An Easy Dog: Learned Helplessness in Racing Industry Greyhounds
by Rain Jordan
Copyright © 2017 All Rights Reserved.
Given ex-racing greyhounds’ inordinately high rate of out-of-nowhere leg breaks, sending traumatized adopters speeding to emergency vets while confused dogs suffer excruciating pain, followed by the dreaded yet now expected diagnoses, followed ultimately by the unnatural and much too early osteosarcoma-caused deaths (osteosarcoma can be particularly prevalent in retired racing greyhounds), it’s quite amazing how so many people keep filling up their hearts and homes with rescued racing greyhounds.
Unlike the first symptoms that bring other breeds into a vet’s office, for greyhounds, one in five has “a spontaneous fracture without a prior history of lameness” as the very first symptom. Yet in many other ways, greyhound lovers’ committed restocking of hounds to hearth is understandable. Greyhounds are sweet, deserving dogs and I wish for every one of them to land in wonderful, loving homes. But even more, I wish for them, as I do for all sighthounds and animals in general, to be truly seen, as we like to say in our culture, and respected.
When my first greyhound was receiving care for osteosarcoma, her oncologist shared with me—unsolicited—what she found to be the implications of her data: That the training for racing that greyhounds receive as they are growing creates the environment for bone cancer to grow, and that it is comparatively rare for non-racing industry greyhounds to develop osteosarcoma. She also mentioned that in female racers, the disease may be encouraged by the drugs given to keep them from going into heat. The U.S.A.’s foremost expert in greyhound medicine, Dr. Guillermo Couto, reports that osteosarcoma is the cause of death in 25-30 percent of all the dogs from racing lines (Email exchange January 2018). Other experts have told me their informal research suggests the number is higher. I include these comments as a sort of prologue because even though osteosarcoma in racing hounds is not this article’s focus, it is a constant, serious concern for most of those who love greyhounds. That same concern, which became eventually a subtle mental nagging, is what drove me to write this article once it became clear that greyhounds are suffering another horrible, largely preventable illness in even greater numbers.
As the director of a sighthound rescue, I meet a lot of greyhound guardians. The fact is, we are surrounded by greyhound guardians, not only because there are so many of them, but because greyhound adoption is only slightly short of a cult—whose members proudly admit it and rarely leave the flock. (I can say this because I was one of them–one who did not leave in the dark of night, metaphorically speaking.) I too started with greyhounds—first one, then a year later, another. They— the ‘culties’— will tell you when you join that “you can’t have just one,” and they usually are correct. How did I get out? That’s not important here. What is important is why so many people get in and stay in.
Processing our own adoption applications for non-greyhound sighthounds helped me come to understand, though I was a stubborn learner, repeatedly hopping on an increasingly familiar roller coaster: The good news high of experienced sighthound adopters who understand the need for sighthound rules and caution, followed by the bad news drop of realization that greyhound adopters are, generally, a radically different breed than other sighthound adopters. Of course there are exceptions, and thanks to exceptional people, we have had some successful placements of non-greyhounds with ‘greyhound people.’ What usually happens, though, is something more along the lines of “I think we’re just looking for an easy dog,” or “My greyhound has never tried to jump my 4-foot fence.” I’m not criticizing them. They are simply accustomed to the ways of their greyhounds just as their greyhounds were accustomed to the ways of their own long-held conditions; these adopters may have been told that this is the way, even the natural way of their dogs. Ex-racing greyhound adopters often believe that their greyhounds are incapable of jumping even a low fence—even though many of them have been trained to leap into their own stacked cages. When my first greyhound wouldn’t get into my vehicle on her own, the director of the rescue from which she came told me that not only could she jump in there on her own, but she could jump over the car if she wanted to. So why didn’t she? Keep this in mind for later.
I asked a random group of strangers why greyhounds are their preferred breed. In the first 30 responses, the word “easy” was given six times, while words/phrases that can also imply “easy” such as “docile,” “low maintenance,” “low energy,” “sleeps all day,” “gentle,” “laid back,” “a little movement, then lots of naps,” “don’t even bark at the door,” “non-vocal,” “quiet,” “adapts to my lifestyle,” “wash and wear,” “couch potato,” “already housetrained,” “generally good,” “don’t eat much,” were given 33 times. The remaining answers related to the physical appeal (12) and affection levels (6) of individual dogs, and there were two comments about cat safeness, as well as two about the cult of greyhound adoption. The racing industry claims these qualities as selling points of the breed, and this has served to keep some people in support of racing.
