Finding the Right Homes for Retired Hounds in the Delaware, Maryland, D.C., Virginia Area ...and Beyond!
Greyhound Expo-seby Ron Powell
~~I was sitting in my computer chair, as I do most mornings, intently staring at the screen before me. Absently, I reached into the bag of chips next to me for some sour cream and onion flavored inspiration. At the rustling of the bag, movement at the edge of my peripheral vision catches my attention. A quick glance informs me that Bo has noticed the rustling. He gives me his best "treat ears." That's when he looks at me with his ears straight up, but bent at the middle in almost-but-not-quite right angles and facing away from him. They look almost like lopsided letter Vs or maybe greater-than and less-than symbols. Bo doesn't say much, but he gets his point across. As far as Bo is concerned, any sort of bag rustling is an open treat invitation. God help me if I so much as think about opening a Little Debbie snack cake. I stay perfectly still in the hopes that Bo lets the moment pass, but the telltale thumping of his tail on the dog bed tells me what he expects. As I open the desk drawer next to me, Bo gets up, stretches luxuriously and trots over to my chair. He forces all 500 feet of his nose under my arm and knocks my hand away from the keyboard. With all the grace and finesse of a runaway dump truck, he rests his head on the arm of my chair. The breeze from his tail wagging back and forth is likely to disrupt local weather patterns. I have already retrieved a treat from the drawer, but I pretend not to notice the mostly fawn colored proboscis nudging my empty left hand. Experimentally, Bo whuffs at me. He waits with supernatural levels of patience for precisely 3 seconds, then uses a paw on my leg to spin me around to face him. He lays down, absolutely still except for his rapidly thumping tail. He gives me the treat ears again, then lays them flat against his head. My hand relaxes as I'm overcome with cuteness. Bo springs to his feet and noses my hand open the rest of the way. He gobbles his grain-free treat as he lays his head in my lap. I couldn't care less about the crumbs as I stroke his head and fiddle with his ears. It's a pretty good greyhound day. Then again, every day with a greyhound is a pretty good day.
After a few moments of attention, Bo goes back to his dog bed. He circles. He paws at the bed. He, like a drunken ballerina, glides artfully into his spot with a muffled thump, there to resume his duties as Apartment Guard Dog. Apart from making sure the treat drawer is still stocked, he doesn't have that much to do. Sometimes he whines at the little dogs that pass beneath our window. He always makes sure I'm properly guarded on the way to and from the kitchen. He also alerts me to visitors. It's a tough job, but Bo takes it very seriously. Once thing is for sure, no one, and I mean NO ONE is ever going to steal his dog bed while he's around. Bo is about the best Apartment Guard Dog you could ask for.
I've always liked big dogs. I believe that, if you're going to have a canine companion, it should be large enough to put your arms around, big enough that you know he's with you and of a suitable size as to require conscious thought when buying vehicles. I used to think that I was going to have to break down and get a little dog since I had an apartment and big dogs need lots of room to run around. I believe Bo would be happy living in a 4x4' box as long as his dog bed was inside it.
I watch Bo as he naps, upside down and with his tongue lolling out the side of his face. I chuckle a little to myself as I watch him sleep so blissfully. It doesn't help me with my deadlines, but it is good for the soul. I could watch Bo for hours but I turn back to my computer in an effort to make my editor's blood pressure lower itself a few points. Still, I couldn't help but daydream a little...
I'd pulled the short straw and was assigned to do a human interest story. It wasn't glamorous, but it pays the bills. Whenever there's a filler story to do, we draw lots to see who has to do it. Most of us would rather be flattering ourselves with pretensions to Pulitzers, but sometimes you just have to do the stories you get. This was one of those times.
I'd been grumbling incessantly over having to do the local pet expo story and as karma would have it, the day I set out to peruse the show it was that sort of grey, overcast, drizzly day that makes you glad you don't live in Seattle. It didn't help my mood much, but my Dad always told me that you don't always have to like what you have to do, but you still have to do it. It was with this sense of resigned dread and general malaise that I threaded my way through downtown traffic and over to the convention center. I parked in a spot which had to be mathematically calculated to be the farthest from every possible entrance. I slammed my door and trod through the parking lot, more miserable with each soggy step.
