Thursday, July 28, 2016

At the End of the Race: Life or Death for Canine Athletes

Greyhound at full speed during a race
When professional athletes get injured during a game they are examined immediately. The clock stops and the fans wait with baited breath until the athlete either gets up and rejoins the game or is escorted off the field. Regardless of whether the injury is minor or major, the player is thoroughly examined and treated with care. This may seem like a normal practice and something to be expected, but when it comes to professional racing greyhounds, the empathy, compassion, and care they receive after being injured isn’t even close to being in the same ballpark.

Christine Johnson and her husband, Chris Procopis, have dedicated their lives to rescuing, rehabilitating, and re-homing racing greyhounds. The idea to form such an organization began 16 years ago soon after the couple had adopted their first greyhound.

Initially Chris was afraid of dogs. They were living in New York, and had just moved to Westchester County in 1998. Chris knew how much Christine loved dogs, and for their one year anniversary gave her a card that held $1 and written inside were the words “and a dog”. The caveat was that the dog couldn’t bark, shed, drool, or smell. And since Chris was more of a cat person, he cleverly figured that there was little possibility that a dog would fit such a description.  

Being a strong woman with endless perseverance, Christine started her search for a canine companion that fell within her husband’s criteria. Not too long afterwards, a friend of Christine’s recommended that she try adopting a retired racing greyhound because these dogs have a reputation of being laid back and easy going pets. Christine started her research and coincidentally the following week while on her way to work, came across a lady walking her greyhound. She took this as a sign that a greyhound was the right choice for their family, and went home to put in her adoption application with a greyhound rescue group.

To her surprise she was promptly rejected due to the fact that she and her husband were both working and were away from the house eight hours per day. Refusing to take “No” for an answer, Christine worked quickly to find a solution.
“I’m not one to take no easily. I put flyers all over the condominium complex asking for someone who would come walk the dog while we were at work.”
It was an 11-year old boy that answered her advertisement and came to introduce himself. Christine hired him for $7 a day, and afterwards resubmitted her application, which was then accepted.

Christine and Chris were aware of the mentality of racing greyhounds, and how after a career of racing the dogs can maintain a strong desire to chase. It was also important that their dog get along with cats. Taking that into consideration when choosing which greyhound would be best suited to join their family, the agency chose Paris. Being someone who was initially afraid of dogs, to say that Chris was a little surprised when Christine walked in with the 90 lbs. male greyhound, was an understatement. But not being able to go back on his word as Paris met all of his other requirements, he confronted his fears and gave it a try. It was Christine who was utterly shocked and humbled as she watched her husband’s fears fade into unconditional love.
Christine said, “Within six weeks my husband, who was afraid of dogs, said to me ‘you know, we should get another one’, and that’s when we got our second one.”
As their family grew, so did their desire to learn more about the previous life of their newly adopted greyhounds. Driven by the fact that she had been initially turned down for adoption, but had also been rejected for fostering, Christine knew that she could do better. That’s when she started doing the research to form her own organization with the initial members as herself, her husband, and their two dogs.
Russ at the beach. Adopted and loved by the Garcia family.
A little over 16 years and 1,500 dogs ago, Christine and her husband formed Greyhound Rescue and Rehabilitation (GRR) in May 2000. Their mission was to educate people about adopting greyhounds as pets, and explain to them what happens to retired racing greyhounds who are injured, or brood females, which are females who were used for reproduction. Together they started to implement “Meet and Greets”.
“We would take our two dogs wherever anyone would allow us to talk about greyhounds. Flea markets, pet stores, trade shows. We would set up a table, on Saturdays and Sundays, and start to educate people in the area about greyhounds as pets.” ~ Christine
Christine explained that when people think of having a dog for a pet, greyhounds do not typically come to mind. While walking their dogs they have received or overhead comments such as "Is that a Great Dane? I didn’t know greyhounds came in that color. Mommy, is that an ant eater?”