Somber hypothesis: What has made greyhounds so popular, their “easiness,” indeed, what has created the enormous space for growth of the greyhound adoption cult phenomenon, is the very same thing that is responsible for the overpopulation of greyhounds—by that I mean for their homelessness and resultant shipping, e.g., to Asia, their injuries, illnesses, suffering, early deaths, and even worse fates: The greyhound racing industry. But let me be more specific. I further posit that our beloved ex-racing greyhound’s reputation as “easy” is not an inherent trait of the breed, nor is it a result of any claimed good training provided by the those in the racing industry, but rather, it is a symptom of Learned Helplessness resulting from prolonged, constant confinement, *poor treatment and/or handling, and/or improper training while being bred, brought up, prepared for, kept, and/or working in the racing system.
The “easy” ex-racing greyhound may not always be a misnomer, but given the conditions under which s/he was forced to live 24/7/365, often for multiple years, I believe the “easy” greyhound is frequently a shut-down greyhound—a greyhound suffering from a level of Learned Helplessness that has become so commonplace, so typical, that the public believes it to be not just normal for greyhounds, but a highly sought after perk of the breed as well as the main reason for adopting them. It’s a dark hypothesis that becomes a bit darker as I am reminded of the objections and worries of some adoption group members whenever there is talk of ending greyhound racing. Some members rejoice at the thought of ending the forced confinement and injurious races, while other members denounce the celebrating with concerns of where they will get their pet greyhounds if racing ends.
Psychologist Martin Seligman’s experiments on dogs provide a glimpse into the alarming reality of the Learned Helplessness condition: A “naïve” dog, i.e., one who has never been exposed to the experiment that is coming, is placed in a Shuttle box, and trial one of electric shocks are begun. The naïve dog experiences severe panic, but soon accidentally escapes; on trial two, the dog escapes more quickly; on trial three, more quickly still, and so on the trials go: “the pattern continues until the dog learns to avoid the shock altogether.”
This is then compared to the results of the same experiment with dogs who were first given “uncontrollable shocks,” i.e., shocks that had first been administered to dogs held in an inescapable contraption called a Pavlovian hammock; each dog from this second group is thereafter placed in the escapable Shuttle box and retested. Without having had the benefit of what Seligman terms the “avoidance training” that the naïve dog had, the results for the second group is markedly different. Although initial reactions tend to be the same—panic—these dogs soon cease panic behaviors (running, howling, defecating, urinating, etc.) and instead of attempting to escape, simply sit or lie down, whining quietly, until the shocks terminate.
Unfortunately for the second group of dogs, the experiments continue for second, third, and subsequent trials, wherein “the dog continues to fail to make escape movements and takes as much shock as the experimenter chooses to give.” The second dogs developed what human and animal behaviorists now recognize as “Learned Helplessness”; in Seligman’s study, it became very easy for the dogs’ tormentors to lock up and shock the dogs as the experimentors pleased, even though the dogs were not actually locked up.
Seligman performed the Shuttle box tests on over 150 dogs who had first been shocked in the Pavlovian hammock. Of these, two-thirds remained in the Shuttle box, never escaping even though the exit was always available to them. By having first mistreated these dogs in the Pavlovian hammock, from which the dogs quickly learned it was impossible to escape, Seligman had taught them to believe that there was no point trying to get away from another, escapable shock chamber: Even when they did have the ability to escape in the next set of experiments, they didn’t bother to escape or even try to investigate the possibility of escape. (Seligman, Martin E. P. Learned Helplessness, U of Penn, 1972).
Following Seligman’s model, it seems within reason to hypothesize that approximately two-thirds of modern-day racing industry greyhounds leaving the system are, at the very least, at high risk of having already developed Learned Helplessness. Indeed, because of their sensitive natures, a trait that several sighthound breeds share, greyhounds might be even more susceptible to Learned Helplessness than the average dog.
