Raincoats kept them dry and warm as they walked calmly, heads held high through the streets of Dewey Beach on Friday afternoon while their pictures were posted on the windows of nearly every Honda, Explorer and Saab in sight. There appeared to be no visible sign they were aware of their infamy, aside from the subtle wag of their tails.
Sleepy, off-season Dewey had been transformed into a thriving metropolitan once again, but this time of canines.
Hounds and humans gathered together to celebrate the 12th annual Greyhounds Reach the Beach festival in Dewey Beach last weekend, Oct. 6-8. Thousands from all over the country and the world attended due to a common link: the love of a greyhound.
The “Greyhound Girls” — Patt Tyson, Judy Dillon and Martha Sherman — started the whole affair in 1994. The ladies said the event began with a unified desire to simply — “find a fun place to go with our dogs.”
Three couples getting away for the weekend soon turned into a gathering of 65 greyhound owners in the first year after the greyhound girls posted the idea on an Internet mail site. From there, the rest was history.
“It continued to grow every year,” said Tyson.
Now, thousands of people sign up annually for the Greyhounds Reach the Beach convention. And, according to Sherman, “There are always more dogs than people.”
Dogs are everywhere: on the street, the sidewalks, in the stores, on the beach. Dewey welcomes greyhounds in places that normally do not allow them.
In the off-season, Atlantic Oceanside, the original hotel of the Greyhound Girls, has always been pet-friendly. However, other hotels and businesses open their doors for the weekend and allow the greys to enter facilities that otherwise do not tolerate pets. Hotel signs greeted the event attendees reading, “Welcome Greyhounds” and “12 years and running fast.”
Sherman said the event has become more of a success than she had ever imagined. She said most dog owners are proud of their particular breed, but there is definitely a connection between greyhound owners.
“There is a passion for greyhounds and the importance of finding them homes that is unique,” she said. “They are athletes in need.”
Owners feel a connection because most of the dogs have been on the same journey, and joined families and homes straight after their racing careers. The dogs’ calm demeanor seems to contrast with their drive and speed on the race course, but it is also one of the reasons greyhounds have been dubbed “45 mph couch potatoes.”
Sherman claimed, “They are captivating dogs with a sweetness that you wouldn’t expect.”
Dillon added that greyhounds are special because, although they are usually 2 to 5 years old by the time they are adopted, it is an easy transition for owners to accept these mild-tempered adult dogs from the track into their homes. Dillon said, “They slip right into your life.”
All three of the Greyhound Girls lost their original hounds this past year. This loss helped to establish a new event for the 2006 edition: a memorial service for those who have had pets pass away.
Other events included a blessing of the hounds, a dog costume party, the Beer & Biscuit Ball, dog massages, canine first-aid classes and seminars with guest speakers. “It’s fun, but we try to keep a lot of things educational, too,” said Sherman. “We provide a little something for everyone.”
Sarah Ablard, one of the many retail booth operators, came from Virginia to sell her “Classy Canine” custom collars, raincoats, fleeces and leashes for greyhounds. As the greyhounds came into her booth, she sized their aerodynamic bodies and found the perfect fit for each.
Ablard also makes belts, jewelry and other items embroidered with the hounds for their owners to buy. She herself is an avid greyhound lover and owner, and donates 10 percent of her profits to Greyhound Rescue Inc.
She said greyhound owners have a special unspoken relationship. “There is a common bond we have. We fall in love. They (the greyhounds) are so humble, appreciative, fun… They don’t bark and they have those big soulful eyes.”
The same response came from Sue Sprague, who works for the Maine Greyhound Placement Service and was attending this weekend’s event. “They aren’t just a dog,” she said. “They’re a greyhound.”
Sprague said greyhounds’ stories are not as sad as they once were. Because greyhounds are one of the fastest land mammals, they have historically been a popular spectacle for races in the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia.
Previously, in the United States, greyhounds were killed once they were no longer considered race-worthy due to age or health. Now, U.S. laws have changed to favor better treatment of the canine athletes.
“The public is more aware of the tracks now and the tracks know the treatment must be better then it was. But when a dog doesn’t win anymore, he is still no value to the owner and has to be ‘pet out,’” said Sprague. That’s as opposed to “put down.”
“Pet out” is when the previous owners send the retired racers to adoption agencies, such as Maine Greyhound Placement Service. “Most of the racing owners prefer their dogs be taken in,” she said.
Other greyhounds are sold for research, according to Sprague. Most greyhound blood is universal and can be used to assist all breeds of dogs. Therefore, they are valuable to veterinarians and labs for canine blood donations. She said she usually receives dogs after they have been used for research or as blood donors as well.
For the dogs who attended Greyhounds Reach the Beach, their stories had happy endings; each of the almost 3,000 dogs present had found a loving home.
That number could be witnessed as dogs and owners gathering together on the beach, in the parking lots and at vender tents, glad that the rain from “sacrificial” Friday and Saturday morning had passed for the final run of the event on Sunday.
Despite such an abundant number of canines, the scene was abnormally calm. Dogs sniffed and took notice of each other, but there was very little barking. Sally Druckenmiller, event attendee, said this was another unique aspect of greyhounds.
“When the greyhounds are all together and you hear a barking, it’s always some other kind of dog,” Druckenmiller said. “I could probably count on my hand how many times he barked,” she added of her greyhound Caleb.
At the event, dogs were also registered for a sibling match (to see if relatives were present), and thousands of dollars were raised to assist the Morris Animal Foundation in canine cancer research. Some of those still needing homes after Hurricane Katrina disaster relief efforts were also placed.
Come Sunday, event attendees packed their newly bought hound paraphernalia, loaded their greyhounds into their dog-decorated vehicles and returned home — some over great distances. Of the weekend, they said the festival turned out “greyt.”
More information on greyhound adoption can be found on the Internet at: www.adopt-a-greyhound.org.