“Dog Devotion” was a happy accident, one of those spur-of-the-moment stories writers sometimes get lucky with. The intended piece at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, Illinois, was supposed to be about the members of the Second Wind Running Club, who are mentioned in the second-to-last paragraph of this story. I was at the park to meet that group prior to their running session, with the intention of jogging with them. I thought the huffing and puffing of a strenuous jog, followed by an in-depth interview or two, would make for a good literary journalism piece.
But the time on the Second Wind Running Club’s website was mistakenly listed as one hour earlier than the time the group was actually meeting at Meadowbrook. I was sweating it out a bit while waiting for the runners to show up because I needed to produce a story for my final class in graduate school. No runners meant no story, and I would have to come up with another
As I was waiting, I noticed all these gawky-looking dogs to my left, assembled in a group with their owners. Seeing that many Greyhounds in one spot was odd. Was this some sort of Greyhound walking group that might make for a more interesting piece than my original idea about the runners?
I didn’t wait long to find out. With the bag holding my writing gear slung over my shoulder, I hurried over to the folks in the Greyhound group, introducing myself and letting them know about my writing project for school. They were fine with me tagging along on their walk.
The runners did eventually show up at the park for a six- to eight-mile jog, following my time with the dogs and their owners. Believe it or not, even after stumbling into this wonderful story about Greyhounds, I approached the Second Wind runners to see if they would be willing to work with me for a journalism piece I was doing for graduate school. They agreed and we
began jogging — fast. I soon longed for the placid walk with the Greyhounds and their owners that I was just on and didn’t even last a mile. I quit running and turned back to head to my car.
I couldn’t wait to write about the Greyhounds.
The morning dew on the glistening grass sparkles, but it won’t for much longer. Though the late-May day started chilly, the temperature is 63 degrees and will ascend to 84 degrees by 3 p.m.
It’s 8 a.m. and already the sun feels warm on the skin. Amid the peaceful quiet of a Sunday morning, couples, friends, individuals by themselves, and plenty of dog walkers are trickling in to Meadowbrook Park in Urbana. Just off the parking lot, a 1999 sculpture of two human-like hammerheads, bright red and approximately 12 feet tall, face off as if in a competition with one another, arms reared back and ready to brawl. If it’s possible for sculptures to give off an angry vibe, these two are doing it.
A group of dogs with their five owners at the park catches the eye. There are nine of them, all wearing martingale collars and being held on leashes, essential measures since this breed is trained to tune out called names and noise from a crowd. If they ever got loose outside of a fenced yard, they would disregard the calls to come back. They’re Greyhounds, ex-racers who have retained their sleek, skinny look and bound about on stilts for legs. The dogs’ colors range from white and beige to darker hues, and their tongues are already out before the walk starts. The owners of these Greyhounds—Bruce, Cory, Chris, Kathy, and Kevin—are fond of their pets.
An informal bunch that resides in Champaign-Urbana, the five pet owners regularly bring their Greyhounds to Meadowbrook for weekend walks and camaraderie. Sometimes as many as nine other local Greyhound owners join them on strolls that have been going on for quite some time, according to Kathy.
“We should come up with a name for our group,” says Chris, a tall, soft-spoken man who dons a sweatshirt and is the only member of the group wearing shorts.
“We should. We should get T-shirts,” says Cory, who sports sunglasses and a red T-shirt that reads “WTF is Going On!” underneath a blue University of Illinois jacket.
The sidewalks at Meadowbrook are widely spaced to accommodate all kinds of exercisers. Even so, an assembly of nine tall Greyhounds is a formidable cluster. Bruce, Kathy, and Kevin start the walk at a brisker pace than the others, leading the way southward on an open-sky path that has dense trees on the left and a large area of well-kept grass on the right. The landscape eventually transforms into a natural growth of open prairie that surrounds each side of the sidewalk, and the urban density of Champaign-Urbana suddenly feels far away. The day is cloudless and still; planes streaking above are easy to spot.
According to adopt-a-greyhound.org, Greyhounds that are up for adoption are generally “retired athletes” whose careers—usually a short two to five years—are over. From a young age, breeders have studied the dogs’ physical abilities and emotional characteristics. Greyhounds get plenty of exposure to humans and their own kind, making them comfortable around both. But they’re not always so calm around other breeds of dogs.
Seven minutes into the walk a small white dog sees the pack of Greyhounds and isn’t pleased. Leashes strain and growls rumble forth between the small dog and Kathy’s dog, Quick Start, which causes the other Greyhounds to become agitated. After 15 seconds or so, the snarls hit their peak and the dog owners restore calm, moving on.
“They can outrun you,” the owner of the small dog warns his canine as he walks away from the group, getting some laughs.
