Life with a ’45 mph couch potato’

Each month, a Southwest bookstore becomes a place for racing greyhounds to find new homes

Sitting on the edge of her couch, which a dark, mammoth Greyhound named Chuck has taken over, Kenny resident Sylvia Kresal glows as she talks about life with her three huge retired racing greyhounds, Chuck, 5; Tilly, 11; and Dewey, 13.

As her Greyhound earrings dangle amidst her Greyhound shirt, pillows and sun catchers, Kresal tells of all the gentle breed's quirks, people's funny questions and popular misconceptions about the fast, yet often lackadaisical, dogs.

Her enthusiasm suits Kresal; she is the vice president of the Greyhound Pets of America-MN (GPA), an organization that works to find homes for retired racing dogs -- 81 last year. Kresal helps organize many greyhound outings in Southwest, including a monthly adoption day at Border's Bookshop in Calhoun Square, 3001 Hennepin Ave. S. and a Sunday walk around Lake Harriet.

Maria Zachmann, Border's manager, said she loves having GPA bring their dogs into the store. She said the dogs are always very good, and the kids in the store love to pet them.

Near the children's section at the store, the Greyhound group sets up a booth, offering GPA literature and Greyhound reading available at Border's, such as "Retired Racing Greyhounds for Dummies."

On the floor are a few blankets, offering Tilly the greyhound a place to sprawl out near the walkway. Shoppers and store clerks all come over to pet the dogs and talk about the breed, keeping all of the volunteers busy in conversation.

Zachmann, who has a mixed greyhound dog, said the event is a great way for Kresal to disseminate information about the speedy hounds. But what is it like living with a dog built for speed in a densely urban environment such as Southwest?

Whippet good

Kingfield resident Theresa Lein has a retired racing greyhound named Gallo, 8, and 13-year-old Chia, a Whippet (a smaller, related breed). Lein said she and her husband adopted 80-pound Gallo four years ago from the now-closed Hudson dog-racing track in Wisconsin.

Lein said she likes greyhounds because they're gentle and "They look like they're smiling." They had owned a greyhound before Gallo, but after that dog's death, they wanted another. So they went to Hudson to watch a race and visited the track's adoption center; there they found Gallo.

Greyhounds must be on a leash, Lein stressed, unless they're in a completely fenced-in area like her backyard. Greyhounds are notorious for running far and blocking out owner's commands. "When they go, they'll go until they're ready to stop," Lein said.

She recalled that Gallo once squeezed through a small fence opening -- and galloped through St. Louis Park, only to be found hours later in an industrial yard, wedged in between two trucks, like he was in position in a racing starting gate.

Still, greyhound owners insist their lives are not an endless struggle to keep a taut beast from zipping away.

Kresal said Greyhounds don't need to run like they're in training, and they do fine with a few walks a day. Lein said her former racing dog gets tired and gives up three-quarters of the way around Lake Calhoun. She said his energy is reserved for spurts, but she does take her dogs for walks and to fenced-in dog parks, so they can run.

Lein said the energetic dashes are much like how the dog would run in a race, but otherwise they're lounging hounds. According to GPA-MN president Kim Hrabe, "They really are 45 mph couch potatoes."

The dog's racing pedigree creates less-obvious adjustment problems. Lein said she had to work hard to familiarize Gallo with things such as affection; as a professional racer, he wasn't used to it. Lein said steps and doors also seemed to be a problem for the animals.

She also notices that her dog sticks to a routine similar to what it would have had training as a racer. "Because of being a track dog, they're used to doing their training in the morning and afternoon -- and doing nothing during the day," she said, as Gallo stretched out on his couch, lying in an afternoon sunbeam. "They have a very weird rhythm."

Kresal said when a racing dog is brought to a home, issues such as the ones Lein described are common. However, prior to adoption, GPA trains the dogs for house life in foster homes to get them ready for a permanent home.

She said her family had originally started with a Bassett Hound and when her son wanted a puppy, she stumbled onto GPA and adopted a racing dog. "It's just been heaven-sent," Kresal said of life with greyhounds.

Despite the speed bumps, owners describe their dogs as relatively low maintenance. They say their dogs are gentle giants, sweet and loving; some owners say despite a greyhound's size, he or she will often try to crawl into bed to cuddle.

Lein and Kresal also said that their dogs have been great companions for their kids. People stop them a lot with questions about the dogs, and they enjoy a chance to educate people about retired racers.

To own a greyhound is to enter an ethical swamp.

Ethical issues

The animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has a fact sheet on its Web site publicizing the dark side of the dog-racing industry. The group highlights incidents of inhumane treatment involving "retired" racing dogs, including mass killings and donations to research laboratories.

However, the American Greyhound Council, a racing-industry group focused on greyhound welfare, claims that in 2003, approximately 18,000 dogs were adopted; nearly 90 percent of all registered racing dogs were either adopted or retired into homes.

The group's fact sheet states that the racing community is dedicated to expanding adoption efforts; dogs that are unsuitable for adoption, due to physical or behavioral problems are humanely euthanized

PETA believes such problems are fundamental with breeding to race. They note that competition harms the dogs and leads to injuries and sickness -- key reasons, PETA notes, that racing is illegal in 34 states, including Minnesota.

PETA also reports breeding atrocities -- such as where breeders kill less-than-ideal racers and submit survivors to and lengthy containment in cages with muzzles that cause sores and health problems.

Lein said dogs at the Hudson track appeared well treated, adding that there was a big public relations effort placed on dog adoption.

In the end, PETA supports greyhound adoption, while GPA-MN maintains a neutral stand on racing, focusing instead on promoting adoptions.

Hrabe said the group only facilitates adoption of spayed or neutered dogs; adoptions cost $200, which includes veterinarian checks and dog supplies (including a winter coat, which short-haired, easily chilled greyhounds must have). She added that the adoptions process involves lots of applicant screening.

For more information about Greyhound adoption, visit www.gpa.mn.org; for animal rights issues, visit www.peta.org; and for breed and racing issues, visit www.agcouncil.com.