I should clarify here that the goal of this article is not to attack an industry, but rather to save a lovely breed from a debilitating malady that so far has been unrecognized by the industry working the breed. Unfortunately, to accomplish such a task, claims must be supported with evidence, and therefore what follows are some examples of previously documented and published abuse of U.S. racing industry greyhounds—examples of the sorts of acts that can lead to Learned Helplessness:
In 2017, it was discovered that more than 140 ex-racing greyhounds were being kept sick, starving, dehydrated, dying, and even dead in squalid outdoor conditions by a Texas “pet blood bank” where it was soon revealed that for years, they and many more like them had been abused, over-bled for profit, neglected, and even slaughtered and buried on the property. Photos and video of these dogs lying limp, barely alive, in urine-soaked, dirt-floored pens, with only jagged plastic cartons for beds, could have been poster children images for Learned Helplessness. They lay there, waiting quietly for their next bleeding.
- As a result of a Florida law allowing felons to be licensed in the greyhound racing industry, violent felons are sometimes directly responsible for the health and welfare of racing industry greyhounds. [Obviously, this alone is not an ‘act’ nor responsible for LH, but it seems worth mentioning in the context of items that follow.]
- In 2011, a track veterinarian filed a complaint against a greyhound trainer for allegedly kicking a greyhound. The vet stated that he witnessed trainer Alexander Hall kick the greyhound in the head, saying he did it because the dog wouldn’t walk. He later denied kicking the dog in the head, saying he had kicked the dog in the hip.
- In 2013, assistant trainer Christopher Bever was caught on surveillance video striking two greyhounds: Jerking the dogs’ leashes, he then struck one dog on the side and another in the head. Witnesses noted that one of the dogs “cowered in pain” and “was so scared that it was lying on the ground.”
- In 2012, a racing kennel employee, John Michael Schweizer, stated he hit a greyhound in order to stop him from mounting a female greyhound. One witness claimed Schweizer hit the dog once, while another stated that she saw him punch the dog in the head three times.
- In 2010, a kennel helper, James Childress, mistreated a greyhound, “grabbed the dog by the neck and twisted its skin and pulled it up[,] lifting its front feet off the ground.” He then threw the dog into the back of a truck as the dog “screamed uncontrollable [sic].”
- In 2009, the same kennel helper hit a greyhound in the neck.
- In 2010, Zachary Searls, a track lead-out worker, was suspended indefinitely for using excessive force when loading greyhounds into the starting boxes at the beginning of races. Multiple complaints were made that he would “violently swing” and push the dogs into the boxes. One witness stated that, “the head of (the) dog is just about always rammed into (the) side of (the) box not even close to making it in the hole. Note there are bolt heads and uneven pieces where dog head is hitting, not just a blow to (the) head could be cut pretty good with that kind of impact.
- In 2012, an assistant trainer was caught “manhandling” and slapping a greyhound.
The West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association has fought against state anti-cruelty policy. Sam Burdette, the president of the association was vocal in his opposition to the policy, stating that “cruelty is a very relative, subjective subject” and that a trainer may have to “pick a dog up and throw it” in order to stop a dogfight.
- This was not the first instance in which the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association president rationalized greyhound cruelty. In 2013, he defended greyhound trainer Bever for the incident mentioned previously, saying “He acted quick, and a little bit rough I thought, but I understand why he reacted so quick. You’re showing the dog what you want the dog to do and that’s the way you handle dogs and the only way you can handle dogs.”– Sam Burdette, President of the West Virginia Greyhound Breeders and Owners Association, defending greyhound abuse, WTAE, June 23, 2013.
For a time, Kansas legally declared greyhounds were not dogs. For the benefit of the racing industry, greyhounds had been uncategorized from their genus – that is how far some are willing to go to be allowed to do as they please with greyhounds. Greyhounds are considered dogs in all states now, and though there are relentless rumors to the contrary, they are not categorized as livestock, for racing or any other purpose.
Greyhounds are due the same legal protections as any other dog. Perhaps the livestock rumor is believed because of how racing greys are treated, or perhaps it started as an attempt at deflection. Along with basic deflection, a common retort by racing proponents whenever abuse cases are brought to light is that they are anomalies. Unfortunately for the hounds, the facts are that: 1. Few acts of abuse are witnessed by people willing to report them, 2. Few acts of abuse are admitted by the abusers, 3. Relatively few abuses are documented, and 4. Very few cases of abuse result in serious discipline for the abusers.
