For the greyhound, the phrase "run for your life" has long been a literal one. The dog who doesn't earn his keep in the kennel will be "put down," which in this case doesn't mean insulted. It's racing talk for being put to sleep, a euphemism in itself. The racing breeders and owners (or dogmen, as they call themselves without a blink of the eye) rationalize the practice as a pragmatic business decision in a competitive industry. But it isn't a very good public relations move.
Now a volunteer organization called REGAP (Retired Greyhounds As Pets) is changing all this. REGAP arranges new homes for greyhounds who are both has-beens (five years old and up) and never-weres (18 months and under). In return, a new owner gets a member of the world's oldest pure breed at no charge. More than 2,000 dogs were placed last year, according to Ron Walsek, who founded REGAP in 1982 while he was working at the Derby Lane track in St. Petersburg.
No one can remember when retired greyhounds weren't destroyed. Breeders and owners don't have the time or money to search for new homes. The track operators long maintained that it was out of their jurisdiction to tell the dog-men what to do with their racing stock. The greyhounds suffered the consequences. As dog tracks have proliferated in the U.S. (there are now 50 tracks in 17 states) and the public has become more aware of animal rights, attitudes have changed. "It's really stupid not to promote something like REGAP," Walsek says. "People would feel better about losing their money."
The program has been most successful in New England. Plainfield ( Conn.) Greyhound Park has become the first track in the country to institute a matching-funds program with its kennels. Each kennel donates $20 per week to REGAP—no more than 1% of its take—and the racetrack matches it. With annual proceeds of more than $40,000, the Connecticut volunteers have opened their own kennels in South Windsor and Groton to house dogs that are awaiting new homes. "The more we support REGAP," says Plainfield general manager Karen Kinsman, "the less chance we'll confront an outcry."
REGAP must still satisfy the industry's concern that the dogs be placed with good owners. Anyone interested in adopting a greyhound through REGAP must fill out an application and be interviewed. The prospective owner promises not to race or breed the dog, and guarantees that he has the time and the space to exercise it.
The greyhound's public image has created some misconceptions that hinder the organization's efforts. Track patrons see the racers acting skittish and wearing muzzles and they logically conclude that greyhounds are nervous, vicious dogs. According to REGAP officials, a dog shows nervousness when he knows he's about to race As for their demeanor: "They'll knock you down—out of love," says retired Connecticut breeder Paul Botticello, who operates the South Windsor REGAP kennel.
"When someone comes out here to adopt a dog, the first one out of a pen licks their face and they say, 'That's the one I want.' Little do they know they'll all do that."
Says Eileen McCaughern, the director of Connecticut's REGAP, "Greyhounds have never had a whole lot of time to play because they're put right to work as puppies. They're terrific with children and with other animals. People send me pictures of their greyhounds sleeping with cats." Cats and spouses, according to a note Botticello received from a new greyhound owner. "Sandy minds perfectly," the woman wrote. "She sleeps in bed with my husband."
The adjustment from the racing life to the good life isn't without pitfalls. Greyhounds lead a limited existence in the kennel. Hence Question No. 14 on the REGAP application: "Are there stairs the Greyhound will have to go up and down?" Greyhounds, unlike football players, don't train by running stairs. When confronted with them, they're baffled. "One dog took 18 steps in three leaps," Walsek says. Another greyhound refused to walk across a linoleum floor. But once the owner adopted a second greyhound, who paid the floor no mind, the first one decided it was O.K., too.
Adopting a second greyhound isn't unusual. REGAP claims that 25% of its business comes from repeat customers. One such multiple owner reported that when she let her greyhounds go outside, they would circle the house three times before coming indoors. Reliving old triumphs, one would guess. It's good to know that they now have that chance.