One thing about reporters. They all think they're a jaded, cynical version of Edwin R. Morrow. I wish I could say that I didn't belong in that group, but I couldn't with any sense of journalistic integrity. I was at the height of my film-noir gumshoe detective mood when I reached the "nearest" entrance and pulled out my press pass. The little boy in me still giggles that I have a press pass and that it gets me into places without paying first. Walter Cronkite, eat your heart out.
Now, jaded and worldly as I am, I still melt at the sight of big dogs and there were plenty to look at inside. I knew I was going to see a bunch of animals at the expo, but the sheer variety of animals and merchandise was pretty stunning to a first timer like me. I expected a few booths of second-rate pet "stuff," maybe some socks and beef jerky like you find at other sorts of shows, but this was overpowering. By overpowering, I mean the smell. It was also pretty amazing that this much stuff and all these animals were gathered together in one place. I started scribbling notes. I like to lead stories by appealing to the senses and I didn't want to miss a nuance of this later when my best friend, a large pepperoni with extra cheese, comes over later for a writing session.
I wandered around, looking at the merchandise, searching for some quotes from the folks working and attending the show and generally wasted time. I stopped by a Leonberger breeder's pen. I goggled at some Great Danes. I even schmoozed a Saluki or two. I politely chatted with a beagle's owner, I asked some questions of the vendors, I even feigned interest in the various felines on display. I took lots of notes, but I really hadn't found the story. Sure, I could cobble together 200 words or so and move on the next assignment, but I don't really like to phone it in. Dejectedly, I turned the corner to trudge down the last aisle.
There, at the very end of the last aisle lay My Destiny. My Destiny was a dog laying on a fluffy bed with a pink 3x5 card around its neck. There was also "Sara Shall" and two litter-mates named "Moon Mountain Lemonaid" and "Moon Mountain Koolaid". I found this out as I spent the next 15 minutes or so chatting with the volunteers there. Sure, I'd heard of Greyhounds and knew that they raced, but I never really thought about them being rescued and adopted out like other dogs might. They sure were cute and they'd definitely help make the story I had to write. On impulse, I took a card. If nothing else, I'd at least be able to accurately name the rescue in the story.
It was getting late. The pizza was long since cold and I still hadn't finished the story. Well, it was finished so far as the expo was concerned. It simply wasn't difficult to write a few hundred words about cat toys, smelly rodents and the relationship of humans and domesticated animals. As I re-read it for the tenth time, it was done. It was verifiably finished. Except that it wasn't. It was a bit hollow, like a movie prop was finished to all outward appearances but when you look around the back it was just enough to hold up to the slightest scrutiny. It held only the thinnest veneer of a story and that was just not good enough.
Now, every writer has a bout of writer's block. Every writer looks back at his own work and thinks it infantile, unwashed, putrid, and unsuitable for public consumption. Most writers have some ritual they perform to work past these issues. Unhappily for my editor, I was practically a voodoo witch doctor when it came to these sorts of things. Every move and nuance ritualized, each facet of the ritual just so. Therefore, I did what I always do. I dialed her cell phone. The phone rang a few times and a muffled, slightly annoyed voice answered. "Really? Most people have the common decency to wait until morning to call their boss."
"Lucky for us, I'm not most people, eh?"
"Lucky for who? I don't feel very lucky right now." I could hear her husband muttering in the background. He's a great guy. No matter what time I call he almost never threatens to kill me.
"I got a problem," I say. "I'm finished the story, but it's not good enough."
"It's a fluff piece to fill a few column inches in a mid-week edition of a small market city paper. How finished does it have to be?"
"More than it is."
She sighed explosively. Usually this means I'm about to win an argument with her, but we haven't argued yet. I heard all sorts of rustling and bustling and eventually a door closing. "Ok," she said, "I'm in my office, what's the deal, here? Tell me about the expo." I complied willingly. At the end, she said as how it sounded like a good piece to her, so why not run with it and move on.
"I dunno, chief." She doesn't like that I call her chief. She says it makes her feel like J. Jonah Jameson. I usually say that she should just be happy she doesn't look like him, too. "I don't know what's wrong with me, other than something is."
She spent a few more minutes going over the details with me, then said, "It sounds to me like you need to do a follow up. We can probably find space for it. You keep coming back to those Greyhounds, why not call them and see where it goes? If it doesn't pan out, we already have a story to run and if it does, maybe you'll get some closure and maybe I’ll get some sleep."
