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Meet the breed - Italian Greyhound!

Meet the breed - Italian Greyhound!

Born to run

By Patricia Gail Burnham  

If “snappy”, “fragile”, and “high-strung” come to mind when someone mentions the greyhound, whippet, or Italian greyhound, think again.

Some types of dogs become so popular that people start to want them in different sizes to fit different lifestyles. The three sizes of poodles and schnauzers are examples of this phenomenon, as is the trio of running dogs known as greyhounds, whippets, and Italian greyhounds. The greyhound, which was developed as a hunting dog, is the largest of the three. The Italian greyhound, which became popular during the Italian Renaissance when the breeding of the miniature dogs became a fad, is the smallest. The medium-sized runner, the whippet, is the newest of the three breeds. It was created by interbreeding small greyhounds with terriers (and possibly Italian greyhounds) so that the British workingman could afford to own, race and wager on a dog without having to starve his family to feed it.

Whatever their size, these specialized dogs were bred to fit the demands of highspeed racing. Their function sculpted their form. The miracle is that the resulting streamlined bodies and elegant heads are also things of beauty. Their resemblance to deer is often remarked upon and with their alert expressions, long legs and necks, and muscular bodies, it is not hard to see why. For centuries they have been the darlings of artists, the companions of royal hunters and aristocratic ladies, and mine and factory workers.

Compared to most animals, man is a very slow runner, but he is clever. So when the problem of how to catch open-country rabbits or deer arose back in the days before guns, the solution was obvious – develop a dog that could do it. The result of that development, the greyhound, has fulfilled its purpose magnificently for thousands of years. It has a slender runner’s body and a deep chest to hold a heart and lungs that are larger than those of other dogs. Its coat is very short and silken to enable it to radiate heat from its body when it is in pursuit. Its eyesight is phenomenal. The average dog is very nearsighted, relying on its sense of smell for a great deal of information. Not so the family of “sighthounds”. The greyhound, whippet, and Italian greyhound can spot moving objects up to half a mile away.

The running heritage of the greyhound, whippet, and Italian greyhound affects the dogs’ temperaments. They are usually gentle and gentlemanly dogs because they were often hunted and raced against dogs they had just met. If one man had a greyhound or whippet he thought was better than someone else’s, then the two would arrange to run the dogs against each other, often with a sizeable bet on the outcome. If either dog chose to interfere with the other instead of running, it would be discarded. (Even today, interference with another dog is a quick way to be banned from further racing.) Centuries of this type of selection created a peaceful dog.

The method in which these dogs hunted also contributed to their temperaments. Traditionally, the greyhounds were walked on a lead until game was sighted, then they were released, or “slipped”, from special quick-release collars. From that point, they were on their own, pitting their speed, coordination and running strategies against their quarries. As a hunting method, this is far better than shooting animals. With a rifle, anything that comes the hunter’s way can be killed. In hunting with greyhounds, however, quarry that is exceptionally fast, clever, and healthy will usually escape, while the old, slow, and stupid ones are caught. Greyhounds fill the role of any natural predator: They improve the quality of their prey by removing inferior animals. Only the strongest will survive, as nature intended.

This “decision-making on the run”, without help from their human partners, has led to a certain aloofness in the running breeds. While they may love us, they do not look to us for advice before making up their own minds. This has led some people to feel that sighthounds are “too dumb” to train, but this almost always turns out to be said about a dog that has its owner perfectly trained to the dog’s own tastes. Many sighthounds are very too smart to train. They can think of limitless ways to avoid doing things they do not want to do, and they do not have to the working dogs’ inborn drive to please their masters. As a result, it is easy to train a sighthound to do anything you can convince it that it wants to do. These are not dogs for the hard, military-style disciplinarian. They are sensitive, independent dogs who return affection but who do not understand or respond to harsh training methods.

For the person who appreciates their athletic beauty and admires their independent intelligence, the gaiety of their personalities and the thrill of their astonishing running and jumping abilities, these dogs can make highly rewarding pets. They are the Ferraris and Maseratis of the dog world, the high-performance dog breeds, and like racecars and racehorses, they require extra care to do their best. Young greyhounds, whippets, and Italian greyhounds have formidable energy levels that need a constructive outlet. A daily walk with an opportunity to run safely will do it. The sighthounds were not bred to run all day like many sporting dogs. They are basically sprinting dogs, able to expand enormous amounts of energy in a few minutes, but willing to rest afterwards. As these dogs grow older the demands for active exercise decrease and they mellow into a very civilized middle age. Senior sighthounds made dogdom’s finest house pets.

The runners are not normally thought of as children’s pets, but because of their gentle nature, if they are raised with well-mannered children, they can become devoted companions. For this, it is a good idea to select the most outgoing and unexcitable puppy of the litter.

They are not good kennel dogs. They do not like being alone for long periods of time. They are active and companionable, and for the person who cannot be with them full time, it can be a good idea to have a pair so they can keep each other company. An old kennel manager’s favorite saying was, “Raising one puppy is twice as much trouble as raising two.” There is much truth in this: For a single puppy, the owner has to provide all the exercise and companionship. Two puppies can be playmates for each other.

The sighthounds are not the kind of dogs to get if you do not want dogs on your furniture. There is so little fat and padding between their skeletons and the outside world that they are uncomfortable lying on any hard surface and will seek out pillows, couches, and beds. Owners should provide soft resting places, inside and out.

They are watch, but not attack, dogs. They can be taught to bark at strangers, and once one dog in a group does it, the others catch on quickly. Normally, however, these dogs are best known for being clean, quiet, graceful, incredibly quick, fairly independent, and loving – and talented food thieves. One disadvantage of the greyhound over the two shorter breeds is that God made the greyhound’s nose the same height as the kitchen table, and its born instinct to sight prey and go after it can apply equally well to the family dinner.

Genetically, these three breeds are exceptionally “clean”, in terms of hereditary health problems. Hip dysphasia and eye problems are virtually unknown. Monorchidism (one undescended testicle), though fairly common, has no outward effect on health. Affected dogs are removed from breeding programs and make excellent and inexpensive pets. All three breeds are somewhat accident prone, however. Their speed, thin skin and lightweight frames make them subject to accidents other dogs wouldn’t even notice. If one hooked its skin on a projecting twig or nail when it is running, for example, the result will be a triangular tear that will need sutures to prevent unsightly scars. The largest of the three, the greyhound, like most deep-bodied dogs, is subject to bloat (gastric torsion) and should not run just after it has eaten. Correct diet is important in preventing bloat. All three dogs, because of their high-energy requirements, need an excellent quality, very digestible, high protein diet. A good quality diet also enhances the warm, velvety feel of their coats and adds to their “hugability".