After many years of adopting retired racing greyhounds, I can honestly say they are loving, gorgeous dogs and make great family pets. However, they do enter domestic living with little-to-no experience of being within a family home environment.
My first greyhound Tipps had no idea what stairs were and our most recent greyhound Swift took a long time to get used to the sounds coming from the TV. These greyhounds have been bred to be raced. Track life is all they have known so a little patience, guidance and training is needed to help settle them in.
The Importance of Training
Retired greyhounds are almost always adult dogs and have usually had a good puppyhood with their mothers and siblings before race training begins. Puppy traits such as nipping, chewing, scratching, and jumping up are not something adopters need to worry about but it is important to consider what training is needed.
Some key areas of training such as potty training and sleeping arrangements are often the first to be taught. They are established early and rarely change from day one – owners want their dogs to pee and poop outside and bedtimes occur at night with certain areas of the house being designated for sleep. It is often these newly learnt behaviours that we don’t even think of as “training” but the dog did not come into a home knowing these things. Owners have simply done a great job from the moment their new arrival came home of setting these basic guidelines for cohabiting. Training that is consistent and repeated regularly is by far the most successful and long-lasting. Setting some ground rules helps rescue dogs settle into domestic life and know what is expected of them. Like children, they are most comfortable with routine and parental control.
Although usually a good puppyhood, ex-racing greyhounds do not have a normal upbringing when compared to family-raised puppies. They only have limited socialisation with other greyhounds and have not learnt the complex body language that dogs communicate by. Racing greyhounds are raised in kennels and generally only know their handlers. It’s fair to say that they would have been around a lot of people during their career but it is very regimented and impersonal, making friendly interactions unfamiliar and scary.
These career greyhounds have not been to puppy classes or parks to run around with other dogs. They have not had family, friends and visitors come to their homes throughout the course of their lives. Household appliances are alien to them and, sadly, most have no clue what to do with a dog toy or food-dispensing game.
Social skills, communication, play, interaction and basic cues are all types of training. It is important to gradually train a greyhound to learn, accept, be comfortable with, and enjoy all the best elements of domestic life.
Using Positive Training Techniques
Positive training is based on rewarding the behaviours wanted from a dog and ignoring or preventing unwanted behaviours from occurring. Dogs are much more likely to repeat a behaviour that brings around affection, praise or treats than one that doesn’t garner any attention. Of course, some behaviours are more complex and need specific focus but dogs do not need to be punished to change their behaviour. Punishment could in fact have a negative impact on what is being taught and create further unwanted behaviours.
Greyhounds are a sensitive, silent breed and do not respond well to harsh training methods. It is important to work with positive reward and refrain from being overly dominating or shouting. They will become distressed and scared. Once a dog is in a state of distress it is much harder to teach them. Additional behavioural problems are likely to result as fear grows that they are doing something wrong and try to avoid punishment in future.
The key to successful training is to provide a valuable reward. This will be different from dog to dog. It could be praise, food rewards, toys, petting, or games. I have found with my greyhounds that food works best. Praise also, but it should not be too loud or over-the-top. I have startled my greyhound Swift before by jumping with joy when he did something right. Owners need to take a little time to find out what it is that their greyhound values above all else and only use that for training purposes. Rich foods such as heart, liver, and turkey are all great options and relatively inexpensive. They should be small pieces so that a dog does not fill up too quickly and become disinterested in training.
Reward heavily at the beginning until the dog has a firm understanding of what is being asked of them. On average a new skill takes 3 months to learn and become conditioned when practised every day. Understanding what they are being asked to do is only half the battle. Receiving a reward that is worth them executing what you are asking them to do is the other half. Gradually, a reduction of the reward can start to filter in once trained. Start with 1-in-3 or 1-in-5. I believe you should never phase out rewarding altogether even years later. We want our greyhounds to feel like they are being good. They thrive on being loved and getting positive attention. We all like to be praised, it boosts morale.
Retired greyhounds need to be gradually socialised to new surroundings, new dogs and new people. When placed into these situations too early, they will become overwhelmed and unwanted behaviours can start to manifest. Worse they could become completely withdrawn. It may even seem that they were perfectly OK with these busy social gatherings initially but this is just shock preventing them from being themselves.
Ex-racing greyhounds are apprehensive and need some time to familiarise themselves with something new.
If new interactions are conducted gently and voluntarily, they begin to gain confidence and trust that the unfamiliar is not to be feared. Good things such as affection, treats, new smells to explore or possibly a playmate are the outcome. By slowly building a positive association to all things new, wiring in the brain occurs and “new” begins to mean “good”.
If being overwhelmed and scared is all they learn when introduced to new things, anxiety will build instead of a positive association. This leads to a greyhound that does not want to go anywhere or meet new dogs and people. If they are then forced into these situations fear-related behaviours such as growling, barking, lunching, or snapping can all result in them trying to warn others away from them. Socialisation is a key part of adopting a retired greyhound but it needs to be done carefully.
As with all training, being able to hold the focus of the subject is crucial. Working on holding their focus is a great way to get started. Use a treat or toy to get their attention and then place the valuable reward by your side. Dogs will almost always stare at the reward for some time but should eventually look up at you. Once they do, use a marker such as “Yes” to indicate that looking at you was the right behaviour and reward with the treat. Repeat this 5-10 times, marking and rewarding each time they look into your eyes. They will start to understand that by looking at you they are rewarded.