Right now, someone is probably wondering, “How does she know that?” The thing about claims is, anyone can make one, and it can be as outlandish as the mind of the maker (who would ever have believed the outlandish fact that a state would legally declare a breed of dog “not a dog?”). I’m not normally a fan of appealing to common sense, but in this case, I think it’s a necessary tool, as every so often, you need a rubber mallet. Who really believes that the relatively few documented cases of abuse, which racing industry supporters claim are just anomalies, are the only cases of abuse that have ever taken place? Are we to believe that all the abuses that have ever occurred just happened to have been witnessed, reported, admitted, documented, and disciplined?
It is much more likely that those few witnessed, reported, admitted, documented, and disciplined cases make up the proverbial tip of the iceberg, resting atop a much bigger base that is silent and hidden but made up of the same stuff, supporting the few who draw all the negative attention to themselves and away from the much larger base.
The treatment and station of greyhounds must change because the iceberg phenomenon will not. There will never be hordes of people in the industry, who profit from that industry, willing to report what they witness. Members of the public who are confirmed “anti-racing” are generally not allowed impromptu visits into the racing kennels, the back rooms of tracks, etc., and you cannot be an “animal rights” supporter or of an anti-racing ilk and expect to get anywhere near access to what goes on behind greyhound racing’s closed doors. Invitations are publicly promised whenever a concerned citizen wants a track closed down or protests dogs’ confinement, injuries, deaths, or treatment, but these invitations are rarely genuine or open; surprise drop-ins are turned away; a visit is usually pre-planned and the optics highly controlled.
To consider other ways that Learned Helplessness can be installed in a dog, consider Popularland’s TV-Town, where Whispers have been known to haunt homes, hills, and HOA pathways. One example of the danger of pop culture’s power to make society unwittingly fall in line, to the detriment of its beloved companion animals, is explained by KPA Certified Training Partner Laurie Luck, who points out, “more often than not, what looks like success is really learned helplessness. The dog is shutting down, not learning how to behave. It looks really impressive, however, to those who are watching—the barky dog no longer vocalizes! It’s a miracle! No, it’s not—it’s unfortunate. The dog isn’t trained, it’s simply shut down. There’s a big difference between shut down and trained. They may look similar, but there’s a world of difference.”
Laurie is too polite to say exactly why the dog is shut down in those situations, but you’ve seen it. If not, try watching in slow motion.
The Pet Professional Guild offers a selection of position statements on pertinent topics. For example, on The Fallout of Corrective Training Procedures, The PPG offers the following:
“Dogs are cognitive, intelligent creatures that experience emotions such as fear, anxiety, and joy. They are subject to the same laws of ABA as any other living organism. Forcing dogs to comply to avoid being shouted at, told ‘no’ in a threatening manner, or having some other discomfort forced on them through voice control, body language or eye contact does not enhance the canine-human relationship, nor does it create an environment where healthy learning can take place. Rather, a pet repeatedly subjected to aversive stimulation may go into a state of ‘shut down,’ or a global suppression of behavior. This is frequently mistaken for a ‘trained’ pet, as the pet may remain subdued and offer few or no behaviors. In extreme cases, pets may refuse to perform any behavior at all, known as ‘learned helplessness.’ In such cases, animals may try to isolate themselves to avoid incurring the aversive stimulation. This is evidently counterproductive to training new, more acceptable behaviors.” (O’Heare, 2011)
Here again, we see confirmation of Seligman’s Learned Helplessness **theory and reinforcement of appropriate training practices to avoid causing this and other kinds of suffering in our dogs.
To show further potential connections between racing greyhounds’ experiences and an increased risk of greyhounds suffering from Learned Helplessness (also called “LH” in my comments below), I wanted to gather details on the types of training and handling that racing greyhounds to date have experienced during their time in the industry. Not too surprisingly, such facts are hard to come by in the secretive world of track-greyhound training, and verifying the facts of past training is impossible unless 24/7/365 video recordings turn up somewhere–from a wide variety of sources. Nevertheless, a little of what is being said seems pertinent to the query:
From GPA Nashville: What Your Greyhound Would Say If It Could Talk:
“If I’m going to sleep in my crate, walk me to the crate and say ‘kennel up’ or ‘crate up.’ If I look at you like I don’t know what you’re talking about, toss a treat in. Or put my front feet in and give my butt a firm but gentle push while repeating ‘kennel up’ or ‘crate up.’ Eventually, I’ll get it.” (Inference: Increased risk of LH. The type of handling shown in red italic–using force (rather than positive reinforcement training wherein the animal enters the crate on her own volition due to a strong history of positive reinforcement for crate entry)–is one of many possible types of handling done and taught in the industry that risks leading to Learned Helplessness.)
