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Getting Off the Dog Track

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I know a lot of greyhounds. A greyhound track operates near my house, and many of its retirees end up in the neighborhood. Something you notice about these dogs: Greyhounds are built for speed, but once they move into a comfy home, they're in no hurry to go anywhere.

Let me pay tribute to one member of the breed. He lives with an elderly woman who relies on a cane. The woman moves slowly, and the greyhound sticks by her side. You'd think that this speed machine would be pulling on the leash out of frustration. But no, he ambles beside her, his snout wrapped in that sweet greyhound smile.

Greyhound racing appeared in Britain during the 16th century. A hare would be released, and the hounds would go after it. Modern tracks use mechanical rabbits.

Nowadays, it's the humans who seem to be chasing mechanical rabbits. They're always racing -- from home to stores to work to schools to gyms to airports. Now every minute is plotted.

The greyhound quits racing the moment he can, but human strivers find ways to stay in the game. In upscale towns, you often see a mix of businesses that rev you up, then calm you down. Real-estate offices urge people to upsize their lives, and coffee shops keep them awake. For soothing nerves, there are spas and yoga studios.

And the children run around the track as well, attending various centers of excellence -- for soccer, computers, ballet, SAT scores. Competitive schools have noted that tightly scheduled students take so many courses they have no time for lunch. Some have made lunch a requirement, if only to reduce the stress.

Compare these attitudes to the greyhound's. A greyhound could run a 26-mile marathon in little over half an hour, but he'd just as soon sleep 16 hours on somebody's couch. And there's always time to eat.

The greyhound is an ancient breed and, for centuries, was considered a dog of nobility. Egyptian pharaohs kept greyhounds. In 1016, King Canute decreed that "no meane person ("meane" meaning "common") may keep any greihounds" near the forests, unless the dog had been made lame (and therefore unable to catch game).

Greyhounds are hardwired for the chase. Greyhound adoption groups recommend keeping the dogs on a leash, lest a passing rabbit or cat set off fire alarms in the dog's brain and send him coursing into traffic.

Massachusetts recently voted to ban dog racing by 2010. That's too bad. The sport was said to be cruel to animals, but greyhounds are born to run, and they eventually find their way into loving homes. Without dog racing, sadly, fewer greyhounds will be brought into this world.

I clearly have a soft spot for these canines even though I don't own one or, alas, any other dog. Greyhounds are gentle. They are useless for guarding or even watching. They are not particularly swift in the head, according to dog intelligence rankings. But they are big in heart. They have almost no bark, and except for the errant rabbit don't seem to have a beef with anyone. Most of all, they are inspirational in that they can outrun us all, but are happy to share an apartment with a slow old lady.

Thanks to the economic downturn, several of my human neighbors find themselves involuntarily retired from what were stress-filled jobs. Can these people see value in downshifting and proceed with greyhound grace?

Many humans can't slow down. The minute one race is over, they're looking for another track, and there's never a shortage of mechanical rabbits. Greyhounds aren't big thinkers, but some things they have figured out.

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