Kathy, a short woman with jet black hair, remarks that Quick Start wouldn’t have done a thing if the other dog hadn’t growled first and riled him up. Her dog is extremely laid back, she says.
The five pet owners all agree that the biggest misconception about domesticated Greyhounds is that they are hyper ex-racers in need of plenty of space to sprint or that they need to be walked constantly to be pacified. Kathy points out that during their racing years, Greyhounds are kept in stacked crates and are let out several times a day, and that they participate in races twice a week.
“If they were hyper dogs, they would be insane,” Kathy says, noting the ample time racing Greyhounds are kept under lock and key by their owners.
Kevin, a distinguished-looking white-haired man remarks that “ungainly” Greyhounds are lazy dogs who spend most of their time on beds or couches in an upside-down position because it makes them comfortable.
“They don’t know what to do with their legs. A lot of the dogs seem to enjoy kind of flipping themselves over and stretching their four legs in the air,” he says. “It’s a very grotesque-looking position.”
Cory, who used to work in a Greyhound rescue shelter in Gainesville, Florida, said she handled Greyhounds at that time who, given the opportunity, “would go nuts to run on a track,” even in retirement. She adores her two dogs, Red and Deeja, calling them her “kids.” “They’re a very cat-like dog. They’re lazy,” she says. “They’re the world’s fastest couch potato. My guys spend most of their time on the couch or on a dog bed or on the bed or anywhere else that’s soft and comfortable.”
The group feels that Illinois has several quality Greyhound adoption agencies. Chris got his two dogs, Lolly and Star, through American Greyhound/Great Lakes Inc., which has a partnership with the Inmate Greyhound Experience at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan. It’s a program in which selected inmates in the facility spend all their time with Greyhounds, teaching them commands and working on their socialization skills, preparing the dogs for eventual permanent homes through agencies like American Greyhound.
Cory, a volunteer at Mobile Mutts, got Red through Retired Greyhounds as Pets, or REGAP, and acquired Deeja from 4 Greyhound Racers. Bruce and Kevin got their dogs, Ava and Easy, respectively, from REGAP, and Quick Start came from The Sighthound Underground.
As surrounding birds chirp away, the Greyhounds stop often as they walk the circular path, sniffing out the multitude of smells and doing their business to mark their territory. No one is in a hurry as the journey veers westward and becomes dense with trees, making it cooler.
“We’re not racing anywhere,” says Kevin, who takes Easy on a walk at Meadowbrook every day.
“We’ve never passed anybody on a walk,” admits Bruce, an active volunteer at the Humane Society who is wearing jeans, a white baseball cap, and a blue shirt that reads “operation blue out.”
“Right. Everybody passes us.”
The easy banter within the dog-loving group is all about dogs, specifically Greyhounds. There’s admiration in their voices when they talk about the breed’s characteristics.
Kevin: “I really enjoy that alert, far-distance stare that they get.”
Cory: “Where they know that there’s something a mile away and they can see it.”
Kevin: “Yeah, and they’re just still.”
Chris: “And the ears adjust.”
Kevin: “Prick forward. And they’re like statues when they’re assessing what it is.”
Chris: “Sometimes the tail goes out a little bit.”
Kevin explains that racing Greyhounds live an extremely limited life during their careers. When they “come off the track,” they don’t know what a glass door or a screen door is. They’ve never seen stairs in a house.
“It takes a whole acculturation process to train them and understand these things because basically they’re always either on a track or in their cage,” he says.
The Greyhounds are in the home stretch of the nearly hourlong walk after striding across a wooden bridge with bronze railings. The dogs’ tongues are in full-hanging mode and their breathing has become more labored, but only super-mellow Ava seems tuckered out, having plopped down a few times in shady areas during the trek.
Back at the park’s entrance, Cory, Chris, and Kathy stand under the partial shade of a tree, holding their leashes and talking. The greenery of the park combined with the spectacularly sunny day is almost overwhelming after a string of recently damp and nippy days. Bruce and Kevin are nearby with their dogs, underneath the plentiful shade of an accommodating tree. Ava is resting on her side.
The Greyhounds are suddenly greeted by the enthusiastic barks of two medium-sized dogs standing in the parking lot. They’re about to go running with members of the Second Wind Running Club. The runners’ dogs seem eager and aggressive compared to the docile Greyhounds, who don’t make a peep and are complacent.
Also standing nearby are the hammerhead sculptures in perpetual fighting mode. They too seem at odds with the easygoing Greyhounds, whose main objective seems to be to head home, curl into a tight little ball, and sleep the beautiful day away.
Photos by Sal Nudo. This story and eight other literary journalism pieces can be found in the book Far From Mars, available on Amazon in paperback and on the Kindle.