HOPKINTON — Tiger, a 7-year-old fawn greyhound, has been a great pet, but he gets a little lonely when his owners are at work. A few weekends ago Robin and Steven Narcovich drove up from Rhode Island to Hopkinton to visit the Greyhound Friends’ fall open house, looking for a companion for Tiger.
With the guidance of kennel founder Louise Coleman and her volunteers, the Narcoviches quickly found their dog a partner. Wanda, a sweet-natured brindle, took to him immediately.
“She rested her head on him, so I think that’s a match,” said Narcovich as she filled out the adoption papers. A longtime dog lover, she works part time in a grooming shop on Saturdays. Greyhounds, she said, “are so unlike any other breed. They ask for nothing and appreciate everything.”
For 30 years, Greyhound Friends has built a network of owners and friends devoted to the breed. But for the first time, the organization has begun to arrange adoptions of dogs that are only part greyhound, if that. The breed is in flux as the dog-racing industry becomes a thing of the past in a growing number of states; Massachusetts voted in 2008 to ban greyhound racing, and New Hampshire banned the sport two years ago.
And so it was that on a blustery autumn day earlier this month, many dogs being led around the rambling grounds by volunteers for Hound Open House were of indeterminate mix, with high haunches and long, tapered snouts that might indicate some greyhound blood. Others, like Cash, a huge, stately, droopy-faced bloodhound, had few traits that would suggest any greyhound blood at all.
Maggie, a medium-size yellow lab mix who came to the shelter all the way from Bosnia, might have a little greyhound in her, Coleman teased: “She has ears, eyes, and four legs.”
With the future of greyhounds uncertain — as the need for racing dogs diminishes, who will breed them? — Coleman recently started taking in abandoned crossbreeds from the South and Midwest, where hunters have been breeding their dogs with purebred greyhounds to make faster hunting dogs. Hunting dogs, she said, are typically considered property more than pets; when they outlive their utility, they often wind up in shelters.
Like most of the dogs at the open house, Cash, the bloodhound, wore a jacket with a clear plastic sleeve for donations toward his upkeep at the kennel.
“It’s like being a stripper,” joked Coleman.
Costs have risen for the Greyhound Friends as they pay for transportation for the dogs from out of state and isolate them until they’ve received medical clearance. More training has been required for the hunting dogs, some of which have never been on a leash before. Greyhound Friends recently installed a fenced run for the new arrivals to get more exercise.
Because other parts of the country have much lower rates of spaying and neutering compliance than the Northeast, Coleman explained, for years dogs in overpopulated areas have been shipped north to improve their chances of adoption.
“We’ve got the demand, they’ve got the supply,” she said.
Greyhound Friends, founded in Cambridge in 1983 and moved to this country road in Hopkinton four years later, say they have found homes for more than 9,000 dogs.
“Louise is the Gandhi of greyhounds,” said Ky Melhado, a Greyhound Friends volunteer and the wife of board president Stoddard Melhado. The couple own five greyhounds they’ve brought home from the facility.
Overlooking the organization’s main office from a corner of the room is an oversize bust of the real Gandhi’s head. It was a gift from the Peace Abbey, a defunct multifaith retreat in Sherborn, where Coleman lives.
Greyhound Friends weathered a disturbance of the peace earlier this year: a flurry of online criticism over the nonprofit’s decision to euthanize two long-boarded dogs that had shown aggressive behavior and been returned after adoption. Complaints grew so heated that the group hired a police detail for its annual meeting in April. No protesters showed up.
“It’s not something that was done lightly at all,” Coleman said of the decision to put down the two dogs. “It’s really hard in a public facility like ours to have dogs that can hurt people. All it takes is one incident, and we’re closed. And then we can’t help anybody.”
There was a familial feel to the Hound Open House, with volunteers greeting visitors considering adoption and past adopters bringing their dogs back for a sort of homecoming. Megan Beilman, of Hudson, who wore a fleece jacket with the logo of the Hudson Animal Hospital, where she works, walked around the building with two of the dogs she adopted from Greyhound Friends, a pointer-beagle mix named Butterscotch and a possible Rottweiler-hound mix named Uncle Buck. She also had her young daughter, Ellie, along; the mother and her dogs walked in a dizzying path, trying to keep up with the toddler.
“I’m going to put a leash on her next time,” Beilman joked.
Her dogs aren’t the first she’s adopted from Greyhound Friends. She had one named Roscoe who was hit by a car and another called Hank, a greyhound-Great Dane mix — “the best dog ever,” she said — who had to be put down for health problems.
“Louise is great at matching people with dogs,” she said before scurrying off after her daughter.
On Nov. 26, Stoddard Melhado and several volunteers will bring a group of greyhounds to meet with kindergartners and first-graders at the JP Manning Elementary School in Jamaica Plain as part of the Greyhound Friends’ educational outreach program. “We teach the kids what it’s like to bring a dog into a home and what it’s like to be a racing dog,” said Melhado, who is a retired high school counselor. “And to be kind to all animals.”
The docile greyhounds are ideal models for young children who might be afraid of dogs, he said.
“They all lie down, and that brings the kids’ anxiety down so much. The only noise is that some are whining — they want to see the kids. It’s a wonderful program.”
Walking through the rear of the kennel, where two dozen greyhounds sat in stalls tended by volunteers, Coleman said she first became attached to dogs when, as a child, she got a black and tan coonhound she called Elvis. It was 1955.
“That seemed like the right name for a hound dog at the time,” she said.
She started Greyhound Friends after learning about the breed when she adopted Boston Boy, a former prize racer at the old Wonderland racetrack, in the 1980s. Until then, she’d never thought about the unique plight of racing greyhounds, which many people couldn’t fathom as pets.
“People would come up to me and say, ‘Is that a greyhound or a dog?’ ” she said.
She didn’t actively oppose racing, she said; the kennel was never political, just “pro-dog.” Challenging the livelihood of the dogs’ primary bloc of owners would have been counterproductive for the breed, she said: They could have chosen to put the dogs down after their racing days were over, as was the custom, rather than work with her to get them adopted.
Among the six dogs she now calls her own, Coleman has a new one she brought back from a recent trip to Ireland, where she was helping to educate the public on the nature of the breed. In Ireland, greyhounds are bred for “coursing,” in which the dogs are trained to chase down and kill a live rabbit. As a result, many children raised in countries where coursing is a traditional sport cross the street to avoid pets they assume will be aggressive — the same kind of reaction pit bulls often get in this country. Greyhound Friends and other animal advocacy groups are concerned that greyhounds are now being sent to racetracks in other countries, including Spain and Argentina, where abusive conditions have been reported.
The former coursing dog Coleman brought back from Ireland came with a familiar name: He’s another Elvis.
Many adopters, she said, become extremely loyal to the breed. When the Melhados, who had previously owned wheaten terriers together, first discussed bringing home greyhounds, Ky was unconvinced.
“They’re too aloof,” she told her husband. “I want a dog that wags its tail when I come home.” After falling in love with their first two, they’ve cared for eight more greyhounds so far over the years.
Greyhound racing continues to dwindle in the United States. Only a few states, including Florida and Arizona, still have active racetracks. (Several states have not officially banned the sport, but have no tracks currently in operation.)
That’s raised a new challenge for groups such as Greyhound Friends, as they redouble their efforts to raise awareness about the dogs that need homes.
“Since there’s no racing in New England anymore, people think it’s not a problem — out of sight, out of mind,” said Coleman.
Opening their doors to crossbreeds, she said, is another way to spread the word about greyhounds. Or, as the volunteers call them, “fast friends.”