It is 331 BC. Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, has gotten himself into big trouble. During a battle with the Persians, his enthusiasm to lead his troops has drawn him so far forward that he finds himself deep within enemy lines and fighting for his life. To add to his problems, he now finds a huge war elephant bearing down on him, crushing soldiers beneath its feet at every stride as it charges. With enemy troops pressing him on all sides, Alexander can do little to avoid its attack.
Without hesitation, one of Alexander’s friends hurls himself at the elephant, wounding it so that its rider loses control and causing the big beast to rear and turn, thus creating a hole in the lines through which the king escapes. The friend, however, does not survive.
In the battle’s aftermath, Alexander orders a state funeral for his friend and, in gratitude, names a city after him: Peritas, his brave and loyal Greyhound.
The tall elegant hounds with incredible speed and big hearts have been capturing human affections for longer than just about any other breed of dog. References to Greyhounds in art and literature date back thousands of years, including a mention in the Bible. From Greek gods to Egyptian nobles, everyone wanted their picture painted with a sleek Greyhound at their side.
Undoubtedly, the breed began as a hunting dog par excellence. Everything about the Greyhound, ancient or modern, says “speed.” Long legs, slim head, deep chest, fine coat, a unique “hinged” spine, all contribute to the Greyhound’s status as third fastest animal in the world. However, the Greyhound has another secret edge: his heart really is huge. Relative to body size, the Greyhound heart is not only larger and more efficient than any other dog’s, but outperforms that of the Thoroughbred racehorse. During a 30-second run at top speed, a Greyhound’s entire blood volume is circulated through the body four to five times.
Deer, rabbits, and other prey hardly stood a chance with a pack of these fleet hunters at their heels. In fact, in the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth I decreed that coursing with Greyhounds should be done only under new rules that were designed to make the events more sporting for the prey and less of an out-and-out slaughter. Coursing with rules eventually led to the flat-out racing of today where the dogs run on a track with an artificial lure to keep their interest.
While the Greyhound’s specialized physiology is a big advantage on the field or track, it can cause problems when he needs medical care, particularly if the dog is undergoing surgery requiring general anaesthesia. For example, because they have little body fat, members of this breed metabolize chemicals like anaesthetics slower than other dogs. Owners should seek out a veterinarian experienced in treating sighthounds.
Other than this, the breed provides few health problems, being naturally hardy and easy to care for. The fine coat makes grooming needs minimal; however, the downside is that it leaves the hounds susceptible to winter’s chills, with white dogs also being prone to sunburn. This is not a breed that can live outside. Despite his love of running, the Greyhound is essentially a couch potato that can curl up into a surprisingly small space for a dog that can be anywhere up to 30 inches in height at the shoulders (easily tall enough to clear your coffee table with his tail when he wags “hello.”) For those who believe variety is the spice of life, the Greyhound’s coat of many colours is made to order: any colour or combination of colours is acceptable.
The Greyhound’s gentle, laid-back nature makes him an excellent family pet, as has been discovered by the thousands of owners who have adopted former racers retired from the track. These owners are generally so enthusiastic about their dogs that many of them belong to clubs for adopting families and they hold get-togethers at which dogs can socialize and owners can exchange information on their favourite breed. (For one such annual event, see http://www.adopt-a-greyhound.org/dewey/what/index.html.)
Matt Groening, creator of the animated series The Simpsons and a Greyhound enthusiast, had Homer and Bart rescue a former track Greyhound in the show’s first Christmas special and the dog became a permanent member of the cast. With the show airing in more than sixty countries, “Santa’s Little Helper” is now arguably the world’s most famous Greyhound.
As a testament to the breed’s sweet temperament, Greyhounds can also be excellent therapy dogs, visiting hospitals, seniors’ care homes, and other facilities, where their long legs make them just the right size to lay a head on a hospital bed or nudge a hand.
For thousands of years, the Greyhound has been companion, ally, and inspiration to humankind. Whether leading a hunt, on a battlefield or the track, in a nursing home, or just hanging out with the family, the Greyhound’s “great heart” has been beloved by all who have come to know him.