As the sole guardians of our companion animals, we humans are responsible for their well-being. These responsibilities include ensuring they enjoy as much freedom as is safe to express who they are as individuals and what they need, as well as ensuring that they feel safe, are taught without fear, force, pain, or intimidation, and are stable, happy, and reasonably equipped to manage day-to-day life in what can sometimes be a pretty scary world. This is work, but also lightness and dignity for them and us in accomplishing this balance of freedom (theirs) and responsibility (ours). Dignity can be restored to misunderstood greyhounds. I won’t say the entire task will be easy, but if you’ve come this far in your journey for these dogs, you are capable. And they are ready.
*Poor treatment does not necessarily mean abuse; it can mean something as simple as ignoring a dog who wants to cuddle or play
**The word “theory” in science does not mean something is merely a belief or suspicion. The word for that is “hypothesis.” Once a hypothesis has been tested and retested, reviewed and validated by other scientists, it is accepted into the scientific literature as accurate and is then awarded the title “theory.” The layperson term for a scientific theory is “fact” although many scientists tend to avoid a word like “fact” since as science evolves, so does its technology and ability to discover clarified “facts.”
Thank you to The Coalition for the Protection of Greyhounds for publishing this essay as a 3 part series in its magazine.
Aren’t humans brilliant? You’re fairly smart, right? And yet at the same time, we earthlings can be somewhat creepy creatures. Intriguing, yes. Creative, yes. Resourceful, yes. Still, sometimes we find ourselves standing ankle deep in layers of our own excrement, figuratively speaking. Which is odd, given how much we laud our intelligence. With five or six feet from ankle to brain, should we be worried about our personal rising tides, or confident in our abilities to stem them?
The truth is that most people do not worry much about their personal weaknesses. In many ways that is fine, some would even argue helpful. In other ways, however, it definitely is not fine. While this is a topic more typically covered by psychologists and psychoanalysts, it is of interest to rescuers as it pertains to the care and safety of our beloved animals, like the dogs we rescue, love, rehabilitate, and home.
Surviving Earthlings: A How-To. Even if dogs could read it, there’s not much they could do with it, what with being at the utter mercy of us earthlings. It’s a good thing, then, that we are so proud of our own intelligence and abilities, because it means that we earthlings are absolutely capable of making sure that our dogs survive us—and as the most logical creature, we’re also able to admit that therefore we are obliged to make sure of it. I offer to you, dear earthling, for your dear dog, this little set of instructions to help your dog survive earthlings. (Would you believe me if I told you I found it in a crop circle?):
- Due to the fact that some stranger earthlings can be nefarious, vengeful, or simply dog-hating, do not for any reason leave your dog outside alone or when you are not home. Strange earthlings all over the world have been known to throw poison food into fenced yards, shoot or otherwise harm dogs, steal them and do dastardly things to them, or simply taunt them through the fence, causing copious barking or even biting that has then gotten dogs in trouble with earthling law, sometimes even resulting in the earthling death penalty for dogs. In addition, dogs can get out of their yards and get lost, hurt, or killed, and wildlife can get in to their yards and hurt or kill dogs.
- All of the above can also happen if earthlings leave their dogs inside but make the very common mistake of using an earthling-invented dog door, allowing a dog to either access outside while its earthling is away, or access outside while its earthling is home but asleep or not paying attention. Therefore, earthlings and their dogs would be well-served by some honest soul-searching about the use of their beloved dog doors versus their highest and best safety of their beloved dogs.
- Much of the above can also happen if an earthling leaves a dog alone in a vehicle, even for a moment. Earthlings being so logical, I’m sure I don’t need to explain exactly how in the context of vehicles these things can happen, right? Suffice it to say that while windows up means hot cars (all you dog-loving earthlings know that hot cars kill dogs very quickly, of course—and even A/C in a non-moving car does not stay cool for very long), windows down means earthlings have access. But earthlings can and do also have emergencies while outside their vehicles and when earthlings have emergencies, however intelligent they are, they can tend to forget things or go into fight / flight like any other mammal. Either way, the result can be terrible for an earthling’s dog. We say we would never… but it happens to earthling children many times every year in the states alone!–even though earthling children have many more laws and advocates trying to protect them. So, most logical of all species, do the math, as earthlings like to say.