All of their rescued greyhounds come from racetracks, breeding farms, or are puppies that cannot race due to illness or injury. A racetrack generally has 8 – 12 kennels, and each kennel holds around 66 dogs. Most of the dogs Christine receives are from the racetrack kennels in West Virginia, Alabama, Florida, and the breeding farms in the Midwest. When a dog is racing and breaks a leg, depending on the severity of the injury, the kennel owners may try to rehabilitate it but it’s not common. Generally this would only be considered if the dog was a champion racer. Otherwise the mentality is that an injured dog is just a dog that’s taking up space and not making money, and rehabilitation is a waste of money.
“Greyhound racing kennels this is their business and the dogs are the product of that business. And if the product isn’t making money it has to go to make room for new product to come in that’s making money. And there is only so long that these kennels can hold the ‘non-producers’.” ~ Christine
Christine spent a lot of time and effort establishing relationships with these businesses. Staying true to herself and her mission, over time she was able to gain their trust and cooperation. When a dog has been injured or cannot breed any more litters, she receives a call from the company asking if she can “help”. This generally means providing funding for surgery, post-op work, and foster care. They send her a list which can sometimes contain between 20 and 30 greyhounds, from which she has to choose how many her organization can take on at that time.

Out of the dogs that have been chosen, the ones that have broken legs are scheduled for surgery the following day. Christine makes all of the arrangements for the dogs to be examined by the veterinarian who then makes the recommendations for piecing the bones back together during the operation. Afterwards the dogs are kept in the homes of the volunteer foster families until they are stable enough to be transported to New York. Once they arrive in New York the dogs are kept by another foster family until such time that they can be adopted out to their forever home.

Each year GRR repairs about 18 – 20 broken legs costing between $2,200 and $2,500 per surgery. In addition to the surgeries performed, prior to being adopted out, each dog is spayed or neutered, receives a dental cleaning, shots, tested for heartworms and tick borne diseases, and given a new leash and collar.
Recuperating after surgery
When asked how many foster families the organization currently has, Christine replied,
“Not enough. 5 to 10 and 10 is on the high side. I need foster homes. Without the foster network we cannot take the dogs. Foster homes need to do nothing other than teach the dog to be a pet. We pay for everything, food, vets, any medical expense. If everyone in our group fostered 1 dog per year, that’s 500 dogs. The racing industry is in decline. The dogs need homes more than ever.”
Over the years Christine and Chris have fostered over 300 dogs, but overall the number of volunteers has dwindled and foster homes have decreased. Some years GRR rescues between 120 and 180 dogs, but if no one steps up to offer foster homes the dogs can be euthanized.  
“The longest time a dog has been with a foster before finding a home is 11 months. Our organization doesn’t put a dog in a home unless we think it’s a good fit, we want it to be a win-win. We want the family to be happy and the dog to be happy. The dog had some fears and we needed to find the right home. It took 11 months but we found it. We go for the quality not the quantity. Our return rate is less than 1%” ~ Christine
Alfie is 4-years old and currently up for adoption
Christine advises adopting parents that the life expectancy of a greyhound is generally between 10 and 12 years. Over the years she has kept track of greyhound deaths and their causes, and one of the more common ones is osteosarcoma.
“I call it the 7th inning stretch. If they don’t get cancer they can usually last until 12.”
The dogs that get fostered out from the racetrack are usually between 2 and 6-years old. Whereas the females that come from the breeding farms are older and can range from 6 to 12.

