"Look at that greyhound. He can't even slow down for a walk!"
So observed a passerby of my dog, Elvis. But he was trotting only to keep up with my fast-paced gait. If it were up to him, he wouldn't even be on this walk, but instead curled up in his beloved La-Z-Dog recliner.
But after talking with "Fitness Unleashed" author, Dr. Marty Becker, about the importance of canine exercise, I realize that Elvis needs to start moving his tail. I also know that a couple of times each month, volunteers from Golden State Greyhound Adoption rent a fenced dog park for the exclusive use of their ex-racers. For one hour, as many as 30 hounds romp unencumbered around a grassy yard the approximate size of a baseball field. Stu Homer, who organizes these activities, said the dogs have a great time exercising and socializing. Bring Elvis, he encouraged.
I've never taken advantage of these playdates though, because they're always scheduled the same time as church. And frankly, I need all the spiritual help I can get. However, one day I realized what a disservice I was doing to Elvis, denying him the chance to dally with his "dawgs." Surely the Big Fella wouldn't begrudge me an occasional absence in order to tend to one of His four-legged flock.
And so, early one crisp autumn morning, I took Elvis on his first playdate with his greyhound brethren. I envisioned a pack of hounds racing around the fenced field, free of leashes and flying like the wind. I know greyhounds are lazy, but surely they would embrace this opportunity to stretch their legs. I couldn't wait to see Elvis run, too.
The operative word being "wait."
Because Elvis was in no rush to run. Just like the other two dozen or so ex-racers who were far more interested in cozying up to strangers for a scratch behind the ears. Several dogs were sunbathing, leisurely stretched across the still-dewy grass, while others were busy sniffing tails and marking bushes. A few were shy and velcroed to their guardian's thigh. Some grizzled veterans bore nicked ears, slight limps or faint scars, reminders of their racing days. All wore racing muzzles, which still allows the dogs to open their mouths and drink water. The muzzles are necessary only because as ex-racers, when the dogs start to run in a pack and pick up speed, they can hurt their paper-thin skin just by accidentally scraping against another dog's tooth.
Not that running was an issue. The only trotting taking place here was by the guardians who were trying to motivate their lackadaisical hounds into moving. I half expected to see a pack of people start racing around the yard while the dogs sat back and watched.
My boy certainly wasn't interested. If he could talk, I'm sure he would say, "Hello! Retired--look it up in Webster's." Anyway, he was way too busy making the rounds, approaching each person and tucking his knobby little head between their knees for a much-loved neck rub.
Like the dog leaning against my side, a muscular 85-pound auburn beauty named Jack. He was 2 years old, his guardian told me. During his tenure at the track, he had never raced and spent his entire life crated until he was recently released for adoption. He was very shy and still being socialized, but he seemed to like me, his guardian noted. Jack leaned harder, looking up at me with soulful eyes the color of melted Hershey kisses. I knelt and wrapped the timid dog in my arms, kissing his velvety head. He had no idea how lucky he was. And I pondered the thousands of Jacks still out there, sitting in crates and needing homes once their racing careers were over. Facing death if homes weren't found.
Occasionally a few ambitious hounds would form a pack and start to race around the field with others filing in, even Elvis. This excited everyone, as we were anxious to see our dogs exercise and witness their natural talent. But it never failed that our excitement was short-lived because after just a few seconds, one dog might wince or another might growl and that's all it took: the pack would immediately disperse and each dog would flee in search of his respective guardian. I saw Elvis, a notorious chicken, run to the nearest set of knees to tuck his head and hide.
This almost comical reaction to the slightest hint of discord bore witness to the mellow temperament of the breed. Greyhounds are lovers, not fighters. Lovers of squeaky toys, cookies and cuddles. Of soft pillows, belly rubs and long naps. Instead of the canine workout I had envisioned, most of the dogs were either soliciting affection from people or banding together like magnets, leaning against each other, resting their chins across another's back, trying to get as close as possible. This is why so many guardians have more than one greyhound. The hounds get along beautifully with other breeds, but make no mistake: they have a special affinity for their own. As I observed Elvis happily traipsing from person to person, basking in all the attention, I realized that's what this play date was really about: indulging these gentle creatures who literally once had to race for their lives.
And although this fine Sunday morning found me in a dog park instead of a church, I felt my soul nourished just the same: by giving back to Elvis, my lovely, loving boy who has so enriched my life.
Because spirituality can be nourished in a number of places and by relationships of all kinds, including the human, divine and—in this case—canine.