- Due to the fact that so many earthlings drive cars and live in traffic areas, do not unleash your dog unless in a fully fenced area where no earthlings can run over your dog and where your dog cannot run out eventually to where cars are. You could also consider not unleashing your dog where wildlife might eat your dog–or where your dog might eat wildlife that other earthlings love. Also for the earthling’s logical mind to consider is how many other earthlings’ unleashed dogs are properly trained; how do you know, if your dog is not protected by being at your side on leash, that another dog s/he comes upon isn’t going to attack? Yes, all earthlings have the ability to be logical, but not all earthlings always use that ability, so there are bound to be untrained off leash dogs in your path. This is often true at traditional style dog parks as well, where sometimes, some earthlings seem to enjoy picking on other earthlings perhaps more than their dogs enjoy picking on other dogs.
- Secure, solid fences, tempered glass windows, and locked gates and doors are just a few things that help protect earthlings’ dogs from careless or nefarious earthlings as well as from doggy-temptations. No matter how many times you tell a contractor-earthling to keep all gates, doors, and windows closed, for example, most earthling dog guardians will find themselves running around behind their earthling contractors, closing closing closing. Or else looking for gone dogs.
- Tying your dog to things, whether moving or still, is bad for your dog, earthling. If you tie your dog to a moving object and something goes wrong with that object, your dog could be injured or worse. If you tie your dog to a still object, you dog is going to wonder why, and after a while that wondering can turn to frustration which can turn to what earthlings like to call aggression, not to mention potential injury, escape, theft, or worse. A dog tied to something and left while its earthling runs in to grab a quick coffee, for example, is a sitting duck for some stranger earthling passing by who 1) dislikes dogs, 2) had a bad day, and 3) decides to take it out on your tethered dog.
- Earthlings make lots of messes and therefore require lots of cleaning products and other chemicals in their homes. Plus they also like cats (I know!! CATS!!) which means the dreaded cat box, which can carry toxoplasmosis. Therefore, a dog’s earthling must be vigilant. Keep the litterbox somewhere the dog cannot access. Keep all chemical-bearing products and other items toxic or dangerous to dogs out of reach and behind child safety locks because dogs are smart and can learn to open doors, cabinets, trash, purses, etc., easily. Many earthlings have lost their beloved dogs this way. Did you know that pets can suffocate while playing in a chip, treat, or dog food bag? There is so much that an earthling needs to know in order to protect a dog. It’s a good thing earthlings have such huge brain capacity!
- Parent-unit earthlings used to say NO SWIMMING AFTER EATING OR YOU’LL DROWN! That turned out to be false, but earthling dog guardians don’t want their dogs to get lethal bloat, to which barrel-chested dogs are especially susceptible. Some ways to help protect against bloat are: Wait a couple hours after a meal before allowing play or exercise. Don’t feed for at least an hour or so after play/exercise. Feed two smaller meals a day rather than one big one. You should research more about this on your own since there were no formal veterinary notes in the crop circle.
- Most earthlings don’t like worms, and even though some dogs might try to eat some kinds, they probably still don’t want them living in their hearts, especially since that would be a death sentence. That is why earthlings must give their dogs Heartgard or other heartworm protection every single month, to keep heartworms from taking hold of their dogs. If some earthling declares that heartworm is rare in your area, ask that earthling how much they will pay you in losses if your dog gets heartworm. (PS: Maybe heartworm is rare because smart earthlings keep their dogs on Heartworm prevention!)
