How Safe is an Off-Lead Run?

By Patricia Gail Burnham

Aurora running free in The Meadows of the remote High Sierras

Years ago a young couple came up to me at a dog show to ask about greyhounds. They wanted to know what greyhounds were like and where they could obtain a puppy. Six months later they introduced me to their six month old puppy. Chloe was a pretty fawn and white particolor bitch with intelligent eyes. They lived in a nearby college town, and several years later I ran into them and Chloe on the street there. She had grown into a friendly and attractive adult. Then as I was raising my first litter of puppies in eight years, the couple phoned to ask if they could come to see the puppies. They visited several times and when I asked how Chloe was, they said that she had been killed by a car two weeks earlier.

There was a park near her house where they had taken her all her life to run with the neighborhood dogs. But there was a street on one side of it, and an open field on the far side of the street. And one night there was a jack rabbit in that open field. Chloe saw it, chased it and ran directly into the path of a car. She was killed instantly. What the couple was doing in visiting Sheena’s litter was getting a puppy fix to counteract their grief.

Jade, Taupe, and Aurora mixing it up at The Meadows.

After a few visits they asked me how much training a greyhound would need in order for it to come back to the owner when called, even if it was chasing game. The answer was simple. There is no amount of training that will enable an owner to call back a greyhound when it is pursuing game. The closest I ever came to having that kind of control was with the original Sunny and Tiger. They started their obedience training when they were three months old and were trained daily for two years. They completed their Companion Dog titles at seven months of age and their Utility Dog Titles before they were two years old.

When they were puppies I had adopted a cat, which they had grown up with and which made them less sensitive to the lure of stray cats in the street. I lived on a small lot and every day I would jog with them on leash, and would also let them chase each other in fairly protected parks. I have not had this kind of voice control over any of my later generations of dogs. You have to expect that a greyhound that sees cats, squirrels, ground squirrels, rabbits or jack rabbits (and sometimes loose dogs as well) will chase those animals. And will chase them without paying any attention to cars, barbed wire fences, and other hazards.

You can teach a greyhound how to cross barbed wire fences without getting hurt. But you cannot teach a greyhound how to cross streets at a full run without getting killed. The only way to keep them safe is to keep them on leash, to only let them run off leash in areas that are totally fenced, or are so far from the nearest road that the dog cannot reach it. Some beach areas are this isolated. And there is a meadow in the Sierra Mountains that we like to stop at on the way to the Reno shows. That is where these off lead pictures were taken. It is sixty miles from home but worth the drive to let the dogs run in an area where there is no traffic, no cats, and no Jack rabbits,

Even your front yard can be a risky place. A local obedience judge had two of her obedience trained Whippets killed in front of her house when she let them out of her car off lead so that they could go into her house. All they had to do was cross the porch. There was a cat hidden near the porch and the dogs chased it into the street and were killed. With that lesson in mind I regularly put even my old dogs on leash to cross my yard from the car to the front door.

Sheena wasn’t exactly an obedience natural, taking three years to earn her Companion Dog title. I trained her for a couple of years at the open level before deciding she was getting too old to do the jumps required by that class. She had been through a lot of training, but that didn’t help on a Sunday night when I was walking her from the car to the front door with her leash in one hand, and a bag of groceries in the other. There was a cat sitting near our porch and she went for it, snatching the leash out of my hand and totally ignoring my calls to “Come.” As she and the cat vanished into the dark they were heading for Madison Avenue, a very busy four lane expressway, five houses away. And while I was chasing her, several cars passed on my own street. It was a moment of absolute panic.

She was my favorite dog and we had been through a lot together. She slept curled up against my chest for her entire life. I didn’t want her to end her life lying dead on Madison Avenue. But then my neighbor called out that she was behind me. Having lost the cat, she was responding to my calls and came up to me. She had dead weeds caught on her muzzle between her eyes and her nose. And her pads were torn from the asphalt. She was very pleased with herself. The leash was still attached. I wilted with relief and took her home. Sometimes we get lucky.

Bella and Shadow

I have had greyhounds for twenty-five years and have never had a dog killed by a car. Partially that is due to my not trusting them off leash for a moment. What I do trust is that they will chase any cat, squirrel, rabbit, or dog that they see. So their running is limited to lure courses, and my fenced yard and that Sierra meadow.

When I lived on too small a lot for them to run, I used to walk them to the middle of a nearby golf course after dark and run them in the center of a fairway, releasing one or two at a time and keeping the others with me. The released dogs would run circles until they were tired and would then come in to be traded for a new pair. At night the area was squirrel and rabbit free and cats were infrequent. So were cars. Slick did retrieve an irate Muscovy duck from a nearby pond once but that was the only game we encountered.

The stories of first time greyhound owners who trusted them off leash, only to have them killed by cars, are tragically frequent. The first law of greyhound care is that a greyhound in pursuit of prey will not obey your call to return to you. There has to be a better way to communicate this to new greyhound owners than to have them suffer the pain of having their first dog killed. One of the joys of owning a greyhound is to watch them run, but one of challenges of owning them is to find ways for them to run safely.