“Because being away from the track and other hounds and in a new place is a little scary, I may whine or whimper at night. Just tell me to hush. If the whining continues, use a squirt gun to get my attention.” (Inference: Increased risk of LH. The type of handling shown in red italic is one of many possible types of handling that can lead to Learned Helplessness since it is designed to repress a natural behavior and/or dog’s expression of fear, anxiety, discomfort, etc.—the risk of installing learned helplessness is even higher when the dog is crated and cannot avoid being squirted, thereby removing avoidance option from the animal.)
“When you need to leave – whether it’s for 20 minutes or five hours, always send me out to do my business beforehand. Don’t make a big deal out of leaving me. Put me in my crate. Turn on a light or two and the TV or radio. Fix me a Kong with a tablespoon of peanut butter rubbed on the inside and toss in a few kibble (This is especially nice if you freeze it because it takes longer for me to lick it out.). Then walk away. I may howl a bit or rattle the crate door. Don’t let that bother you. I’ve lived most of my life in a crate. It’s familiar and a source of comfort.” (Inference: Increased risk of LH. If this howling and rattling is Separation Anxiety, it most definitely is cause for concern and should be attended to by a behavioral specialist, not by crating and ignoring. Moreover, if the crate were a source of comfort, perhaps the dog would not be howling and whining when left in it.)
“If I yank on the crate bars or tear up my bedding, put my muzzle on me. I can still lick on my Kong through the muzzle.” (Inference: Increased risk of LH. Separation Anxiety is not treated or resolved by muzzling. But it may expedite Learned Helplessness, especially when combined with crating and isolation, since doing so only suppresses behavior that needs attention but is being ignored.)
“Perhaps because they are raised in a kennel environment, they have never learned that they have the ability to be high-jump champs….While a greyhound could easily clear a 6’ fence, they seldom question any barrier placed in their path.” (Inference: Increased risk of LH. When someone says his greyhound has never jumped nor questioned any barrier, however small, I challenge you to not think of Seligman’s tormented dogs and the Shuttle box. The ex-racing grey is the only sighthound I see so many adopters giving access to low fences without a second thought, even though their physical ability and natural – if unrepressed – prey drive are no different. The very fact that racing greyhounds jump into their own second level (stacked) cages at the track is proof enough that they do have the ability–and know they have the ability–to jump an average fence.
“Greyhounds know they are dogs and understand ‘pack order’…Because they are trained to race, they understand that the humans are the ‘Alpha’ and will act accordingly.” (Inference: Increased risk of LH. Demonstrates incorrect training and canine knowledge and therefore may imply incorrect training methods. Believing that humans should be “Alpha” over dogs is worrisome and leads to wondering what other errors are made, such as aversive tactics, etc., all of which increases the risk of Learned Helplessness.)
“Greyhounds are very sensitive dogs and are easily disciplined with a sharp word or scolding.” (Inference: Increased risk of LH. Demonstrates aversive training methods, considered unacceptable/unnecessary by modern trainers, especially for sensitive dogs, and aversive treatment often leads to Learned Helplessness.)
“Introduce cats inside, keeping the Greyhound leashed and muzzled. Let your cat hiss and growl. When the cat runs off and the Greyhound wants to follow, give his leash a slight jerk and say, ‘No.’.… If he looks as if he is going to lift his leg, or squat, jerk on the leash, say, ‘No,’ and walk back outside… Introduce the foster dog to your cat indoors with the Greyhound muzzled and leashed. Hold the leash tightly in your hand. Leave the cat on the floor. Walk slowly toward the cat. If the dog pulls or lunges, give a sharp pull on the leash and shout, ‘NO!’ Keep the dog on a leash for the first few days when the cat is present. Correct the dog every time it shows interest in the cat. A spray bottle with water is helpful. (Inference: Increased risk of LH. Demonstrates belief in pain/fear/force as the normal and taught way to deal with natural behaviors, rather than re-teaching newly rescued dogs with positive reinforcement. This is important because fosters are an entirely new and huge group that become the fingers, branches, and trees reaching out into their communities, spreading these teachings to exponentially more people and the unfortunate dogs being trained with risky, outdated methods.)