Hearing her speak was like puzzle pieces falling into place. "Thanks, chief, you're the best. Now get some sleep, will ya? You can't keep me up all night like this, I have work in the morning." A low growl slightly preceded the end of the call. I managed to find enough peace to go to bed myself.
The next morning, I sent off the story, made some breakfast and waited until a decent hour to call the greyhound rescue. I identified myself as a reporter and asked if they were amenable to answering a few questions. Amenable wasn't quite the word, they were more like ecstatic. I started off by asking how it was that they'd come to do the expo.
"We do the expo every year. It's a great way for us to get some exposure for the dogs."
"The dogs, yeah. I don't imagine you adopt out that many dogs in the city, though. They're kinda big for apartment life, aren't they?"
"Not at all. Greyhounds are very well suited to apartment life. They don't need much space at all." I thought I could hear some amusement in her voice.
"I suppose that might be true if you were into jogging or some such to get them all the exercise a racer would need?"
"Most greyhounds are quite happy with a few short walks per day. In fact, they're not meant for long runs at all, they're sprinters." Yeah, there was definitely amusement in her voice.
"But they're so fast and they run so much, how can that be?"
"Greyhounds are pretty lazy and they like nothing more than to lie around on a dog bed and sleep most of the time. They're so laid back you sometimes have to make sure they're still breathing!" She went on, “They’re great with kids, they cuddle, they're goofy and silly and fun, they're mostly a very quiet breed and make excellent companions in most every case." I was taken aback. Most everything I "knew" about greyhounds was, evidently, false. The voice at the other end of the phone was definitely excited. I could tell she was passionate about the dogs.
"Look," she said, "why don't you give me an email address. I'll send you a link to our website so you can do a little research. Once you've done that, I'd like to invite you to an adoptathon - where we pair the dogs with prospective families. It's quite an eye opener, I tell you!"
I gave her my email address and thanked her for her time. I got a lot of information in a short time, but nothing I could make a story out of yet. Within 5 minutes, I heard my computer announce a new email. Sure enough, it was a link to the rescue's site. I clicked it. It was immediately apparent why the voice was so amused at me. Nearly every misconception I've had about Greyhounds was already addressed in the site's FAQ. I suppose even journalists can feel a little shame once in a while. I did a quick internet search and the information there was not only independently verifiable, it was verified several times over. Swallowing my pride, I called back and accepted the invitation to the adoptathon. I was told to be there a week from Saturday, at 7am and to dress appropriately for working with dogs.
A little over a week later, I found out what "appropriately dressed for working with dogs" was all about. I had arrived around 6:45am. The dogs hadn't yet arrived but that didn't mean there wasn't a large amount of activity. People were getting set up to bathe the dogs, do their nails and even microchip them. I took all sorts of notes and asked all sorts of questions. Despite being in the way more than I was being helpful, everyone was very happy to explain things as we went along.
When the dogs arrived, transported in the cars of various volunteers, chaos ensued. There were 8 dogs coming in this morning. They emerged from the vans and SUVs muzzled and leashed. I was a little puzzled, so I stopped one of the ladies zooming to and fro. "Are they muzzled because they're just off the track and likely to bite?"
A half-amused, half-exasperated expression greeted my look of apprehension. "No," she informed me, "sometimes when they're racing in packs or when they're being playful, they'll nip each other. It isn't that they're vicious, it's that they have very thin skin, so we always muzzle to make sure that no one gets hurt. You don't really have to keep them muzzled once they're retired, but we muzzle at gatherings as a politeness to make sure there are no issues." She paused, then added "They wear their muzzles at the track and for large amounts of time. They're used to it and, generally speaking, they don't mind it so please don't think it's cruel. We tell new adopters that the muzzle is their friend, especially if you have to go out and your dog likes to find treats when you're away." She hustled off to help with the dogs.
After the dogs took a quick pee break, I was moved between stations. I bathed a dog, I helped do nails and I saw them get microchipped. I have to admit that the process was easier on the dogs than seeing it was on me. After grooming, they got pictures and were put into cages to await the adopters. Volunteers wrote names and gender symbols on small whiteboards hanging on the cages. Names like "Bj's Whopper Singer" appeared over shorter nicknames like "Whopper". I then got to help set up the dogs' binders and their bags of items that go with them when they get adopted. We hadn't quite got finished with their bags when the first adopters started trickling in.
