Greyhound rehoming strategies need to be more inclusive

Greyhounds As Pets adoption program

While all the kudos and marketing dollars flow to Greyhound Racing Victoria’s (GRV) flagship Greyhound Adoption Program, figures released in GRV’s 2016-17 annual report show that fifty one per cent of retired greyhounds adopted in Victoria were actually rehomed by volunteer rehoming groups and participants.

In 2016/17, a total of 2,693 Victorian retired greyhounds found permanent homes, with GAP re-homing a record of 1,314 greyhounds and private rehoming and volunteer rehoming agencies placing 1,379 dogs for a fraction of the cost of running the multi-million dollar GAP program and its facilities across Victoria.

While the total Victorian rehoming figures are impressive in relative terms, they also show there is a missed opportunity that the GRV bureaucrats have been ignoring for years and are unwilling to grapple with, or even admit to.

But the facts are that more than half of the retired greyhounds in Victoria needing rehoming on an annual basis are outside the official, strict and outdated rehoming structure and are either going to have difficulty being placed, will spend considerable time on long waiting lists or will ultimately be at risk of euthanasia. These facts are painfully obvious to animal welfare peak bodies, as well as the participants and the volunteer rehoming agencies across the state, who shoulder the majority of the rehoming burden, but it is somehow lost on GRV (and other regulators across the nation).

GAP Victoria is acknowledged as the world’s most successful “finishing school” for retired race dogs but despite the significant advances in recent years, the industry can do significantly better. With some tinkering to the existing system, a philosophical change and only a relatively small increase in expenditure, the rehoming figures can be even more outstanding than they already are, with the vast majority of the dogs retired annually in homes and less at risk of euthanasia.

Sadly any criticism of the GAP program or request for a review of the current rehoming model by those most experienced and with intimate breed knowledge, is met with the traditional sound of the roller shutters being lowered in Chetwynd St. It is classic ‘head in the sand’ stuff because despite continually asking the industry for input and for participants to join an endless number of committees, the sad reality is that if GRV didn’t think of it, the idea can’t be any good.

Greyhound adoption cafe melbourne
GRV is doing plenty right in the fight to increase greyhound adoption rates, including the GAP Cafe in Melbourne, but there are some simple changes that need to be made to meet new standards being put on the industry. Picture: GRV.

GRV Chief Executive Officer, Alan Clayton said, “That by 2018-19, it is hoped all greyhounds bred in Victoria would be rehomed. The absolute key priority for the sport in the 21st century is to make sure that every racing greyhound registered in Victoria will have the opportunity to live out its life in full, whether it makes it to the track or not…this is a very big challenge and one we do not shy away from”.

Mr Clayton needs to be acknowledged for his commitment to animal welfare and taken on face value it is a wonderful sentiment. However, the “elephant in the room” is why GRV chooses to be selective in its support of the rehoming of the racing greyhounds in Victoria, who collectively earn the sport’s regulator $94 million dollars annually in wagering revenue and fees generated from the more than 10,000 races conducted yearly at Victoria’s 13 greyhound racetracks.

After a recent request to the GRV Board for a review of the GAP assessment process, the dialogue was closed by the General Manager of Animal Welfare, Gavin Goble. It was made clear that GRV believes they have got it right and they are not open to any suggestions on how to further improve the assessment process to improve rehoming and euthanasia rates.

Everyone is aware that the catalyst for change was February 2015 when the Four Corners expose opened up all areas of operations to public scrutiny and discussion, putting Australian greyhound regulators and participants on notice.
Clearly under threat, the industry began investigating ways to bring about dramatic cultural change in terms of animal welfare to answer critics who believed the sport had no place in current society. In hindsight, there was bureaucratic overreach in some areas while other sections of the reform packages brought rapid and welcome change that participants had been seeking for many years.

Even before the shakeup, Victoria was leading the way in terms of rehoming with industry participants and volunteer agencies finding homes for 922 retirees (53 per cent) and GAP rehoming 798 greyhounds (47 per cent) as pets. Inadequate by today’s standards but significant for their time and a major step forward.

