Theo is a 5½-year-old boxer mix with an unruffled attitude and a light brown coat faintly striped with black. Boasting the tag “free hugs” on his collar, he is a certified therapy dog and a “canine good citizen” as defined by the American Kennel Club, and spends time every other week accepting pats, belly rubs, and ear tugs at Lowell Health Care Center.
But he almost didn’t get his chance: At 8 weeks old, he was dropped off at a shelter in Kentucky, then transferred to another in Ohio, and finally rescued by Hopkinton-based Greyhound Friends Inc.
“I’m an advocate of the philosophy ‘don’t breed or buy when shelter pets die,’ ” said his human companion, Adelia LeBlanc of Littleton. Theo and LeBlanc’s other dogs might not win any best-in-show prizes, she said, “but so what? That’s not what I’m into.”
With greyhound racing now banned in most states — including throughout New England — Greyhound Friends has recently begun to shift its purpose: While the 30-year-old nonprofit still brings in a steady rotation of greyhounds in jeopardy after being retired from racing, it’s also broadening its reach to include other breeds from the South and Midwest, including mixes such as Theo.
“Greyhound racing is dwindling in this country,” said director Louise Coleman. “We’re always going to be a greyhound group. But it made sense to expand our base.”
According to the nonprofit Grey2K USA, commercial dog racing is illegal in 38 states — including, most recently, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, both as of 2010 — with tracks closed in another five without prohibitive laws. That leaves seven states that still have racing: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Texas, and West Virginia. Racing also continues in Mexico, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, and Macau, in China, according to the organization.
Florida still operates 13 tracks, and Greyhound Friends gets at least six dogs a week from the state, according to Coleman. Others come from Ireland and Spain.
Since Mother’s Day 1983, when Coleman got her first greyhound, Boston Boy, her organization has helped more than 9,000 dogs, placing an average of 300 a year.
Its kennel, which has a capacity for 20, is always full, Coleman said, with new dogs replacing others as soon as they leave.
In addition, Greyhound Friends has helped another roughly 350 hounds and other breeds, either finding homes or sending them along to other shelters, since last year.
The shelter hasn’t been without controversy: Earlier this month, it was criticized on social media sites after it announced that it had euthanized two dogs, Yogi and Roller. The decision came, according to a post on its Facebook page, “after years of work, numerous consultations with our vets, and countless hours of soul-searching.”
Both dogs had been adopted and returned to the shelter. They were aggressive and had attacked people, had been through behavior assessment and training numerous times, and had limited adoption options, according to the post.
“We did the best we could,” the post reads, and it goes on to say that the shelter continues to have a “no kill” policy, except when medically necessary and “in very rare cases when aggressive behavior makes adoption impossible.” In its 30 years, Greyhound Friends has put down only a “handful.”
LeBlanc adopted Theo in 2009, and Rosie, a 12-year-old collie mix with a broken tail and a scratched cornea, in 2011. Rosie looks “ferocious,” but is really quite sweet, LeBlanc said, and she keeps Theo and her other dog, a boxer mix named Genghis, in line.
Theo, on the other hand, is “very calm, cool, and collected,” and happy to either run 10 to 12 miles at a stretch with her husband, or hang out on the couch. “He’s got a great disposition,” she said. “I never have to worry about him in any situation.”
Coleman, a dedicated greyhound lover, described the breed as good-natured, accommodating, intelligent, mischievous, “champion nappers,” and possessing a “good dog version of a sense of humor.”
And, while there is still strong demand to adopt greyhounds — which can start racing at about 18 months old and usually live to be 12 or 13, after a racing career that typically ends before age 5 — it “takes more of an effort” to get them these days, she said.
Although she sees the demise of greyhound racing over the past decade as a positive, she and others wonder about the future of the breed, which was beloved by ancient Egyptians and Romans, used for hare coursing in Europe, then enlisted for commercial racing in the 1920s with the advent of the electric lure.
“Their current purpose, as defined, seems to not be anywhere near as pertinent as it used to be,” Coleman said on a recent sunny afternoon as she sat in an office at the shelter. “They can see something moving a half-mile away, and they have the attributes to get there.”
As she spoke, Gun Shy, a hefty beagle and basset hound mix, and a chubby pit bull cross named Penny circuitously patrolled the area, and greyhound mix Elvis — sleek black with a white snout — sniffed around, slurped out of a water bowl, then curled his long legs into a cushioned chair.
Out back, separated from the kennel area, different breeds were separated: Eckle, a brindle boxer mix with a propensity for climbing, stared out from a large cage in one room; Hope, Sampson, Riley, and Bolt (all beagles or beagle mixes) lay about or accepted treats from Coleman in another.
Meanwhile, in an area with 20 kennels, Duke, a stout and sturdy mix hound, and Cojack, a curious, floppy-eared American English redtick coonhound, vied for attention and food. All around, greyhounds of all ages chewed on toys, sat head-to-paw, kept watch on passing humans, or sat back in their cages with soulful eyes.
Every once in a while, one started to bark, starting a cascade throughout the kennels until Coleman silenced it with an “Eh!”
Still, she cooed at them as she passed each kennel, doling out treats as they sniffed and gave her the manipulative eye.
“They all have me trained so well,” she joked.