With the new popularity of fenced dog parks, groups of Greyhound owners have petitioned some cities for a Greyhound’s only time and the dogs are run muzzled to keep them from treating each other as prey. That is one solution.

Retractable leashes are not a safe solution. Several Greyhounds have died from neck injuries when the length of the long lead let them get up to Greyhound speed before they hit the end. Greyhounds have fairly fragile necks. You never want them to experience sudden impacts to their necks. A month ago I saw a Greyhound killed when he and another Greyhound were running shoulder to shoulder. When they came to a power pole, the dogs disagreed on which side they were going to pass it on, and in the confusion one dog hit the pole head on and was killed instantly.

I had something similar happen years ago although it had a better ending. I had brought Ringo and Jirel home from obedience training and turned them loose while I locked the yard gate behind us. They saw a squirrel on the ground at the far end of the yard which slopes downhill. They took off running shoulder to shoulder and were running directly towards a tree with a foot wide trunk. Jirel decided to pass the tree on its right hand side. But Ringo was running on her right and, since he was clear of the tree, he didn’t plan on moving over. He outweighed Jirel by twenty pounds. He didn’t move, holding Jirel on her collision course with the tree. She hit the tree with the most astonishing sound. Rather like hitting a watermelon with a sledge hammer. I thought she was dead. But she was fine thanks to the squirrel. Just before the impact, the squirrel had leapt to the top of the fence. Jirel raised her head to follow him and consequently hit the tree squarely with her chest. Greyhounds have fragile necks but they have very tough chests. The experience didn’t even keep her from chasing squirrels in the future.

Something much worse than a squirrel; Dusty with his snake!

Many years ago a visitor looked at my yard and commented on the fact that I had painted all the tree trunks white. Gardeners sometimes do this for pest control but my visitor had figured out that I had painted the tree trunks white to make them more visible to the dogs when they were running in the yard after dark. If they can see an obstruction, Greyhounds can usually duck around it as long as another dog doesn’t interfere with their ability to swerve.

The answer to How Safe is an Off-Lead Run? is that there are very few places in the world where it is safe.

Here are a few safe places to run off-lead.

The Meadow

The meadow where these pictures were taken is one. And I will drive sixty miles there to let the kids run. It is only available in the fall. In the winter it is under ten feet of snow and inaccessible. That makes trips to the meadow a rare treat for me and the dogs. Why not use open farm fields closer to home? There are lots of those. The quick answer is Jack Rabbits that could lead the dogs into traffic or other hazards. There are no bunnies at the meadow. And I have never seen any deer there. Deer tend to come out in the open after dark. We don’t stay there that late.

Lure Coursing

The next safest way to run is to lure course the dogs. Several years ago an English Greyhound judge came to the lure trial that we hold each year along with the Greyhound Club of America Specialty. She said that watching the dogs run was exciting but that she wouldn’t do that with her dogs because they were too precious. She had missed the point. We take our greyhounds lure coursing BECAUSE they are precious and lure coursing is their absolute favorite activity. Owners of retired racing greyhounds have an advantage because most of their dogs have been taught to chase a lure. When you raise greyhounds from puppies there is an entire protocol for introducing them to chasing a lure.

If you have a healthy, sound, Greyhound with no old racing injuries (especially no broken hocks or toes) that dog could very well love to go lure coursing. I know that some adoption groups recommend that their dogs not be lure coursed and I find that inexplicable. Healthy Greyhounds favorite activity is running. Lure coursing gives them a chance to do that as safely as running in your back yard will. In addition to lure coursing, there is also NOTRA oval track racing, and LGRA Large Gazehound Racing Association straight racing for 200 yards. I like to start training 1`3-15 month old Greyhounds at straight racing practices but that is another article..

George Bell took a lure machine to a park where his local rescue greyhounds got together to play, and the owners were amazed to see their dogs running in joy. It is worth a try.

Goldy and Fiver exercising

Greyhound puppies can’t be raised well without being allowed to run a lot. Like every day. Racing litters are raised in huge paddocks where they can run with their litter mates as much as they want. Puppies that have run all they want grow up differently shaped than puppies that weren’t allowed to exercise. I know of two show people who raised puppies with limited exercise. I had seen the West Coast pups when they were young and they were perfectly normal puppies. When I saw them again 14 months later they had grown into very tall, very narrow fronted, bad moving dogs. They had no rib spring and their elbows nearly touched under their bodies.

All the running that a greyhound puppy does helps develop its skeleton. When you stress a bone it responds by changing. It is called remodeling. It is a little like the way that weight bearing exercise will strengthen and remodel our own bones. But for greyhound puppies it is critical.

Bio – Gail Burnham has written hundreds of magazine articles, plus two dog training books illustrated with greyhounds, Playtraining Your Dog in 1981 and Treats, Play, Love: Make Dog Training Fun For You and Your Best Friend in 2008. She contributed regularly to Celebrating Greyhounds the first five years, most notably the Kira series which was a finalist in the Dog Writer’s Association writing contest. She won a DWAA award for the poem, The Red Bitch’s Hunt, which was part of a series of poems about Coventry and the Red Bitch. Currently she is retired, still writing about dogs, and is is living a very active life with the descendants of the original Tiger.

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