As you progress with this focus exercise, try to extend the length of time they hold your gaze. Repeat often, at least daily. The idea being that you condition your greyhound to know that by focusing on you, positive things happen. Verbal commands are not needed with this basic exercise. If you practise frequently, your lovely greyhound will want to make eye contact with you regularly without being prompted to.
Cue training has a multitude of benefits. It not only provides the important ability to give dogs a signal on how to behave, it creates communication and builds a bond between owner and greyhound. When making eye contact certain levels of oxytocin is released and when that is followed up with praise, treats or petting, it reinforces the love-hormone. It’s a win-win.
Cue training and command training are both words commonly used when referring to dog training but it is well worth looking at the definition of each as they are distinctly different.
Command is ‘an authoritative order, dominate’. Cue is ‘a thing said or done that signals to another or excites an action to a stimulus’. Working with dogs by giving them cues to follow and not commanding them to act in a certain way is by far the better methodology.. By thinking this way when it comes to training, owners are able to establish a stronger relationship with their dogs. Greyhounds especially learn more quickly from cue training. They are eager to please, want to do well and are far more likely to engage with their trainer who is gentle, patient and encouraging.
Most cue training with dogs begins with the simple “Sit”. However, the greyhound’s body structure means that they are not particularly comfortable in this position. It does not come naturally to them to place their rumps on the ground as it does with so many other breeds. Even those that do manage it can look awkward with bellies folding in on themselves as they learn to one side. Those that do manage to sit on their haunches have done well. It might be more practical to move straight onto a “Down” as I did with my first greyhound. He could not sit at all unless leaning up against the back of the sofa.
Our current greyhound Swift sat without prompting but it is lop-sided.
Greyhounds are an intelligent breed and can be easily trained when done the right way. As we have already discussed, their mild, sweet nature means taking a softer approach. Because of their upbringing, retired racing greyhounds have not been able to study human signals. It really is like being dropped in a foreign country where the language and culture are totally different.
Capturing is a great way to train a greyhound when the movement you are trying to elicit does not come easily to them or they are becoming frustrated as they do not understand what you are asking of them. Capturing basically captures the moment they make that movement anyway and using it. For example: when wanting to teach a greyhound to go to their bed on cue, wait patiently for them to approach their bed and once they get in it say “go to your bed” and give them a treat and praise them. Do this each and every time and it won’t take long for them to associate the cue “go to your bed” with sitting in their bed and being rewarded with a treat and praise.
I love this technique, it works brilliantly. I am currently teaching my grey to give paw. Again, this is not an easy movement for greyhounds as they do not sit easily. Instead, I dedicate 30mins to this exercise each day, grab some treats and sit in front of him. He knows that as treats are involved we are going to learn but has no idea what “paw” means. We have started simply by touching his paws. If he moves them I say ‘paw” and reward him with a treat. After 3 days he is already drumming his paws on the floor. He knows moving his paws elicits treats so now the fine-tuning begins. It will take me weeks to teach this but it’s fun. We spend some quality time together and his brain is getting a workout during the day between walks.
Retired greyhounds tend to spend their adopted days on-leash as they still have high prey drives and this could mean dashing off into harm’s way should they see prey. However, it is not impossible to teach a greyhound recall. It took two years before I could let my first greyhound run free and a lot of hard work but it is worth it. My more recent greyhound is younger, keener and recall is taking longer. The key is to continue working on it until you are confident enough in their ability to hear your voice over the instinct to chase down the prey.
All recall training should start in the home. It is well worth establishing one cue signal for recall and sticking with it. Whistles can be useful for greys that are super focussed on prey as they are louder and able to pierce through the concentration on the hunt better than voices. You will also need a high-value reward. The natural prey drive of a greyhound has been exploited by race trainers. When most see prey, the impulse to chase after it is so ingrained it is no longer a conscious thought. This is what retired greyhound owners are up against. These greyhounds need to be counter-conditioned to behave differently upon seeing prey and that goes against everything they have ever known.
With a good recall in the home, you can move it into the garden. Try recall between the house and garden and from the garden – where there are more distractions – into the house. If no garden is available, find an enclosed area to practise. The UK has started to create more enclosed areas for dogs and there are some small businesses that have enclosed areas which can be rented. Typically during recall training with dogs, long training leads are used but my recommendation is to avoid these when it comes to retired greyhounds. They can reach speeds of 45mph/72km within just six strides – a matter of seconds. Trying to hold onto that training lead will undoubtedly hurt both owner and dog.
Get Help from an Expert
If a retired greyhound has a very high prey drive and it triggered easily on walks, I thoroughly recommend working with a professional. Canine behaviourists and trainers have the knowledge and experience to guide owners to the very best techniques to produce long-last successful results.
Not only can experts provide valuable insight into how best to train a dog, but they also alleviate some of the pressure owners put on themselves by giving clear instructions on what to do. This can help immensely, especially if a couple are at odds as to how best to approach the training. There are no set rules on how to train a dog. They are all different. What works well for one might not be the best method for another. We established earlier in this article that greyhounds are sensitive and do not respond well to stronger, assertive methods. However, the Coonhound – another high prey-driven dog – typically does need a firmer tone as they are quite intense. What an expert can provide is the ability to read a dog and advise what is working and where to adjust training techniques. Some time spent with them can lead to years of enjoyment and is well worth the investment.
Your comments and feedback
Do you own retired greyhounds and have some useful tips on training. I would love to you share them with the other readers. Our community of greyhound owners are always so helpful when it comes to helping these graceful dogs settle into a loving home in the best possible way.
If you have any questions or want some expert knowledge on how to handle a particular behaviour, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.