The tags on Baloo’s collar jingle as he wakes up, stretches his shoulders, and leans back into a perfect downward dog pose. From my bed I can see the striations in his thick muscles quiver, and his massive chest brushes against the carpet as he turns up into cobra pose. He exhales before shaking it all out, his collar threatening to slip off his narrow head and needle-nosed snout. When I climb out from beneath my covers and scratch Baloo’s ears, I catch a glimpse of his identifying tattoos, reminders that he was once a professional athlete and that he belongs to one of the oldest dog breeds, known for its grace, speed, and intelligence. Baloo is a greyhound, and he eats like he runs: as fast as he can. Then he hops into his favorite chair and curls up into an impossibly small ball, his fawn brindle coloring making him look like a cinnamon roll without the icing. Only minutes after he wakes, he is back to sleep.
This is the great paradox that is my greyhound. He can go from zero to 45 miles per hour in less than 30 feet and can maintain that speed for a quarter-mile or more, but he also sleeps constantly. Historically, greyhounds have been used to hunt small, fast game in the desert, but Baloo barely puts in an effort to chase away the bunnies that eat my garden vegetables. He spent his entire career as part of a pack, living and training with other greyhounds, but when he retired, we had to teach him how to be a dog.
Baloo was born with the name LK’s Mudcat, named after the kennel where he was born. Shortly after racing greyhounds are born, they get a tattoo in each ear. Baloo has 105H in the right ear, and in the left, his litter registration number given out by the National Grey-hound Association. This is done to identify the dogs at the race, to ensure they are who they say they are, and to prevent inbreeding later on in life. When I brought Baloo home, I couldn’t resist looking up his stats; after a quick Google search, I was able to find his race results, videos, and a detailed family tree going back to the 1800s. On the screen, I watched my awkward pile of legs and tongue fly around a quarter-mile track like he was launched from a cannon. When a person rescues a dog, it is usually next to impossible to learn any-thing about its past, and it felt like a gift to be able to learn so much about the newest member of my family.
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There are records of greyhounds in ancient Egyptian art and in the Bible, and for thousands of years they have been bred with one trait in mind: speed. Greyhounds start racing at 18 months if they show promising speed, and those who don’t go into early retirement. The racers live at the track for their entire career, and typically the dogs race up to three times a week. Greyhound racing is only legal in the United States in Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, West Virginia, and Texas, and interest in greyhound racing has waned significantly in the past decade, which has caused many tracks to close. When the COVID- 19 pandemic hit, almost all of the tracks in Baloo’s home state of Florida shut their doors for good, which flooded the greyhound adoption organizations with hounds looking for homes.
When I brought home our four-year-old Baloo, I had to teach him some new “tricks,” like how to use the stairs, manually lifting his paws up one stair at a time. I knew it would take some time for Baloo to get used to his new home and chalked up his aloofness to the “laziness” of the breed, and after a few months — with plenty of patience and treats— his gloriously weird personality came through. He was fascinated by mirrors and hardwood floors, and he bonked his head a few times before he figured out that he had to wait for the sliding glass door to “magically” open. He didn’t quite know what to do with his toys at first, so he just collected them in his bed to nap with, but it didn’t take long for our boy to master the skills of domesticated living. For many greyhounds, though, it can be a much slower, steeper learning curve.
After years of being rewarded for chasing down a “rabbit,” it was tough for Baloo not to stalk or pull towards small dogs on our walks, or run after bunnies that happened to cross his gaze. Racing greyhounds have only seen and interacted with other greyhounds, so it takes some time for them to even recognize other dogs as, well, dogs — not food; some greyhounds have such high prey drive that they may never be able to cuddle up with the neighbor’s Maltese. A year later, I still closely watch Baloo and supervise meeting new friends with a keen eye and a short leash.
About once a week Baloo decides he wants to flex his muscles. In retirement, he only sprints when he wants to. He lets me know by bounding around the house with his ball in his mouth, and when I take him into the backyard to play fetch, he drops his ball and gets into his low play bow, and then Baloo takes off. Not in “chasing the ball” speed, but in “I’m the fastest dog breed in the world” speed. I stand perfectly still as he flies by, his tail clipping my shin like a skier blasting by a slalom gate. Baloo’s nose cuts the air around his tiny skull like a fighter jet’s nose cone. All four of a greyhound’s feet will leave the ground twice with each stride, exactly like their feline counterpart, the cheetah. He kicks up rooster tails behind him as dirt plinks off the side of the house; with this amount of torque, a perfect lawn is something that I will never have. He does a few more passes, then he lays off the gas. He trots to the back door, his ribcage working to get more air into his enormous lungs. After fewer than five minutes of chaos, it’s time for another nap.
Baloo patiently waits for me to move the mound of blankets off his bed. When he was a pro he received massages and whirlpool baths after races, and in retirement he still expects a certain level of pampering. He curls up and I drape the blanket over him up to his ears, and when I do, he grunts his approval and appreciation. He tucks the end of his snout under the blanket and quickly drifts off to sleep. It’s been a long day for this long boy.
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