Chris Schulz Published

Part Four: Greyhound Adoption Popular, But Appeal Could Wane With Industry

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A closeup look at some of the greyhounds being raised to race on the Sarras farm in Wellsburg.
Chris Schulz

When dogs are done racing, it’s time for them to enjoy a well-earned retirement. Demand to adopt racing greyhounds in particular is high.

Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, was doing his due diligence when he went to inspect the kennels at the Wheeling Island Adoption Center. He wanted to make sure that the industry in his district was safe and humane. What he didn’t want, was what he got: another dog.

“The only downside to visiting the kennel that day is that my wife and I went from two to three dogs,” Weld said. “We adopted a dog that we met that day.”

Weld calls it a downside, but like many people he was taken by what the American Kennel Club calls the greyhound’s nobility and gentleness. And although greyhounds can reach speeds of more than 40 miles per hour, it’s actually not a very active breed.

“They’re called 45 mile an hour couch potatoes,” Weld said. “They like to run out in the morning, she’ll run a little bit at night. But other than that, they just like to lounge.”

That relaxed temperament is part of the racing greyhound’s appeal.

Greyhound breeder Steve Sarras said most if not all of his dogs get adopted. Of the 75 dogs on Sarras’ farm in Wellsburg, even the best dogs only race until they’re around five or six years old. As much as Sarras and his employees love their dogs, at the end of the day it is still a business and space needs to be made for new dogs.

“The best thing is we breed them, we know that someone wants them, that’s the best thing about it,” Sarras said. “The industry has gotten like, anywhere from a 95 to a 97 percent adoption rate. You look at any other canine breed and nowhere near that.”

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Chris Schulz
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Greyhound breeder Steve Sarras smiles down at one of his newest puppies.

Across the country, people are more than willing to adopt racing greyhounds. Sydney Bader is the adoption coordinator for Wheeling Island Greyhound Adoption Center. Her organization works directly with trainers, the track and groups all around the U.S. and Canada to help disperse all of the dogs that have retired to loving homes.

“The demand is ridiculous,” Bader said. “We’re not Walmart, we can’t create dogs just because the demand is so high.”

As the industry declines, the supply of dogs is dwindling with it. Come next year, West Virginia will be home to the last two dog tracks in the country.

“If you want one or two more greyhounds before this is all over, put in your apps now, start looking now, because this conversation is not going to be the same in three, five, six years,” Bader said. “I don’t know what it looks like.”

Bader said that the Wheeling Island Adoption Center and its partner programs in other states have become more discerning.

“A lot of time in the past several years has been spent devoted to learning about our dogs, and also learning about our adopters and learning about our groups that we work with,” she said.

The demand for these dogs as pets is definitely not going anywhere. Like Weld, Bader said that the greyhound’s appeal is in their temperament.

Advocates, adopters, trainers and breeders all agree on one thing: greyhounds that have gone through the racing program are just different. The dogs’ socialization – both with humans and other dogs – certainly plays a part.

Generally, a non-racing dog being put up for adoption is separated from its littermates nine to 12 weeks after being born. But racing breeders like Sarras often keep littermates together for more than a year before sending them to training.

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Chris Schulz
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Racing greyhounds take the first turn at the Wheeling Island track.

Whatever makes greyhounds so appealing, it’s likely to go away with the racing industry.

“A greyhound that hasn’t raced versus a greyhound who went through the program? Absolutely, they’re different,” Bader said. “They’re honestly the easiest dog to own. I always tell people, it’s like owning a 75 pound cat.”

As a greyhound owner herself, she admits there can be a bit of a learning curve as the dogs acclimate to domestic life.

“I would always have people come up and be like, greyhounds are stupid,” she said. “They’re not, they just never had to problem solve. And it’s not that they can’t do it. That’s not how they’re born, bred and raised to operate.”

That’s where people like Gaye Anne Weaver, executive director of the Greyhound Inmate Experience, come in.

“People who are interested in adoption of greyhounds, the majority of them want a pet,” Weaver said. “The tracks and the kennels are not a pet environment.”

Weaver receives about 15 of the 20 retired racing greyhounds in her program from West Virginia every 10 weeks. She places the dogs at the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan, one dog with two inmates, to be trained.

Greyhounds are well-socialized, but in a very specific way, and they need some help acclimating to home life.

“Once they come off the track, it’s our purpose to help them transition into pet life, which is getting hugs and all those other things and treats and toys,” Weaver said.

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Chris Schulz
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Young greyhounds look through the fencing of their enclosure on the Sarras farm.

Weaver said the program ended up at the prison because they needed a place where they could foster and train a lot of greyhounds all at once. But what started out as a dog-focused program, has now become a person-focused program. The inmates help the dogs prepare for their new homes, and in turn the dogs help the inmates prepare for success after their sentences.

“There were a lot of pessimists out there that said, you know, you’re never gonna get 40 guys to make a commitment and be responsible, have empathy, communicate with one another, trust one another. It’s just never going to happen,” Weaver said. “And I think that over the years, we’ve probably proved all the skeptics wrong.”

For that reason, Weaver and her team are less concerned than others about the decline of the racing greyhound in America. But as a greyhound lover of more than 20 years, she said she has seen a lot of improvements in the industry.

At this juncture, with West Virginia set to become the last place where greyhounds are raced in the United States, perhaps those improvements were too little too late. But it seems certain that if greyhound racing ends here, the breed as is known and loved by so many will go with it.