Volunteers give old racing dogs new homes

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 | 6:19 p.m. CDT; updated 8:31 a.m. CDT, Saturday, September 8, 2012
Vikki Brown, an active member of Rescue Racers, spends the morning Friday with her two greyhounds and a foster greyhound, from left, Phyllis, Sebastian and Karen. Her current foster, also known as Karen's Rocket, is 9 years old with 89 races behind her and has been with Brown since Aug. 16.

COLUMBIA — The doorbell calls three greyhounds to the door, each fighting to see who can get there first.

Their owner does her best to hold them back, but she only has two hands.



Greyhounds have been companion animals for at least 3,000 years. They were popular pets among the nobility in ancient Egypt and Greece, and archaeologists have found their images on pharoahs' tombs, according to the Greyhound Racing Association of America website.

Known for their agility and speed, greyhounds were hunters and companions before they became racers.

"Greyhounds were originally bred as hunting dogs to chase hare, foxes and deer," reported. "Not surprisingly, greyhounds made a name for themselves as racing dogs and are still used in racing today."

Romans introduced greyhounds to racing in a sport called "coursing," where the dogs are released to chase a wild animal.

The first documented race in England took place in 1776, and 100 years later, the sport began to use artificial lures instead of live animals.

In America, cavalry officers used greyhounds as hunters and scouts. Photographs and prints of George Armstrong Custer often show him with a pair of greyhounds.

Eventually, greyhound coursing, originally a sport for the landed gentry, became a segment of the gambling industry.

  1.  Greyhounds can run as fast as 45 mph over short distances.
  2. They are the only breed of dog mentioned in the Bible (Proverbs 30, verses 29-31).
  3. In general, greyhounds are healthy and have few health issues throughout their lives. They can live between 10 and 15 years.
  4. Their coats are often odorless, meaning they do not need as many baths as other breeds might. However, the thin coats are not good for cold climates, and they do not do well in extreme heat either. Greyhounds are mainly indoor dogs.
  5. While they are bred for running and love to do so, greyhounds will sleep between 16 to 22 hours a day.
  6. When fully grown, greyhounds can weigh between 55 and 85 pounds and be between 24 to 27 inches tall.

Sources:  Rescued Racers Pamphlet, Vikki Brown, Greyhounds For You 


"Don’t jump," Vikki Brown shouts, but the three dogs — Phyllis, Sebastian and Karen — continue to circle and fight for her attention.

These three exuberant dogs were once consigned to the racetrack, but they are now under Brown's care.

The dogs are among the dozen or so greyhounds she has rescued after their racing careers ended. For 12 years, Brown has volunteered with Rescued Racers, an organization dedicated to helping retired racing greyhounds find permanent homes.

"The majority of them have been just in the last 10 months," she said, including her foster dog, Karen.

Rescued Racers holds regular meet-and-greets to match greyhounds with potential owners. One will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Treats Unleashed in Oakville, south of St. Louis.

The next event in Columbia will be from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 13 at Treats Unleashed, 1400 Forum Blvd.

The National Greyhound Adoption Program, another organization working to save retired racing greyhounds, reports a yearly average of 250 to 350 adoptions.

When a greyhound's racing career is over, typically at age 3 or 4, they are usually of no further use to their owners. Some greyhounds are sent to shelters or put up for adoption; others are abandoned or put down.

In the 1980s, the public became aware of the poor living conditions for many of the dogs, and rescue groups formed in response.  Today, more than 30 greyhound rescue groups operate nationwide.

Brown became involved with Rescued Racers after seeing an article about greyhounds in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and talking to a woman in St. Louis who worked with the dogs.

"I thought it was really kind of a neat dog," she said.  "I’d always been involved with Dobermans in the past. … I like my big dogs."

Karen is her most recent foster dog. Known as Karen’s Rocket while racing, she is 9 years old and ran 89 races before being retired as a brood mom.

To foster a greyhound takes anywhere from two weeks to a month, ensuring that it is housebroken and can adjust to domestic life. Brown said she has been working with Karen for nearly a month.

"So she’s now in retirement, learning what a house is like," Brown said. "She discovered herself in the mirror the other day and was up on the counter sniffing her reflection."

Both Sebastian and Phyllis started out as foster dogs, but Brown soon adopted them.

Sebastian, her 9 1/2-year-old greyhound — actually part wolfhound — came from a farm in Iowa four years ago where he and 24 other hounds had been abandoned.

"It was another hot summer like the one we had this year," Brown said. "No food and water for two weeks. Dad got arrested for drugs. Mom says ‘I’ve had it.' She up and left. And that’s how we ended up with him."

Brown describes Phyllis, her 10-year-old greyhound, as the "momma hen." Like Karen, Phyllis is retired from racing. She ran in 39 races, placed in several but won only one, Brown said.

She adopted Phyllis shortly after Sebastian, who was used to having other dogs around and was “moping” because he was alone.

Brown thinks her two dogs help her work with the greyhounds she fosters until they are ready to be matched with new owners.

"It’s real good for fosters to have another dog in the house, so that they can learn the rules," Brown said.

Working with greyhounds requires a time commitment, Brown said. Most volunteers work with their dogs an hour or so a day.

While greyhounds do enjoy running, Brown said they are also known as "45-mile-per-hour couch potatoes" because they sleep most of the day and do not require a lot of exercise.

"I do this for that feeling of satisfaction," she said. "When they go to their forever home — what we call their adopted home — it’s just a big sense of satisfaction."

Leann Zalasky is the founder and director of Rescued Racers, based in St. Louis. In 1992, she adopted a greyhound, Lady, and learned there were very few adoption groups and hundreds of dogs that needed to be rescued.

"I decided I needed to do something," she said.

Rescued Racers started with just Zalasky and a friend as a volunteer group in 1997.

"It was a slow process," she said. Over time, the group gained attention through meet- and-greets and other marketing.

Today, the group has volunteers to help foster the dogs, organize events, transport them from farms and racetracks and arrange adoptions.

Rescued Racers has chapters throughout Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas. Zalasky recalled that between 2003 and 2005, when a number of racetracks were closing, the group had 42 dogs in its foster program.

"In 15 years, I have never had to say ‘I’m sorry, we can’t take that dog,'" Zalasky said. "The volunteers always come through."

Spaghetti dinners, trivia nights, Bowling for Hounds and an annual Greyhound Festival for dogs and owners serve as places for education and socialization but also provide ways to raise money for the animals' care.

Volunteers are not paid for their work but can receive donated food from the St. Louis headquarters.

A $325 adoption fee covers spaying and neutering and any shots a dog might need, but it does not cover all of its medical expenses.

"We are small group," Zalasky said. "We don’t have the same resources as larger national groups, but we do the best we can."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.


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