How Safe is an Off-Lead Run?

By Patricia Gail Burnham 

Three years ago a young couple had come 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, 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, this spring I was raising my first litter of puppies in eight years, and 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 was getting a puppy fix to counteract their grief. 

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 would daily 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. 

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.

With that lesson in mind I regularly put nine year old Sheena on leash to cross my yard from the car to the front door. She wasn't exactly an obedience natural, taking three years to earn her Companion Dog title, and 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 last 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 is my favorite dog and we have been through a lot together. She has 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 face 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. 

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. 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. 

(One aid is a heavy duty retractable leash. If your dog store doesn't carry them in the heaviest size for over sixty six pound dogs. The same item is sold at horse supply stores where they call it a retractable lunge line.) 

Reprinted from Celebrating Greyhounds: The Magazine, Winter, 1996 Patricia Gail Burnham is a regular contributor to Celebrating Greyhounds: The Magazine.