They came in groups of all kinds. There was a young expectant couple who just moved into the area, a family of five in need of a family pet, an elderly couple, a single young gentleman and so on. They were from all over the tri-state area. The only thing they had in common was the dazed look on their faces as they took in all the information being flung at them. There were dogs vying for their attention by scratching at cage doors, volunteers shepherding the adopters in and outside to meet dogs. Dogs went out, dogs came back. It was hectic and chaotic and amazing all at the same time. I was beginning to wonder how a dog ever actually got adopted when a volunteer came in and shouted "Whopper is off the market!" Applause and cheers broke out. It was very like this one time when I walked into my neighborhood bar. All hustle and bustle and noise and murmuring and such until the jukebox started playing Don Mclean's "American Pie". The entire bar went silent, then everyone sang to the same tune and cheered when it was done. It was the sort of spontaneous outburst of togetherness, randomly generated but universally appreciated, which makes lasting memories. It was an epiphany for me. These volunteers, as different from each other as the potential adopters, were all bound together for the sole purpose of taking a dog from a track and giving it a home. The moment passed but the awe inspiring purpose remained and soon everyone was back to their tasks.
I was quickly hustled along with Whopper's new family to sit through the adoption paperwork process. It took about an hour to complete. They were given Whopper's binder and a volunteer sat with them and went over every page in the book. They were told of their expectation to see a vet within two weeks for a wellness checkup, given the first dose of heartworm and tick medicines, informed of the basic do's and don'ts of greyhound ownership and given contact information for their buddy who would be on call for them 24 hours a day in case of any questions they'd have - large or small. The family eventually shuffled off to their car, Whopper in hand, with looks of happiness and confusion.
Once they'd left, I'd asked whether every adopter was equally dazed when they left with their hounds. The volunteer sighed contentedly and said, "It's a lot of information to take in, but they're going to be fine. We do a lot of work to pair up potentially good matches with families. It's also why we do the buddy system. They may get home and have a question, but their buddy will be able to help them through it. Not every group does the buddy system. We had one repeat adopter tell us that when they got their first greyhound, their name was called and a dog was pulled from the truck and put into their arms. They had no support and had to figure everything out for themselves. We pride ourselves on making good matches and standing by them until they're comfortable."
"Do they ever come back?"
"Yes. It happens, but not terribly often. Despite our best efforts, sometimes we don't get the match right, then they come back. We call it a bounce."
"What happens to bounces?" I have to admit that I was a little afraid of the answer.
"They get fostered for a while, until the next adoptathon. Just like anyone who doesn't find a home today. They'll go to a volunteer's house. They'll get acclimated to home life, maybe learn how to go up and down stairs, what toys are for, things like that which will make them great family pets."
"Wait, learn how to go up and down stairs?"
"Oh yes. Hounds at the track lead very flat lives. Most have never seen stairs so you have to show them how to use them. They also don't usually get toys, so it's pretty amazing when they figure out how to play with toys. They may not know what windows are, sliding glass doors can be a new experience, and you even have to show them that pools are full of water sometimes. I can't say they're mistreated at the track, but there is so much for them to learn."
"That's. Um. Wow."
"Yeah. I know. They're such great dogs, though, and it's great when you get to see them learn new things or go home with their forever families. It's what keeps me coming back to help on adoption days."
I pondered this for a bit as we walked inside. There were a few dogs still in cages after the last family had gone home. The chaos had subsided to a dull roar and everyone was engaged in the tasks of finishing up adoption day. I walked by the cages until, as I passed by a big fawn colored greyhound, a tail started thumping against a cage. According to the sign, this was Bo. He raised his head and whimpered a bit, his tail picking up speed and force. He nudged his nose over to the bars and I couldn't resist a little bit of petting.
I flagged down a passing volunteer. "What can you tell me about Bo?" She looked at my quizzically, shrugged and went on her way. I was a bit taken aback, but figured she was busy. I asked a second and third volunteer. They didn't know who Bo was. Finally, I stopped the lady who had done the adoption I'd sat in on. "Do you know anything about Bo?" I pointed to him and she chuckled. "That's not Bo. His name is FSG Red Jamie." She couldn't contain herself and started laughing. She informed me that his sign must have gotten rubbed off somehow and that was a note they'd put on his sign for the volunteers. "Sometimes, they can't be an only dog, so we put "SA" for separation anxiety on the sign. If they're a senior or special needs, we might put "SR" or "SN" on the sign. In this case, someone was having a bit of fun. Jamie here came in today in dire need of a bath, so they put "BO" on the sign. It stands for Body Odor!" and she resumed her fit of hilarity. Bo surely didn't smell too bad to me. I had to admit, though, that I did see the humour in the story. I resolved to make sure that this anecdote would make the final cut of the article.
