Dog Devotion

By Sal Nudo, Contributing Writer

Editor’s Note: This piece was written for a journalism class at the University of Illinois

The morning dew on the glistening grass sparkles, but it won’t for much longer. Though the late-May day started chilly, the temperature is 63 degrees and will ascend to 84 degrees by 3 p.m.

Right now it’s 8 a.m., and already the sun feels warm on the skin. Amid the peaceful quiet of a Sunday morning, couples, friends, individuals and plenty of dog walkers are trickling in to shed weekend calories at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana. Just off the parking lot, a 1999 sculpture of two human-like hammerheads, bright red and approximately 12-feet tall, face off as if in a competition with one another, arms reared back and ready to brawl. If it’s possible for sculptures to give off an angry vibe, these two sculptures are doing it.

A group of dogs with their five owners at the park particularly stands out. There are nine, all wearing martingale collars and being held on leashes, essential measures since this breed is trained to tune out their called names and noise from a crowd. If ever they got loose outside of a fenced yard they would disregard the calls to come back. These dogs are Greyhounds, ex-racers who have retained their skinny, sleek look and bound about on stilts for legs. The dogs’ colors range from white and beige to darker hues, and their tongues are already out before the walk starts. The owners of these Greyhounds – Bruce, Cory, Chris, Kathy and Kevin – love their pets dearly.

An informal bunch who live in Champaign-Urbana, the five regularly bring their Greyhounds to Meadowbrook for weekend walks and camaraderie, both the human and canine kind. Sometimes as many as nine other local Greyhound owners join them on walks that have been going on for “a long time,” according to Kathy.

“We should come up with a name for our group,” says Chris, a tall, soft-spoken man who has on a sweatshirt and is the only member of the group wearing shorts.

“We should. We should get T-shirts,” says Cory, who sports sunglasses and a red T-shirt that reads “WTF is Going On!” underneath a blue University of Illinois jacket.

The sidewalks at Meadowbrook are widely spaced to accommodate exercisers of all kinds. Even so, an assembly of nine tall Greyhounds is a formidable cluster. Bruce, Kathy and Kevin start the walk at a brisker pace than the others, leading the way southward on an open-sky path that has dense trees on the left and a large area of well-kept grass on the right. Eventually, the grass transforms into a natural growth of open prairie that takes over each side of the sidewalk. The day is cloudless and still; planes streaking above are easy to spot. Soaking in the panoramic view, it’s easy to imagine that the urban density of the twin cities is lightyears away.

According to adopt-a-greyhound.org, Greyhounds currently up for adoption are generally “retired athletes” whose careers – usually two to five years – are over. From a young age, breeders have studied the dogs’ physical abilities and emotional characteristics. Greyhounds get plenty of exposure to humans and their own kind, making them comfortable around each. They’re not always so calm around other breeds of dogs because they’re not exposed to them.

Seven minutes into the walk a small white dog sees the pack of Greyhounds and isn’t pleased. Leashes strain and growls get tense between the small dog and Kathy’s dog, Quick Start, which inspires the other Greyhounds to become excited. After 15 seconds or so, the snarls hit their peak and the dog owners restore calm.

“They can outrun you,” the owner of the small dog warns his canine as he walks away from the group, getting some laughs.

Kathy, a short woman with jet black hair, remarks that Quick Start wouldn’t have done a thing if the other dog hadn’t growled first and riled him up. Her dog is extremely laid back.

The five all agree that the biggest misconception about domesticated Greyhounds is that they are hyper ex-racers that need plenty of space to run around or that they need to be walked constantly. Kathy points out that during their racing years, Greyhounds are kept in crates that are stacked two crates high. Generally they are let out several times a day and participate in races twice a week.

“If they were hyper dogs they would be insane,” Kathy says, referring to the ample time racing Greyhounds are kept under lock and key by their owners.

Kevin, a white-haired, distinguished-looking man remarks that “ungainly” Greyhounds are actually very lazy dogs who spend most of their time on beds or couches in an upside down position because it makes them comfortable.