Part of the education Christine provides to the volunteers and adopting parents is how to properly care for a greyhound. She starts from the basics such as the importance of buying the right collar due to the fact that their necks are smaller than their heads. She explains that the racing greyhound’s instinct is to chase and within taking three strides, a greyhound can hit a speed of 45 mph.
“They have been trained to chase. So when they see a little fuzzy dog walking they think ‘that’s my job, I need to chase.’ They can never be let off leash unless they are in a secure fenced in area.” ~ Christine
Christine also enlightens people about the use of invisible fences, how they are not suitable for this type of pet, and that owners must be committed to walking their dog all year round.
“They remember when their job was to go get the rabbit and by the time they hear the invisible fence sensors they are into the shock and are gone. They are sighthounds and they can be miles away within seconds.” ~ Christine
Christine characterizes greyhounds as indoor dogs who don’t like being home alone ten hours a day, but are extremely loving and very gentle companions. Bruce Levinson and his wife, Nina Malmed, have been foster families of GRR since 2008. Nina had a greyhound before she met Bruce then together they adopted their greyhound, Trever, in 2008. Trever had a broken leg and was wearing a cast when they initially met him. After Trever, Nina and Bruce got another greyhound that was a brood mom, who recently passed away, and now they have two greyhounds, Trever, 11, and Justice, 6, and one Galgos, Bernadett (aka Beenie Baby) who is 2. 
Trever and Bernadette relaxing at home with Nina and Bruce
Nina and Bruce love their dogs and consider them part of the family. Bruce agreed with Christine’s statement that greyhounds don’t like being alone and said,
“It’s like a secret service detail they are your bodyguards always moving with you. Some of them come into the bathroom with you because they think you don’t know how to go by yourself.” 
On one occasion transportation couldn’t be arranged fast enough, so instead, Bruce drove ten hours from New York to West Virginia to pick up a dog that needed to go into surgery. This is one of the many examples of GRR’s endless dedication.
“I’m proud of this group. When there is a call to action for a dog in need, we don’t say no. They step up to the plate.” ~ Christine
In addition to the greyhounds that GRR rescues each year, Christine is also passionate about helping save Galgos, a type of sighthound from Spain. Each year the organization will take on anywhere between 8 – 10 Galgos and spend $3,000 per dog to bring them to the USA. Christine is dedicated to fulfilling their mission to rescue and rehabilitate Greyhounds, but also wants to be part of the ongoing international effort to save the Galgos.

The funding to run GRR does not come easy. Volunteers like Nina have knocked on doors asking for donations; at Meet and Greets people also make donations; and once a year they hold an annual picnic fundraiser. At the fundraiser they hold a silent auction, raffle, costume contests, relay races and more. This year the picnic welcomed 237 people and 167 greyhounds. At the end of the year Christine always writes a year-end accomplishments letter that’s sent around in hopes of generating interest and collecting additional funding.

There are other yearly greyhound events where owners come together to share experiences, socialize, reunite dog family members, recommend services, and more. Greyhounds in Gettysburg is held in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in April. This year Nina and Bruce attended Grapehounds, a wine tasting tour with hundreds of other dogs and owners. The event is held during July and takes place in the Finger Lakes region of New York. And Greyhounds Reach the Beach is always during Columbus Day weekend in Dewey Beach, Delaware.
Christine Johnson enjoying Greyhounds in Gettysburg
Bruce, Nina, and Christine all agree that the Greyhound community is so connected. At the events the community members fellowship sharing information, tips, experiences, stories, and more. Bruce shared his view,
“When you adopt a greyhound you’re not just adopting a dog, you’re adopting a family.”
For the last 15 years Christine has attended Greyhounds Reach the Beach, and this year will be no exception. When asked to share her perception of the event held in previous years she said,
“You can close your eyes and not know that there is a dog on that beach. Standing on the beach and seeing hundreds of greyhounds that used to be racers, it is awe-inspiring.”
16 years ago Christine created GRR with the mission to rehabilitate and rescue as many retired racing greyhounds as they could. Greyhound racers had a job to perform and Christine’s wish for the ones that are saved is that they learn, accept, and understand what it means to be loved. The life of a racing dog is very structured and is mostly spent in a crate, absent from fun and affection. GRR’s goal is to transition the dogs from life as working athletes into life as pets. The organization covers the areas of Fairfield County Connecticut, and Westchester, Putman, Duchess, and Rockland counties in New York.

Christine and Chris have five greyhounds (Freddy, 5, Sugar, 4, Josh, 13, Joy Joy, 8, Rusty, 3), one Spanish Galgo (Fanta, 2), and one foster greyhound (Flirt, 2). As they do not have any children they consider the dogs their kids.
“It’s like eating potato chips, you can’t eat just one.” ~ Christine
Rusty, Freddy, and Sugar watching a squirrel

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this article. Thank you for all that you do to help the Greyhounds.