- Okay earthlings, the number 10 seems to be a BIG deal on this planet, so hopefully this will be an easy one to remember: 10 as in the PERFECT 10, as in the perfect kind of training, the kind that your dog wants, needs, and loves: POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT ONLY! Also known as R+, aka force free/pain free/fear free training (but never ever called “balanced” training, which is code for also uses aversive methods), you teach your dog by positive reinforcement, also known as ‘paying’ e.g. with treats for the behavior you want. Look, earthling, when your bossling wants you to do something, does she drag you to your desk and then if you don’t do it, spank you, push you down, pop your belt, or alpha roll you? No, she pays you, with what YOU want, to do what she wants you do to. And do you only get paid for it the first few times? Nope, you get paid regularly. Very few earthlings–rescue workers aside–would work for someone else if they were not paid to do so. If an earthling stops getting paid, he finds another job. Dogs are not too much different in that regard. Positive reinforcement training not only motivates a dog without intimidating or hurting the dog, but helps build trust between dog and earthling, and science has shown that it is the proper and best way to train.
- Here are some weird dangers the earthling may never have thought of: Mail slot in the door: Why? Well, what if an earthling friend mails a box of chocolates and your dog finds it? That could be good-night doggy, since chocolate is toxic to dogs. It’s pretty much the same story for stuff left along your usual walking paths—could be a stick of gum sweetened with xylitol, also toxic to dogs, or it could be something purposely poisoned by one of those evil-lings mentioned earlier. Garden stakes and pointed fence tops: Some dogs, podencos, for example, are really bouncy. Sorry for the graphic detail, earthling, but there have been impaling accidents in other bouncy breeds; they are not as common as other accidents, but hey, do you want your dog to be that special one? Balconies and windows: Some dogs are bouncy and also jumpers; add high prey drives and low think-before-go? Then please also add keep-off balconies and raised decks, away from open windows, etc. Wire crates and baby gates: The first may be obvious. Wire is quite chewable for many dogs, leading to mouth injuries and emergency vetling visits. Baby gates, not so obvious. Be aware, earthlings, that baby gates can be strangulation hazards. Dogs can get and in fact have gotten their necks stuck in them and have died. Make sure baby gates are properly made, sized, installed, and closed. Boyfriends, roommates, and otherlings: You may be appalled to learn, earthling, that no one loves your dog as much as you do. You would be even more appalled if you read all the animal advocacy news about naughtylings who take out their anger for their spouses, friends, girlfriends/boyfriends, parents, et cetera, on those earthlings’ pets. Choose your earthling cohorts carefully is all we’re sayin’. Already have concerns? Maybe invest in some cameras. (See also our previous blog post BE YODA for thoughts on dog walkers, sitters, groomers, etc.) Snuggle-soft muzzles: So your dog needs a muzzle? But you want it to be comfy. The store clerkling hands you a fabric one because it’s soft, and streamline, and looks harmless. Nope! Those fabric muzzles prevent the dog from proper panting and therefore, especially if worn for any length of time, and moreso if the dog is stressed or it’s a warm day, can actually threaten your dog’s life, earthling. Do not do it. Get a plastic molded basket muzzle instead. They look ridiculous but allow plenty of room for air and panting, as well as drinking and even eating if you want. This list could go on and on earthling. I invite you to email us with your additions. I disinvite you to email us exclaiming how “crazy” I am. Anyone who claims to love dogs–especially if claiming to be rescuing dogs–who doesn’t go to the ends of your earth to keep those dogs safe? Send them your “crazy” accusations, earthlings.