And, from a group called Bay Area Greyhounds, a few statements corroborating my earlier survey, with one sad, and one other particularly alarming addition:
- “They have become legendary for their gentle, quiet, docile nature.”
- “By nature, greyhounds are quiet and relaxed and are not barkers.”
- “They have never had the opportunity to really be a puppy.”
- “Greyhounds do not know how to defend themselves except by flight. They often ‘freeze’ if attacked. Greyhounds do not typically bite.”
That last statement is known as fact by multitudes of traumatized, heartbroken greyhound guardians who have witnessed their gentle, incredibly meek greyhounds be attacked, mauled, or shredded by strange dogs. Could this tendency to freeze when attacked be part of Learned Helplessness, after all, rather than just a quirk of the breed as people seem to believe? Could greyhounds finally get off the same old incidental tracks that have kept them going in circles, never gaining anything? Greyhounds may never be fighters, but preventative protection from Learned Helplessness can at least give them a better chance at Flight (Though perhaps a retorting nip would be enough to back off a testy dog every now and then.). We’d all like fewer stories of greyhounds bloodied and worse during their morning strolls.
At the risk of overselling the point, consider this statement about greyhounds, from Kief Manning, excerpted from an interview by KGUN 9 news at a greyhound racetrack:
“They’re really easy to take care of because they have been so regimented in their lives that it’s not hard to get them on your regiment at your house, they’re used to doing what they’re told….”
Perhaps someone out there will declare I’m overreacting.
Consider these words of erudition from the renowned applied behavior analyst, Dr. Susan G. Friedman, Ph.D.:
“The power to say no is perhaps the most overlooked provision in the lives of companion animals. It is the freedom to use behavior to escape events perceived as aversive to the individual. Blocking an animal’s escape responses works against its nature to behave for an effect. If response blocking persists, animals can learn that their behavior is ineffective. This leads to learned helplessness, depression, learning disabilities, emotional problems and even suppressed immune activity. We can empower companion animals to say no by ensuring that they have an escape route, a runway, to move away from imposing hands, and unfamiliar people and items, whenever possible.” [emphases mine]
“Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is at first prevented from escaping aversive stimuli. Later, when escape is possible, the animal continues not to respond as if helpless, choosing instead to give up and remain passively in the presence of the aversive stimuli. This research has been replicated with cockroaches (Brown, Hughs & Jones, 1988), dogs, cats, monkeys, children and adults (Overmier & Seligman, 1967). Further, Seligman’s (1990) research suggests that we can “immunize” learners from the effects of lack of control by providing them with experiences in which their behavior is effective. In this way, the effects of exposure to uncontrollable outcomes, which is inevitable in all our lives to some degree, can be minimized.”
Friedman also notes her sense that this lack of control likely explains pathological behaviors such as self-mutilation and phobias.
As we revise how greyhounds and other animals are trained and handled in order to address and avoid future Learned Helplessness, it’s important to encourage and support all aspects of change. That includes, for dog lovers and their dogs, releasing the insidious stranglehold of beliefs such as the “pack” metaphor and its relative, dominance theory. The practice of dominance as an acceptable or effective training method has long been set aside, as has the idea that dogs are wolf-like pack animals and must be treated as such, lorded over by an “Alpha,” whether a human or a single ruling dog.
A former colleague and I were talking about her newly adopted dog a few years ago. She began explaining how the rescue where she got the dog had instructed her and her husband that they must dominate the dog, to be the Alpha. I was about to embark on an effort to dissuade her when she told me that her husband had tried it on the dog: He stood over the dog, “got really big” (she showed me the body position—monster shape with scary face and fists), and then sort of flexed and curved over the dog like an Incredible Hulk.
The dog took a bite out of his lip, and off went Incredible Hulk to the hospital. If all dog guardians decided there must be a human Alpha who must control the “pack” in each home, my bet is there would be many more injuries per household, and soon, many fewer households with companion dogs. If all multiple-dog guardians enforced/encouraged a single canine “Alpha” who controlled everything the “pack” did, I would have many questions. Here are a few: What if the Alpha wants to urinate on all the other dogs’ sleeping areas every night at bedtime? What if s/he must chew every piece of furniture before anyone can use it, or after anyone uses it? What if no one but the Alpha is allowed access to you—perhaps beating up, or worse, all comers—unless you lock the Alpha away in another room, and the Alpha then destroys that room? What if the Alpha doesn’t like the movie you’re watching and keeps changing the channel to hockey or the Oxygen network?
