While vacationing in Arizona in 1995, Debbie and John Ward happened to walk past a greyhound race track. This was all it took to captivate their hearts and turn them into greyhound rescuers and rehabilitators. “I decided right then that my next dog was going to be a retired racer,” recalls Debbie. As soon as they returned to Canada, they looked for greyhound rescue agencies around Edmonton to get involved with. Within four days they brought their first greyhound home, and ever since then they have been promoting and working in greyhound adoption.
Running a greyhound rescue organization is a 24/7 job. There are new dogs always coming in and needing a place to go, and then there are new adoptive families that need help getting settled with their new retiree. The organization that Debbie and John had initially worked with decided to shut down. The people had grown weary after a while with the emotionally draining process of acquiring and finding homes for these dogs, but Debbie and John didn’t let that discourage them. Just over 2 years ago, a group of five people from the old organization decided to start Northern Sky Greyhound to continue finding forever homes for retired racers. “As long as there is one greyhound dog looking for a home, we will continue.” Debbie assumed the position of President of the non-profit organization, and John is an Executive Director. “One of the driving forces behind [the organization’s success] was social media. Our old group wasn’t on Facebook and Twitter […], and rather than having a closed little forum, it’s out there for everyone to see […] Having a presence on social media has opened a whole new world for us.”
“A greyhound’s racing career is a fascinating one, and I feel privileged that I’ve been able to see it from when a greyhound is born until they get to us.” When greyhound puppies are born, they will stay with their mother for the first 8 weeks, to be socialized. According to Debbie, greyhounds will stay with their litter mates for up to a year. As a group, they start training themselves to race by chasing each other up and down long enclosures. At about one year, the whole litter will move to a racing kennel where they will train for the next 6-8 months. A common misconception about greyhound racing is that they have endless energy and run all day; however, “a greyhound only races for about 40 seconds at a time.” Debbie told us that, surprisingly, they sleep around 18 hours a day. “They really are superb athletes with a minimum effort on their part.” At about 18 months old, they finally get a chance to hit the track. If they don’t place in the three main races, they go back for more training. When they come back a second time, and still don’t place, then they are usually retired at that point. If they do place, then they start moving up where the big money is. “It can be like horse racing, where there are $200,000-$250,000 pots. As long as they continue to win and place, then they continue to make money for the track. They only race about twice a week, but are exercised every single day.” The dogs will continue to race as long as they are placing. “A good racer will race somewhere between 150-200 races in their lives, a mediocre racer could be 50-100, and drop outs could only race 3 races and then be done.” Once the dogs are no longer placing and retired, the kennel works with organizations such as Northern Sky Greyhound to find new homes. Race tracks could be retiring the dogs at any age from 2-6 years old. “The reality is, at the end of their racing careers, there’s no where for these amazing athletes to go.”
Debbie and John urge families looking for a new dog to consider adoption instead of shopping. “We need to put a stop to backyard breeding and puppy mills in order for these animals to have the lives they deserve to have. […] Get involved. If you can’t have a dog yourself, then volunteer.” There are so many animals in our communities looking for new homes. Greyhounds are amazing creatures and have always been admired for their athleticism, but that’s not the only special thing about them; “looking into a greyhound’s eyes, you see right deep into their soul.” The connections made between an greyhound and it’s owner are like nothing else. Even if you are unable to adopt a dog, Debbie and John are still encouraging involvement. “All of us would welcome the help in one way or another. You can donate financially, through time, effort, fostering, or adopting. Just stay away from shopping.”
The Wards themselves have adopted 19 of their own greyhounds, and have had over 70 fosters come through their home. Their dedication to find greyhounds the perfect family has changed lives, not only for the family, but for the dogs too. “Just to see the dogs be placed in forever homes and the smiles make it all worth it. That’s why we do what we do.”