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Greyhound Behavior Part 2
Aggression in Retired Racers

By Judy Kody Paulsen


Sleeping greyhound

Sleep Aggression
This disturbing phenomenon is fairly common in dogs of all breeds, but it is perhaps more pronounced in retired racing greyhounds due to the environment in which they have been kept during their racing careers. The saying, "Let sleeping dogs lie", must have originated from a source with personal experience in this area!

A dog that growls or bites upon being disturbed while sleeping is not generally considered to be an aggressive or vicious dog. These dogs are usually well adjusted, sociable, affectionate dogs in all other aspects of their ability to relate to people and other pets. Reacting negatively to sleep disturbance is not uncommon, even in human beings.

Understanding a typical day for a greyhound at the track or training kennel is paramount in learning to cope with this problem. Once a greyhound begins training for their adult racing life, a very strict daily regimen is adhered to. The dogs are kept individually in crates in a large room filled with crates and other dogs. The dogs are turned out to relieve themselves early each morning and about three more times during the day. They are exercised or "schooled" about twice a day if they are active racers. Dogs that are retired or rehabilitating from injuries do not go out for these exercise sessions as a general rule. The main focus is on preparing the active racers for their performance on the track. Each day is structured to provide exercise and uninterrupted rest for the racers. The key word here is uninterrupted.

Think of this as you scratch your head in bewilderment after your adopted greyhound has just snapped at you or your child when its sleep was interrupted. Combine this regimented lifestyle with the possessiveness of a dog that has had few personal items, none of which it was required to share, and you have a dog that is totally unfamiliar with the life of a household pet. These dogs must be recognized for what they are and what they have endured as part of the conditioning process for racers. They are athletes that have been in training for months or years to produce a dog that focuses on one thing — chasing a lure.

Deprogramming or desensitizing a greyhound to these acquired behaviors takes patience and understanding and, above all, time. Some dogs will never overcome the tendency to be startled upon awakening, and some will never be willing to share their sleeping quarters. Desensitizing a greyhound to touching during sleep can sometimes be accomplished by exposure to frequent petting, touching, or verbal communications while the dog is resting, but not asleep. The problem with this technique is that greyhounds can sleep with their eyes open, thereby making it almost impossible to tell if they are visually aware of your approach as you attempt this "desensitizing" method. Another risk of this technique is that the dog may become accustomed to being handled during sleep by family members, but not by infrequent visitors whose approach and touch may signal the sudden compulsion for the greyhound to protect itself from this intruder. The best rule to enforce with friends and family is that the dog is to be left alone while resting and/or sleeping.

If your greyhound is known to be sensitive while sleeping or resting, it is best not to allow the dog to use your furniture as its bed. A specific place for the greyhound should be designated with a soft bed or blanket on the floor or in a crate with the door left open, and everyone should understand that this place is off limits for all but the dog. Teaching children this rule should be no different from teaching them anything else that is necessary for you to protect them from things that may injure them. I think it is important to stress at this point that all types of aggression that may be encountered in greyhounds are also encountered in other breeds. The object of this article is to focus on why the greyhound becomes aggressive in certain situations, not to imply that greyhounds have an innate tendency to be aggressive.

Predatory Aggression
Predatory aggression in greyhounds is quite common due to their training to chase, coupled with an inherent desire to hunt. This type of behavior is usually triggered by rapid movement of something away from the greyhound or, in some cases, a struggling, shrieking child or animal which is construed as prey that is wounded (wounded prey actions can generate a frenzied attack by healthy pack members). Some greyhounds can run and play with other dogs and/or children and not have any tendency to want to bite. However, others may want to control and "bring down" this target. It is the responsibility of the adopter/owner to supervise all interactions among their greyhounds and other pets and children in order to avoid injuries. Remember to muzzle a greyhound with any inclination to chase and nip at anything moving quickly. Even a muzzled greyhound can inflict injury, so again, the key word here is supervise.