- For many earthlings, 12 is a sacred number, and here I present the most sacred of all topics to most earthlings: Childlings. I’ll keep it short, like they are. Your childlings also have brains like you and must be taught to behave responsibly and kindly if you, earthling, expect to be a proper dog guardian of a happy, long-living dog. Childlings cannot be expected to handle dogs the same ways adultlings do, so they must be supervised with dogs at all times. No chasing, poking, pulling, dragging, riding, hitting, or yelling, squirting, or throwing things at the dog, childlings! No taking dog toys or food away either. The adultling supervises the childling to ensure no antics occur with the dog, thus protecting both dog and childling. If a terrible mishap occurs between dog and childling, what happens next? Terrible things happen next, that’s what. But if something has happened between dog and childling, the starter question should be: Where was the adultling? Earthlings, your beloved dogs, whom you have wanted and loved, are still dogs, and will always be dogs. They communicate in Dog—via whines and jumps and stares and yips and growls and barks and snarls and nips and yes sometimes even bites. These are their only modes of communication. If you do not want them to use their natural modes of communication, you must keep them out of situations where they have something that they, quite naturally and almost always innocently, understand no other alternative but to say. Do not blame the dog, earthling, if a mishap occurs. Moreover, do not say “The childling is dog-savvy”—which is unlikely, scientifically speaking, from a brain chemistry perspective. Nor must you say “The dog is aggressive,” which is an earthling construct lacking crucial context. You are your dog’s only advocate; you are all the dog has; you must be willing and able to remain so.** Or you must not get a dog at all. You could maybe get a hamster?
*Even though they also live on earth, dogs do not fall into the earthling category. This is because, as all dog guardian earthlings know, dogs are born as angels.
**Sometimes a dog needs behavior modification and being the dog’s advocate means hiring a behavior modification trainerling to help you. Yet every once in a while for some other reason, an earthling may decide to give up the dog. Earthling, you can do one last bit of advocacy by at least surrendering the dog to a reputable charity rescue group rather than posting to that scary place earthlings call “craigslist,” or those scary places dogs know as “the pound.” Don’t just give your dog to a friend or family member either, earthling, nor leave it somewhere alone. Rescues are your dog’s best chance for getting a safe new home where it will be truly wanted and loved. Isn’t it true that, in addition to big brains, earthlings also have big hearts? At least that’s what I keep hearing.
(blog post KADANSE by Rain Jordan)
As rescuers, we need to take more responsibility for changing the luck of pets—not just the pets we rescue, but all pets. Education is a crucial part of that job. Yet there are care and safety issues that unfortunately are not typically discussed with dog adopters. Here’s one: Taking your dog for services. That is, grooming, vet care, dogsitting, and so on.
I propose that the overarching rule here be Do Unto Your Dog As You Would Do Unto Your Child. Would you leave your 2 year old alone at the hair salon for the day, or even for a couple of hours? Would you allow your pediatrician to examine, vaccinate, or take samples from your child in a room separated from you? When you go on vacation, do you feel comfortable leaving your child in a boarding-style nursery—or with someone you don’t know personally very well?
For most people, the answers are of course No, No, and No. Yet I’m willing to bet that the majority of people, if being honest, would answer Yes to at least one, probably two, maybe even all three of these questions when posed about their dogs.
Perhaps few people would knowingly leave their children with a babysitter who has another child who is, for example, aggressive to other children, or has a partner who is, for example, a mean drunk. Now you might retort that few people would knowingly leave their pets with such sitters either. Knowingly. How would you know? The average person will screen, or at least ask their friends about, their babysitters before leaving children with them, but the level of caution regarding petsitters drops notably for the average person. This is one reason why so many bad things happen to pets while their people are away. Many pet sitters have lost pets, harmed pets, or via neglect, irresponsibility, or simple immaturity, allowed them to be harmed—even killed. (From the ‘and so on’ category, this goes for dogwalkers as well; there are some great, certified, trustworthy ones, but there are also some absolutely unqualified ones. Make sure you know the difference.) I will spare you the horror stories I know of for now, but our adopters will hear them because we want our dogs to have the absolute best chance of living a safe, happy, healthy, LONG life. The point is, if you must go somewhere without your pets, give them the protection they need and deserve.
