The Coastal Star

Paws Up for Pets: Some greyhounds will find new purpose as service dogs for veterans

Veterinary students at South Tech Academy in Boynton Beach receive hands-on experience working with greyhounds that trainer Carolee Ellison provides. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Arden Moore

Greyhounds sport reputations for running fast. Very fast. We’re talking 45-mph fast. But Florida voters put the brakes on wagering on dog racing with the recent passage of Amendment 13.
By 2020, all greyhound racing in Florida will end, including at the Palm Beach Kennel Club in West Palm Beach, which has hosted dog racing since 1932.
When it comes to this sport, Florida leads the nation by being home to 11 of the 17 active dog tracks across the country. Passage of the amendment will wipe out dog racing in the state.
Industry experts estimate that about 8,000 greyhounds are racing in tracks in Florida and another 7,000 are on race-schooling farms all over the country.
So, what’s going to happen to those thousands of greyhounds?
Efforts are being stepped up to transition some of these greyhounds into service dogs for military veterans. And more emphasis will be placed on training other greyhounds with basic obedience skills and manners so that they will be welcomed pets in homes across the country.
Leading this dual-purpose mission are greyhound advocates like Barbara Masi and Carolee Ellison. As president and founder of Awesome Greyhound Adoptions Inc. and its Hounds & Heroes program aimed at military veterans, Masi has been spearheading efforts to convert racetrack greyhounds into stellar service dogs since 2011.
She is aided by Ellison, a professional dog trainer and department chairwoman of the veterinary assisting program at South Tech Academy in Boynton Beach. They have trained and paired about 30 greyhounds with military veterans since 2011, and they have no plans of stopping.
In addition, Masi is screening hundreds of applications from individuals wishing to adopt retired racing greyhounds as family pets.
“Applications for adoptions have been heavy since the amendment has passed and that is a good thing; but those who are requesting dogs must realize that our adoption groups are all-volunteer and members work at other jobs, so we are limited in time,” says Masi, who shares her Boynton Beach home with greyhounds answering to the names of Mini, Bolt, Snoopy, Missile and Sonic.
Hounds & Heroes, a nonprofit group, relies on donations to cover the cost for the veterinary care, training and food for retired racing greyhounds to become service dogs for military veterans. It typically takes about four to six months for the service dog training at a cost of about $5,000 per greyhound.
“It is our commitment to these magnificent creatures to do the right thing and find the best homes for each of these pups as they retire,” says Masi.
Neither Masi or Ellison has won a lottery or discovered a way to squeeze out more time in a day. But that is not deterring them.
“The amendment contained no provision to help any of the re-homing organizations,” says Ellison. “It costs us about $500 for spaying/neutering, blood work, dental, food, vaccinations for greyhounds being adopted into families and we only charge $250 for adoption. The amendment not only impacted the dogs, but also the people employed in this industry.”
Masi and Ellison also welcome volunteer time or donations to cover the cost of insurance and vehicles to transport greyhounds.
And Ellison is tapping a new generation of advocates at her school. She brings greyhounds to South Tech Academy to continue her service dog training and provide hands-on education on dog care and training to her high school students. When they graduate, they earn state veterinarian-approved veterinary assistant certifications to go with their high school diplomas.
“My students are not only working with these dogs but helping to get the word out about them,” says Ellison.
In the service dog training, the students learn how to train greyhounds to support veterans with basic mobility issues and post-traumatic stress disorder, she says.
“For example, one command in mobility is called brace. A veteran in a seated position who needs help getting up will tell his dog, ‘Brace,’ and the dog will learn to stand still and be ready for the veteran to put his hand on his back and shoulder to be able to push off and stand up.”
At her Lake Worth home, Ellison continues the schooling for a stream of greyhounds. She appreciates the help from her husband, Dave, and teenage son, Bren. In addition to her personal greyhound, Abby, her home includes service dogs in training Stryker, Valor, Tricky and Stretch.
Just what is it about this breed that motivates Masi and Ellison to dedicate so much time and effort? For them, the answers come quickly and enthusiastically.
“No. 1 for me is their attitude,” says Ellison. “I do not have to teach them to give calm energy. They are 45-mph couch potatoes. They are so open and adaptable and very good at reading energies instead of reacting to them.
“And for the retired racers who wore T-shirts with numbers on them at the track, they are pre-programmed that when they have their service dog vests on, it’s time to focus and time to work.”
Adds Masi, “I’ve been working with greyhounds for more than 18 years. I love so many things about them — their temperament, their sweet nature and willingness to learn.”
For racing greyhounds, the amendment will close the door on their racing occupations, but with the dedicated help of people like Ellison and Masi, a new door will widen in the field of service dog roles.
To learn how to help, visit awesomegreyhoundadoptions.org.

Arden Moore, founder of FourLeggedLife.com, is an animal behavior consultant, editor, author, speaker and master certified pet first-aid instructor. She hosts Oh Behave! on PetLifeRadio.com. Learn more at www.ardenmoore.com.

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