I stood there for a good half an hour, watching the day wind down and fosters start to leave with their charges. When it came time for Bo to leave, I decided that Bo couldn’t go to a foster home.
"Do you have time to do one last adoption?"
When I got Bo home, I was perfectly prepared to have a big, slobbery, companion. I had been educated by my adoption buddy so I knew what was in store for me. At least, I thought I did. I had listened attentively to my adoption buddy, but it was a lot to take in. Bo, however, was a little less prepared than I. Though his transformation from highly trained athlete into Apartment Guard Dog had begun, he had many things to learn.
I was going to have to teach Bo all about how to live with humans. For instance, I couldn’t assume that he would tell me when he was ready to go out. At the track, I was informed, the dogs are “turned out” into a large yard for a certain amount of time and at certain intervals. They weren’t asked if they had to go, they just had a schedule. I figured I would take Bo out every two hours or so for the first day until he did his business. After, I’ll work him into a schedule with potty breaks after meals and a last out before bedtime. Thankfully, living on the second floor meant we hadn’t far to go. However, that also meant Bo had to master stairs pretty quickly. I’d already spent a few minutes working on stair skills. Luckily, he took to it pretty well, if a little tentatively. I was going to have to teach him boundaries, like not getting into the trash or taking food off plates and counters. He was even going to have to figure out how to lounge around on couches.
For my part, I was going to have to be careful not to leave doors open and to always leash him properly when going out. This is extremely important, I was told, for Greyhounds since they are sighthounds. I certainly didn’t want Bo to take off after a neighborhood squirrel and get lost or hit by a car. Being a sighthound and trained, virtually his entire life, to chase fluffy things, not being leashed properly is an invitation to misfortune. My buddy told me that Greyhounds could literally outrun their knowledge of the local area and be unable to find their way home. There was a lot to do, learn and teach, but having Bo made the effort worthwhile.
We didn’t have a lot of time to hang around the apartment, though. Being woefully unprepared for Bo’s homecoming – it being a rather spur of the moment decision – he and I were going to have to make a trip to the local pet store. I made a list of things Bo would need: Crate, dog bed, bowls, food, a coat and maybe a toy or two. I leashed him up and we made our way, tentatively, down the stairs and outside. Clearly the grass was a little too dry for Bo’s tastes but we hopped in the car quickly enough.
A short time later we were locked in a battle of wills. Bo didn’t take to the automatic doors at the pet store very well. He would gleefully go in any direction except toward the doors. After a few attempts, one of the gentlemen working inside noticed and came to my rescue. He called upon the universal language of dogs to encourage Bo. He produced treats. Bo very thoughtfully considered his choice between fear and hunger and almost instantly decided to go with his belly. Once inside, Bo’s nose and tail went into overdrive. He must have sniffed every box of treats in the store! He was a big hit with everyone he met, even if he was a little unsure how to act around all these new people. We finally gathered the items we needed, picked up a few things we didn’t and made our purchases.
The first night together was uneventful. Bo “helped” me put his crate together. He feasted from his new, luxurious, dog bowls, he went potty in the yard outside and generally just made himself as comfortable as he could be in a strange, new place. We went on a “last out” and we headed off to bed.
I got a call from my buddy the next day. We talked about the things Bo had done, how to make progress on the things that needed improvement and how the transition was going for us. She promised to call back in a week or so to check on us, but Bo and I were off to a pretty good start.
I finally quit reminiscing and put the finishing touches on my latest article and sent it off to my editor. Bo was still on his dog bed, underneath a framed copy of the article with his picture in it. One of his dog beds, that is. Bo and I have been together for a little more than a year. Tomorrow is my favorite day. Adoption day. Ever since I'd adopted Bo, we'd been volunteering at adoptathons. i still get a little feeling of nostalgia seeing the bewildered faces of adopters as they go through the process. Bo and I do our
Greyhounds aren't just dogs, they are a way of life!