THE GREYHOUND ORIGIN STORY
Greyhounds are thought to be the oldest purebred dog, but those origins are shrouded in mystery. Cave etchings, as early as 8,000 B.C., depict dogs that look very much like greyhounds. From ancient Egypt, artifacts show that greyhound-type dogs were revered as gods and only royalty were allowed to own them. Cleopatra was a big fan.
The greyhound is the only dog that is mentioned by name in the Bible. In the New King James Version, Proverbs 30:29-31, it states, “There be three things which go well, yea, four are comely in going: A lion which is strongest among beasts, and turneth not away for any; A greyhound; a he goat also; and a king, against whom there is no rising up.” The KJV was published in 1611, but Proverbs is thought to be much older: between the 10th century and 6th century B.C.
Greyhounds appear in both Greek and Roman mythology. Alexander the Great’s favorite dog was a greyhound. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’ greyhound Argos is the only one to recognize him when he returns home in disguise.
Recent investigations into the canine genome and mitochondrial DNA have revealed that the modern Greyhound breed likely emerged on the plains of Eurasia and were probably first brought to Europe by the Celts around 275 B.C.
Around 100 B.C., the Greek poet Grattius wrote of the Celt’s dogs that “…swifter than thought or a winged bird it runs, pressing hard on beasts it has found.” Arrian, another Greek, clearly identified the Vertragus, the predecessor of the modern Greyhound. The Celtic culture flourished from what is now Austria, west to Spain, and north to the farthest reaches of the British Isles and Ireland. Everywhere they went they took their dogs with them and left offshoots of the Vertragus.
The origin of the name “greyhound” is lost in antiquity, but it almost certainly does not refer to the color of the dog. Gray colored greyhounds are rare, and are not referred to as gray, but as “blue”. A more likely explanation is that the name comes from the Old English "grei," meaning dog and "hundr," meaning hunter.
During the Dark Ages, a time of disease and famine, greyhounds were saved from extinction by priests who bred them for noblemen. Until around 1700, owning a greyhound was the exclusive right of the nobility. Also, according to England’s Canute Laws, any person responsible for the death of a Greyhound was subject to execution.
Greyhounds were beloved for their elegance and made frequent appearances in the royal courts. King Henry VIII was a huge fan of coursing and had a collection of greyhounds on hand; the dog is still a symbol of the House of York to this day. Queen Elizabeth I was also fond of coursing and greyhounds, and even enacted “The Law of the Lease,” meaning that the prey had a head start, in order to make the game more interesting.
Both Chaucer and Shakespeare immortalized greyhounds in literature. In the 14th Century in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, the greyhound was the first breed of dog that Chaucer wrote about. Shakespeare mentions greyhounds in Henry V. He also includes them in ten other plays.
Frederick the Great of Prussia asked in his will to be buried with his beloved greyhounds. The graves remain to this day.
Greyhounds and mastiffs became the first European dogs in the New World when they accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second expedition, which set sail from Spain in September 1493. They were considered weapons, and they were used to test the food to be sure it was OK to eat and helped intimidate the natives.
Greyhounds and their predecessors were popular for racing as well as hunting. Egyptian murals as early as 2,500 B.C. depict dogs racing, and in the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I started the first regulated races, which consisted of two dogs chasing a hare on a given track.
All modern pedigree Greyhounds derive from the Greyhound stock recorded and registered first in private studbooks in the 18th century, then in public studbooks in the 19th century, which ultimately were registered with coursing, racing, and kennel club authorities of the United Kingdom. Every greyhound alive today can trace its lineage back to one dog, King Cob, whelped in England in 1839.
More greyhounds were brought into the United States by British immigrants. It didn’t take long for greyhound racing and coursing to become popular here. In 1912 in North America, Owen Patrick Smith developed and patented a mechanical lure that would run around an oval track. In 1923 the Miami Kennel Club in Hialeah, FL became the first greyhound race track to use this system.
In 1928, the first winner of Best in Show at Crufts, Birmingham, England, was breeder/owner Mr. H. Whitley's Greyhound Primley Sceptre.
Greyhound racing in England reached its peak in the 19th century and in America, it was the 20th century. Now there are only four states that allow live racing, and it is phasing out in two of those. In the U.K., there are 19 active tracks which are regulated and a handful of unregulated ones.
Continued careful breeding and handling over the years have made the greyhound a most intelligent, affectionate companion. With the advent of greyhound track racing, as well as dog showing, the breed diverged into show and racing types, with the racing type by far the more populous at the moment. In any case, since greyhounds make wonderful pets, they will not be going away anytime soon.
Next week we will look at more famous people who have loved greyhounds through the years – it will be a fun ride!