Your veterinarian will probably show some resistance the first and second and maybe even fifth time you ask him to handle your dog in the room with you, but why should that stop you? You are paying your vet to do a service; that vet works for you. More importantly, you and only you are your dog’s advocate—this is your job. Please do not assume that vet staff will be as sweet and gentle with your dog behind the scenes as they are in front of you. They might be! But they might not, and you would probably never know. Besides, again, you are your dog’s advocate. When your dog needs a ‘sample’ taken, she would much rather have your eyes to look into, and your voice to tell her what a good girl she is, and your touch to help calm her, than some strangers holding her down while saying “OK OK almost done!” etc. Furthermore, your dog will do better with vet visits overall if handled more patiently, gently, and carefully, which is what happens when you are there to support her. I am not saying that vet staff are mean or uncaring people. I’m just suggesting that the best way to ensure that your dog’s experience is as untraumatic as possible for her is for you to be right there with her. (Thankfully, I have an accommodating vet who respects my feelings on this.)
Many years ago, before I had sighthounds, my husband had a dog that was probably some sort of jindo/chow cross. She was not a very friendly dog; in fact, she could be downright scary with strangers. So every time my husband would bring her home from the groomer and tell me how much “they loved her!” – well, I was suspicious. I would question him about it every time, asking, “Then why is she always so scared to go in?” and “Don’t you think they probably say that to all the customers?” (You are wondering now why I allowed her to go there. I can say she was not my dog, but the fact is, I wish I had convinced him against it, and that is what I would do now.) Yes, in many grooming facilities—including that one—you can see the groomers doing the actual grooming part of their job. But you do not see what goes on behind the scenes, e.g., in the kennels/back room while the dogs are waiting. Nor perhaps can you see close up enough to see subtle signs of problems. Again, be your dog’s advocate. You could stay with your dog until her turn and then watch*, or you could take her to someone you and she both know and trust (preferred!) unless you can groom her yourself. She relies on you for safety. (Addition 8/1/2016: Upon a national news story of a dog’s death while staying at a doggy camp in a pet store chain, and upon discussion of this news among colleagues, I learned the probable cause of my husband’s previous dog’s fear of this groomer: The stores’ practice was to lock dogs in fiberglass crates and use a commercial blower to shoot air into the crate until the dog was dry. This is, obviously, not safe and surely not comfortable. As you can imagine, dogs have died from it. A quick internet search will give examples of this and other deaths and injuries.)
By the way, please don’t bathe your dog by hose. Why not, you ask? Would you bathe your child in cold water?
Your dog cannot dial 911 to get help if something bad is happening to her—and if she bites to protect herself, there’s a good chance she will suffer a terrible fate for that as well. If your pets are family, shouldn’t they be treated accordingly? Be YODA. Be Your Own Dog’s Advocate.
I knew it the instant I saw the distinct, familiar sadness in her eyes. I knew it the instant she looked up over the wirey tufts of blond tangled across her muzzle, and through her lashes long as sorrow. I knew it then, as I’ve known it before, as I will know it again and again. This dog has endured enough. And now, after enduring all she had been made to endure, this dog had been left for death, in a cold, wet, chaotic place, bearing her heart and mind in tatters. It is my job to see that this dog endures no further hardship. It is my job to mend this dog’s heart and mind, and then to see that she never is tattered again.
This is my job, always. Dahlia is one of the many podencos to come from Spain to Hound Sanctuary. She had been taken by her hunter-owner to a perrera (also known as a “killing station”—something like a high-kill shelter though much more degrading), and the hunter-owner had given the perrera permission to kill her, which meant that she would be put on the fast-track for euthanasia; she did not have much time to live. I knew nothing else about her. After begging a perrera volunteer, to no avail, to let me get her out of there (it was about to be a long holiday and the perrera would be closed, leaving her alone, cold, and at risk for days), I began a panicked reaching out to my contacts. There were some NOs, but soon enough, three of our trusted rescue-partners in Spain agreed to help. Soon Dahlia was on her way to foster in a little town near Denia, and soon after that she and two of her foster-siblings were on their way to us, where they would begin new lives, enjoying safety, happiness, and respect.
This is the essence of what we do. Sometimes the situation of the particular dog is a bit less dire, but many times it is even direr. In their homeland, most of these dogs are neglected, abandoned, and tortured/killed on a daily basis. If you’d like to know more about this, please email me to discuss. Below are few photos of the lovely Dahlia, now safe and happy in a real home.