Dog-lovers have always been a breed apart, but the ebb and flow of their enthusiasms tells us a good deal about how times change. Time was when the trusty greyhound was the preferred pooch of rag and bone men and professional dog racers. Back then greyhounds were sleek rabbit chasers, the Olympian sprinters of the canine world. Sauntering along with their down-at-heel owners they looked graceful and athletic. If they were also racers, the chances are they were the bread-winners in the relationship. It was they were doing the walking, their owners the ones being walked.
Not any more. As dog-tracks have dwindled along with the working-class communities which gave rise to them, a new class of patron has arrived to claim the greyhounds that no-one wants. Walk around any big city and you’ll see them: students, hipsters and arty young professionals, many of them novices to dog-owning, daintily dragging their pets around the shops while fiddling for the starter poop bags they picked up at the dog home. It’s a happy turn-around, because the truth is that most retired greyhounds are abandoned as soon as their racing days are done. Worse, many of them are callously slaughtered. Luckily, they’ve discovered a whole new gig – as the preferred pooch for bohemian young urbanites in need of something skinny and good-looking to drag around the place.
It’s not hard to see why retired greyhounds make such excellent accessories. For a start they’re thrillingly low-maintenance. The mature greyhound is in need of only two brisk walks a day – if it didn’t need to use the loo, it probably wouldn’t bother to go out at all. It could catch a squirrel any time it wants to, but it’s outgrown the restless angst which drives the younger canine to chase itself around the place – it’s done all its running, has won all its medals, it doesn’t feel it has anything left to prove. A greyhound is a dog for people who like cats – it doesn’t require any attention, and when not sleeping it spends most of its time rehearsing a series of far-out yoga positions, many of which involve lying with its legs in the air. Rather than barking at you until it’s blue in the face until you give it something to eat, a greyhound will look at you mournfully, as if it’s sorry it even had to ask. It prides itself on being both clean and quiet, which makes it ideal for the bijou little rabbit-hutches (what an irony) which are the only thing young professionals can now afford. Not that the greyhound’s complaining, you understand. It knows the deal – it’s an accoutrement every bit as much as a poodle, but for a younger and hipper crowd. Anything’s better than the dogs home, and if that means wearing an outrageous tartan body warmer just so his human associate gets noticed on the way to the shops, it seems like a small price to pay.
What the owner gets out of this is a little more difficult to fathom. Greyhound chic, at least in part, must be related to nostalgia for the greyhounds rough and ready racing past. From bingo to pub quizzes, many pursuits traditionally favoured by the lower orders have recently been reworked by urban trendies. Then there’s the ethical dimension. Being seen with a greyhound marks you out as someone with the desire to do your bit. Reclaimed from the doggie equivalent of the knackers yard, recycled into a life of domestic luxury – if pushed a greyhound’s owner will even show you its racing medals, and ruminate wistfully on what might have been if he hadn’t showed up. Then there’s the sheer snob-factor of going for a walk with the canine equivalent of a super-model on your arm – and watching it tip-toe elegantly past the pit-bulls and mastiffs preferred by the hoi polloi. Just don’t imagine it’s going to fare very well in a fight.