“They don’t know what to do with their legs. A lot of the dogs seem to enjoy kind of flipping themselves over and stretching their four legs in the air,” he said.” It’s a very grotesque-looking position.”

Cory, who used to work in a Greyhound rescue shelter in Gainesville, Florida, said she handled Greyhounds at that time who, given the opportunity, “would go nuts to run on a track,” even in retirement. She adores her two dogs, Red and Deeja, calling them her “kids.” “They’re a very cat-like dog. They’re lazy,” she said. “They’re the world’s fastest couch potato. My guys spend most of their time on the couch or on a dog bed or on the bed or anywhere else that’s soft and comfortable.”

The group feels that Illinois has several quality Greyhound adoption agencies. Chris got his two dogs, Lolly and Star, through American Greyhound/Great Lakes Inc., which has a partnership with the Inmate Greyhound Experience at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan. It’s a program in which selected inmates in the facility spend all their time with Greyhounds, teaching them commands and working on their socialization skills, preparing the dogs for eventual permanent homes through agencies like American Greyhound.

Cory, a volunteer at Mobile Mutts, got Red through Retired Greyhounds as Pets, or REGAP and acquired Deeja from 4 Greyhound Racers. Bruce and Kevin got their dogs, Ava and Easy, respectively, from REGAP, and Quick Start came from The Sighthound Underground.

As surrounding birds chirp away, the Greyhounds stop often as they walk the circular path, sniffing out the multitude of smells and doing their business to mark their territory. No one is in a hurry as the path veers westward and becomes dense with trees, making it cooler.

“We’re not racing anywhere,” says Kevin, who takes Easy on a walk at Meadowbrook every day.

“We’ve never passed anybody on a walk,” admits Bruce, an active volunteer at the Humane Society who is wearing jeans, a white baseball cap and a blue shirt that reads “operation blue out.”

“Right. Everybody passes us.”

The easy banter within the dog-loving group is all about dogs, specifically Greyhounds. There’s a tinge of admiration in their voices when they talk about the breed’s characteristics.

Kevin: “I really enjoy that alert, far-distance stare that they get.”
Cory: “Where they know that there’s something a mile away and they can see it.”
Kevin: “Yeah, and they’re just still.”
Chris: “And the ears adjust.”
Kevin: “Prick forward. And they’re like statues when they’re assessing what it is.”
Chris: “Sometimes the tail goes out a little bit.”

Kevin explains that racing Greyhounds live an extremely limited life during their careers. When they “come off the track,” they don’t know what a glass door or a screen door is. They’ve never seen stairs in a house.

“It takes a whole acculturation process to train them and understand these things because basically they’re always either on a track or in their cage,” he says.  

The Greyhounds are in the home stretch of the nearly hour-long walk after striding across a wooden bridge with bronze railings. The dogs’ tongues are in full hanging mode by this point and breathing is more labored, but only super-mellow Ava seems tuckered out, having plopped down a few times in shady areas during the trek.

Back at the park’s entrance, Cory, Chris and Kathy stand under the partial shade of a tree, holding their leashes and talking. The greenery of the park combined with the spectacularly sunny day is almost overwhelming after a string of recently damp and nippy days. Bruce and Kevin are nearby with their dogs, observing things underneath the full shade of a cooperating tree. Ava is fully resting on her side as if ready to nap the rest of the day away.  

The Greyhounds are suddenly greeted by the enthusiastic barks of two medium-sized dogs standing in the parking lot. They’re about to go running on a six- to eight-mile jog with members of the Second Wind Running Club. The runners’ dogs seem eager and aggressive compared to the docile Greyhounds, who don’t make a peep and stand complacently.

Also standing nearby – not as complacently as the Greyhounds – are the hammerhead sculptures in perpetual potential fighting mode. They, too, seem at odds with the easygoing Greyhounds, whose only spirited goal at the moment, however understated, is to head home, curl into a tight little ball and sleep the beautiful day away.