True to form Victoria responded best to the crisis, adopting the key changes promised by regulators nationally and tackling the two issues that are inextricably linked – the undertaking to radically reduce greyhound euthanasia and an ongoing promise to continually increase rehoming rates. But GRV only went so far and rather than tackle the entire problem, chose to continue the arrangement that divides the world of greyhound rehoming.

No matter how important the regulator and participants think they are, without the dogs there is no greyhound industry, as they generate the revenue, pay the bills and everyone’s wages. So, whether a dog is a Group winner or struggling in Tier 3 races they should all be awarded the same rights to a safe life and a happy retirement. Where is their superannuation?

So, what is holding us back from smashing the issue of greyhound rehoming out of the park and banishing it to the annals of history? In Victoria it is three things – the fact that the volunteer based rehoming groups are dramatically under-funded and reaching breaking point, the restrictive nature of Victoria’s current ‘provocative’ GAP assessment protocol, and the lack of intimate breed knowledge of people making the decisions.

Despite significant advances in animal welfare in Victoria, the sport’s regulator has put in place a system that is discriminatory and places significantly higher value on the dogs accepted into GAP, dividing the retired greyhound population into the ‘haves and have nots’.

The ‘haves’ are the dogs whose personality is perceived to be better suited to passing Victoria’s version of the GAP National Temperament Test (NTT). The successful dogs are hand picked on their behavior then given access to everything that the multi-million dollar and highly marketed GAP program can offer.

The ‘haves’ are issued with a GAP Green Collar, which grants them the practical and public relations advantage of being able to go un-muzzled in public, they are supported by the marketing power of GRV and the hard work of paid GAP staff, hundreds of volunteers and other friends of the program. In today’s positive ‘greyhound as pets’ environment their rehoming is almost assured.

The ‘have nots’, on the other hand, are the dogs who either fail the provocative GAP testing (currently approximately 400 dogs per annum) or whose rehoming, future security and sometimes life relies on the ad hoc system of under-funded and over worked volunteers, or the small and quickly exhaustible network of their owner/trainer’s friends and family.

In stark contrast to the multi-million dollar GAP program are the industry friendly, neutral or anti racing volunteer based rehoming groups. Irrespective of their level of friendliness to the industry, these volunteers are at the coal face on a daily basis, contributing enormously to the rehoming of greyhounds across Victoria and to GRV reaching its strategic objectives. Unlike GRV they do not discriminate, and do not expect dogs to fit a mould, rather taking the approach to rehoming of all greyhounds while respecting the dog’s individuality.

The ‘industry friendly’ subset of these volunteer rehoming groups are required to go cap in hand to GRV, giving them restricted access to funding which covers food and a portion of veterinary costs for dogs in their care. The funding is not open ended and currently there is no scope to pay for the administration or staffing of these volunteer groups that are at breaking point.

While GRV drag their heels developing its long awaited Rehoming Framework, the unsustainable, inequitable and unjust system continues to operate. Leaving passionate volunteer groups, external to the greyhound industry, responsible for the rehoming of dogs they didn’t breed, whelp, race or benefit from financially.

In addition, there is also a desire by the bureaucracy to increase the responsibility of rehoming onto the trainers/owners. The reality is that this will never be achieved, nor is it a desirable outcome. The expectation of the general public is that the industry as a whole, including regulators, needs to be funding and taking full responsibility for increasing rehoming and reducing euthanasia rates.

We shouldn’t be absolving the trainer/owner from responsibility but, in reality, they don’t have the broad social contacts or the marketing power of the GRV/GAP program. Despite best efforts to privately rehome their dogs, their success rate will always be limited or slow. However, some owners/trainers and foster carers are stepping up where GAP have failed, proving that a dog classed as a ‘GAP fail’, can assimilate easily into everyday domestic life.

