Anyone who has been in the greyhound industry for any length of time will have seen greyhounds which are ‘spooky’, ‘high-strung’, ‘nervy’ or just plain scared. These dogs can be difficult to handle, both at home and at the track, and can be a challenge to get race ready due to the fact that their body is constantly in a state of stress.
Any behaviour that we see in our dogs is a combination of:
- The dog’s genetic temperament
- Any learned experiences (both good and bad)
- The effect of the environment the dog is in at any time
Fear is a normal part of behaviour – in fact it is vital for survival in the wild. What isn’t normal are high levels of fear that make the animal unable to function normally in its environment.
Usually greyhound breeders are trying to breed for speed and strength for racing above all other traits. In their quest for speed, they may overlook some other traits in their breeding animals in the process. Interestingly, fear is HIGHLY heritable, meaning that it is easily passed on to the pups from the parents. If you mate a nervy bitch to a high-strung dog, chances are you will produce pups that will have a strong tendency towards nervousness.
Nervy or anxious brood bitches also have an added affect on temperament as the pups watch and model their behaviour on their mother’s behaviour during their early development.
During a dog’s life there are thought to be special learning periods where experiences, or lack of them, can have a much more pronounced effect on the adult dog. Often referred to as the ‘Socialisation Period’ the first important learning period is from 3 weeks to 3 months of age. During this time puppies learn what the world is about and develop social skills – with people, other dogs, and other animals. During this time pups that are exposed to a wide variety of experiences – sights, sounds and places – learn that these are normal parts of their world, and aren’t to be feared. Pups that have little or no experience apart from the company of other dogs may become less able to adjust in future when their world suddenly changes.
It is also thought that there is a ‘fear period’ at around 7-8 months of age. Bad experiences in this period seem to have a greater effect long term when compared to bad experiences at other ages.
Good breeders make a point of ensuring their youngsters are not simply confined to their pen with their littermates. They make sure the pups get out and experience the world, meet people (adults and children), both within the safety of the litter, and on their own. They take their pups on car trips, maybe to experience the sounds and smells of the race track, or just for the ride in the dog trailer with an older, relaxed dog that is a good traveller. They handle their pups often, and introduce them to ‘chase’ games, walking on leash, wearing a collar, and walking on different surfaces.
Context and Environment
Learning does not just happen early in life, it happens every day throughout the dog’s life. If a dog has a bad experience, it will relate that to the behaviour that they were doing at that time, as well as the location and context at the time. Context refers to things that are happening at the same time (people present, things in the environment, time of day and so on).
For example, if a greyhound goes to the vet after a race with a broken toe he will be in some amount of pain. If during the examination the vet puts pressure on the toe, or moves it about causing even more pain, then the dog will associate the pain (a bad experience) with what is happening at the time.
Depending on the dog and what prior experiences it has had in this environment, the outcome from this one negative vet visit may be minor, or it may lead to a serious fear of the vet. Dogs with confident temperaments, who have had lots of good experiences in similar situations, will probably recover from this one bad experience, but nervous dogs can get to the point where they are so fearful that they become nearly impossible to examine.
Does it matter if my greyhound is fearful?
Greyhounds that are anxious or high strung are very difficult to manage and rarely make really good race dogs. Because their bodies are constantly responding to day-to-day experiences with a physiological fear response (preparing the dog for the fight, flight or freeze response) it can seriously affect their weight, condition, hydration status, and acid-base balance. Long term it can lead to chronic health problems (similar to people who are under constant stress).
- High levels of anxiety often lead to excessive panting, even when the weather is not hot. Panting leads to an increased loss of fluids and electrolytes, and can seriously alter the dog’s acid-base balance. These dogs can become quickly dehydrated, and will recover poorly after a run.
- Fuelling the fear response burns calories. Nervous dogs tend to need to eat a lot more than a calm dog of similar weight and size to hold their condition. These dogs will often lose condition very quickly if they do not eat, and may not eat if they are particularly stressed.
- Nervous dogs often respond to stressful events in other ways. A common example is the dog that develops diarrhoea every time it becomes stressed. Once the bowel becomes involved, the dog can lose fluids, electrolytes and calories very quickly. The classic example of this is the dog that gets the ‘trots’ or the ‘squirts’ when you travel to race meets that are further away than normal. This restricts you to racing locally as the dog rarely arrives in any shape to compete.
- Chronic low grade health problems often sideline these dogs. They are always the first to get sick in your kennel. Their bodies are so stressed that their immunity falls, and they become prone to infection, and can become anaemic, develop skin problems or more serious problems like pneumonia and other infections.
- These dogs will have often ‘run their race’ before they get out of the kennels. The stress of travelling, arriving at the track, being examined, and then sitting in the kennelling area for an hour or so can really take it out of a fearful dog. By the time their race comes around they have already spent most of their energy.
What can be done to prevent fear?
- Breeders can make a big difference in preventing fear by choosing breeding stock that is calm and confident.
- Breeders can also make sure their pups are well handled and socialised.
- Expose young pups to all of the things they will experience during their careers – tables and ramps, cars, dog trailers, handling by a variety of people, the sound of the lure, even the starting boxes. Make these experiences pleasant.
- Make sure that exposure to ‘good’ experiences continues throughout the rearing process – don’t just send the dog to the farm for a year and expect it to cope when you decide it is time to break it in. By putting a bit of work in early, the breaking process will be far less stressful for the dog, easier for the breaker, and much more likely to be successful.