Shy greyhound

Fearful/Shy Dogs
Fearful or shy dogs can bite, too, and there are a number of indicators one should be cognizant of when working with or attempting to socialize with a dog of this nature. A greyhound's eyes can say a lot about its comfort factor around other people or animals. In my observations of shy or fearful greyhounds, it is apparent that the dog's blink rate (i.e. frequency of blinking or upper lid movement) can be a good indicator in predicting aggression or fear. First, it is important to understand that dogs do not blink like human beings; their eyelids rarely fully close during blinking, and is often just a very subtle movement of the upper eyelid. They can also go much longer periods between blinks than humans can. But it can be said almost without exception that a blinking dog is a content dog, and as the blink rate becomes more rapid, the dog is becoming more relaxed. When a greyhound becomes wide-eyed and exhibits no upper lid movement, this signals a sudden concern or interest in something and often can be an indicator of fear in the shy or fearful dog (possibly this applies to other breeds, but my research has only involved greyhounds). Eyes wide and fixed on something can be the precursor to a sudden attempt to bite or attack. A staring dog should be regarded with caution and face to face contact with a dog in this fixation mode should never be initiated.

On some occasions, staring may indicate particular interest of a benign nature; for instance, a dog that is watching its food being prepared or observing a treat in anticipation of being rewarded. This can produce the same fixed stare, but I think it's pretty easy to differentiate this non-blinking response from one surrounded by contrasting circumstances where a dog may exhibit aggression.

The Dominant Dog
Tail carriage is another sign we can utilize to gauge a dog's perception of danger or challenge. In a relaxed, indifferent greyhound, the tail is usually hanging straight down, neither tucked between nor raised away from the hind legs. When observed outdoors on the property of their domicile, they generally begin to raise the tail slightly as they survey the yard when they first go out. If any threat is perceived, either by sight or sound, the tail raises almost to a horizontal position to the ground. If the threat increases, as in the approach of an intruder to property boundaries, the tail raises further. This behavior is especially evident in dogs of a dominant or territorial character. Barking may ensue and at this point, the tail is often carried high.

Observing tail carriage while dogs interact with other dogs is beneficial in predicting and preventing potential conflicts. The dominant or alpha dog attempts to establish its superiority over the other dogs in the pack by raising its tail stiffly while approaching another dog. If the other dog is dominant, too, both dogs will present with similar behavior and tails will be flagged up into the air. If an agreement is reached between the two that one will submit, one or both tails may begin to wag slightly or the level at which the tails are held may drop somewhat and the situation is then defused and can progress to indifference or play.

A dominant dog often displays its desire to dominate by raising its tail as it enters a room or an area where there are other dogs. As long as the other dogs are willing to accept his dominance, all is well; it is as if they are appreciative of his announcement! However, if another dominant dog does not wish to accept this declaration, a stand-off may occur. Usually, the dominance issue is resolved by acceptance within the pack and the dogs will respect this arrangement without further ado.

When adding a new dog to the family, watch for this indicator among pets in the household; the presence of this behavior is a signal to you that you must be conscious of situations that may provoke conflicts. Having a dominant dog does not mean sacrificing the peaceful coexistence of all the pets, but rather serves as a reminder that you may have to be a bit more guarded under certain circumstances. In the case of multiple pets, there will inevitably be the occasional conflict over turf or status, but you can keep this to a minimum with awareness of the combination of personalities you have in the household.

Of great importance here is to determine if a dog shows one or a combination of any of the aggressive behavior types. If so, these dogs should be monitored more closely when around children, other pets, or anyone or anything that may approach your greyhound in what the dog may interpret as threatening or challenging. A dog with frequent or dangerous episodes of behavioral problems needs obedience training and possibly pharmacological treatment to assist in desensitizing it to the stimuli that it perceives as a threat to itself or its family. Animal behaviorists can be invaluable in treating dogs with dysfunctional personalities, and great strides in this area have been made in recent years. A book that I believe to be one of the most sensible and effective is The Dog Who Loved Too Much, by Dr. Nicholas Dodman; you can find it at or order it from your local bookstore.

Don't give up on your dogs just because you don't understand them; enlist the help of someone who can enlighten you and give you the tools to work with the problem at hand. It's worth the time and effort, especially when you are rewarded with a pet you can trust.


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