What the trainer/owner does have control over is the quality of socialisation and preparation of dogs winding down from racing prior to any GAP assessment or rehoming. They are increasingly presenting better socialised dogs and higher quality GAP candidates but are increasingly frustrated in trying to do the right thing, when patronised by so called ‘dog behaviour specialists’. Dogs they believe are suitable for rehoming, are failing because of an assessment criteria that is out of step with community expectations.

If GRV are genuinely committed to maximizing adoptions and minimizing euthanasia surely something substantial must be done by the biggest player in the sport, the regulator, to redress the massive disparity between how the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ are rehomed.

The second systemic impediment to increasing rehoming rates and reducing euthanasia is the discriminatory nature of Victoria’s ‘provocative’ GAP assessment protocol, that actively contributes to the creation of a false perception that some greyhounds are behaviourally ‘bullet proof’ therefore more worthy and easier to rehome.

The current Victorian GAP assessment model works for 80 percent of the dogs presented for testing who pass the various stages of assessment and eventually find their way into homes across Victoria.

What the system doesn’t allow for is the industry regulator to play an active role in the rehoming of “marginal fail” dogs who, through no fault of their own, are not comfortable in the GAP kennel environment, who are shy or timid, or who are provoked by the testing methodology until they fail. Make no bones about it, once they fail at GAP they are potentially at risk and become a burden on the already struggling volunteer rehoming network.

What happens to the GAP failures?

The fortunate dogs are returned to their owners who can have them retested at a later date or undertake finding them private rehoming, while some are blessed to be accepted into various volunteer rehoming groups.

The not so lucky are euthanised by GAP (200 in 2016 and 80 in 2017) or eventually suffer the same fate at the hands of their owners. The owners are now subject to GRV Local Law 42.6, introduced ‘in theory’ to maximise each dog’s chances of being re-homed before a decision to euthanase is made.

While the intention of Local Law 42.6 is well meaning, it is undermined by long waiting lists at volunteer rehoming groups, and the inability of GRV to track dogs supposedly rehomed. Dogs are sometimes being quarantined by their ‘new adopter’ until they can quietly be taken to a vet and put to sleep. Unless resources are genuinely applied to track these dogs with Local Government, this loop hole will enable the unscrupulous to manipulate the system and dogs will continue to die unnecessarily.

But there are additional problems at play here, namely the disconnect between GRV and its own participants and their lack of trust of the GAP testing protocols. Rather than subject their dogs to the provocative testing, many refuse to use the very program that their industry built, preferring to deal with the struggling volunteer rehoming groups. This is greyhound rehoming’s version of a Catch 22.

The marketing spin would have us believe there are major differences between the GAP dog and its ‘marginal fail’ non-green collared litter mates. The reality is, given the correct ‘wind down’ from racing and a testing environment conducive to a real world assessment, the vast majority of dogs without a green collar are the same loveable, quiet, gentle animals renowned as the perfect domestic pet.

The GAP National Temperament Testing (NTT) protocol was originally devised to help safely rehome former racing greyhounds into the community. The intention of the test is more well socialised happy greyhounds in homes which is what everyone wants to see, but the application of the NTT is imposing discriminatory standards on greyhounds that no other dog breed in the country is subjected to. In GRV’s desire to minimise negative media about greyhounds, and not release dogs of a truly anti-social nature into the general public, there has been an over compensation in the assessment process.

Miata adopted greyhound
Greyhounds have a stellar reputation for assimilating into civilian life after the track and have proven to be great pets. Champion Miata is picture here enjoying retirement.

A favourite phrase at GAP is ‘bullet proof’ but while it is a slick catch phrase it has no genuine meaning. They want green collared dogs to happily go into homes, live their lives and not create any negative publicity which could reflect on the greyhound industry. Public perception is an important factor to be considered, but the world of greyhound adoption and the public’s acceptance of this breed have dramatically changed since the assessment criteria was first drawn up. Even with the modifications to the test over the years, the fact that dogs are being ‘stirred up’ to test their reactions and behaviour is problematic on a number of levels.