While tough guy and bad girl humans move freely among us promoting wolf pack methods, The Association of Professional Dog Trainers offers some beautiful facts to counter those antiquated approaches. The reality is that in nature, not even wolves are dominated by aggressive “Alpha” figures—in fact, there is very little aggression or fighting for dominance among wolves in nature. Those who are not yet ready to give up the Alpha attachment and their reliance on dominance may want to consider the fact that using the term “dominant” to describe a dog is incorrect usage: “Dominance is not a personality trait. Dominance is primarily a descriptive term for relationships between pairs of individuals” and moreover, “the use of the expression ‘dominant dog’ is meaningless since ‘dominance’ can apply only to a relationship between individuals.” Furthermore, this presumed dominance “is not achieved through force or coercion but through one member of the relationship deferring to the other peacefully.” This relationship dynamic is often fluid in households, with dogs congenially exchanging status depending on the item, situation, etc.
When someone says that their dog aggresses with dominance to get what they want, this person has misinterpreted crucial indicators of fear or other anxiety, not “dominance.” If that person extends his own ill logic into action by way of mishandling and improper training tactics, he could be setting himself and his dogs up for problems in the short and the long term. Various studies suggest that aggressive training increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior. There are so many studies of this nature that including references to all of them here would be very cumbersome; indeed, this concept is becoming so well-understood that it may soon be considered common knowledge. One example of source material is here.
Approaching greyhounds’ training, handling, or even day to day exchanges via “Alpha,” “dominance,” or misunderstood “pack” mentality–because these belief systems by nature are not R+ (positive reinforcement) systems–therefore also increases the risk of installing Learned Helplessness in your dog(s). This alone should be enough reason to forget the word Alpha, forget about pack theories, give up attachment to “dominance,” and stop making the dogs shoulder all the associated baggage. If you need another reason, I submit this: The most common things people say they love about their greyhounds are their ease and gentleness, as mentioned previously. Are your greyhounds also loving? Do they bring you happiness? If your hounds bring ease, gentleness, love, or happiness to your life, isn’t that alone an unequivocal reason for you to do the same for them? Greyhound guardians who truly care about their dogs are right this minute issuing a unified “of course.”
There’s a very easy way to get started on a better path for these dogs, and it does not matter whether you are anti-racing or pro-racing—anyone who is honest in claiming s/he loves these dogs can start right now. Your very easy way to get started is by just not doing something: Not using “dominance.” Not using harsh treatment/training. Not using tightening, pinching, choking, shocking collars or other aversive equipment. Not using “corrections.” Not scolding, squirting, tail yanking, leash jerking, kicking, hitting, or whatever else hurts, scares, intimidates, or forces a dog. Just think about how easy it is to not do all of these draining, soul-crushing things.
How very freeing, to just give your dogs the kindness of force-free, pain-free, intimidation-free lives, just as they give you kindness every day.
As the sole guardians of our companion animals, we humans are responsible for their well-being. These responsibilities include ensuring they enjoy as much freedom as is safe to express who they are as individuals and what they need, as well as ensuring that they feel safe, and are stable, happy, and reasonably equipped to manage day-to-day life in what can sometimes be a pretty scary world. This is work, but also lightness and dignity for them and us in accomplishing this balance of freedom (theirs) and responsibility (ours). Dignity can be restored to misunderstood greyhounds. I won’t say the entire task will be easy, but if you’ve come this far in your journey with these dogs, you’re capable and you’re ready.
*Poor treatment does not always mean abuse; it can mean something as simple as ignoring a dog who wants to cuddle or play.
**The word “theory” in science does not mean mere belief or suspicion. The word for that is “hypothesis.” Once a hypothesis has been tested and retested, reviewed and validated by other scientists, it is accepted into the scientific literature as accurate and is then called “theory.” The layperson term for a theory in science is “fact” although the most serious scientists may tend to be careful with a word like “fact” since as a society evolves, so does its technology and ability to discover new “facts.”