What GAP refuse to publicly acknowledge is that their testing is a ‘point in time’ and far from perfect. It does not create ‘bullet proof’ dogs because despite best intentions, once dogs with green collars are handed over to their adopters, GAP has no control over their new environment, new influences and further socialisation. Therefore a dog can change, in both positive and negative ways even the ‘marginal fail’ greyhounds that the program is currently ostracising.

GAP’s default position is testing for the worst case scenario, where a greyhound is let off lead in public, an activity which is not only illegal but one that very few greyhounds would pass if sufficiently stirred up.
The ‘marginal fail’ greyhounds are not quick turnaround adoptions. They are the square pegs in a round hole that unfortunately require additional resources, take more staff time, fill vital kennel space and are a source of additional financial costs. They are seen as a burden, but in reality they are just your normal, happy greyhound who needs a bit more time to adjust to domestic life.

Do these ‘marginal fail’ dogs genuinely pose a problem for society if rehomed? And is their behaviour so dangerous that they need to be euthanised?

The answer to both questions is a resounding NO.

The GAP reports of the ‘marginal fail’ dogs discuss the greyhound as being “too interested” in the test dog or the “test dog was rolled over” or similar incidents. Very rarely are the dogs being failed for genuine aggression or issues that cannot be remedied with time, patience or in the case of timid or anxious dogs, when removed from the environment and tested elsewhere.

Animal welfare peak bodies, volunteer rehoming groups, GAP foster carers who have previously cared for these dogs in their own homes, trainers and owners and experienced greyhound veterinarians who are asked to routinely euthanise these dogs are concerned that the system is failing the ‘marginal’ fail dogs.

The problem is a one size fits all approach to the testing at GAP which does not take into account the vast differences in the dog’s personalities and that some will have an adverse reaction to the foreign kennel environment but be perfectly calm and placid in a foster or home environment which better mirrors their ultimate rehoming destination. Isn’t the aim to find out the real personality and behavioural patterns of the dogs, rather than how adaptable, or scared they are of the strange GAP kennel environment?

Those outside GRV are routinely frustrated to see wonderfully sound and well balanced dogs being regularly failed by GAP, knowing that these rejects, can and do regularly fit easily into the domestic home situation.

In terms of the long term GRV’s policy objectives the ‘marginal fail’ dogs are the genuine the low hanging fruit and the quick wins that the industry needs to quickly increase rehoming rates and decrease euthanasia rates. If GRV are willing to think outside the square, the easy and community acceptable solution is simply to apply a realistic, less provocative testing standard and to fail less dogs.

But how committed is the very cashed up regulator to genuinely rehoming the maximum number of retired greyhounds possible each year? Are they satisfied with rehoming fifty per cent of the retired greyhounds every year and letting the volunteer rehoming groups do the other half of the job for them?

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  1. Well articulated. The same can apply to NSW.

    I got my first greyhound through a non industry shelter back in 2012 as I had not even heard of GAP. He had a feral prey drive towards cats and possums but very sweet natured towards people and other dogs. The shelter said he was a GAP reject and they had worked on him for six weeks. I got a pet dog trainer, experienced with shelter dogs and was only one of a handful of Greenhound assessors back then. They said that they refuse to test a dog after only 6 weeks of ownership as it takes six months for them to settle. Anyway, I soon found another two owners in the area, one’s dog from a trainer friend and one from a shelter up the coast. Our dogs were pretty good and we muddled through best we could without incident. We relied heavily upon the owner who got his from a trainer. The trainer was wonderful and really patient with our dumb questions. Note that we were really aware of the power these dogs had and were responsible.

    Fast forward to 2015 and all of a sudden there are 6 new dogs, all GAP and all green collared. These dogs were out of control and the poor owners were just given a dog, not matched up like the shelters try to do. It was a hairy six months during which we thought there would be a major incident. GAP were incredibly irresponsible and it was like they didn’t know anything. Maybe GAP could enlist the services of industry trainers to advise GAP and new owners. They are sweet dogs but they are big, they are fast and they are hunters first and foremost.