Going to the Dogs
Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture
Gwyneth Anne Thayer
Winner: North American Society for Sport History Book Award
In the 1970s sitcom The Odd Couple, Felix and Oscar argue over a racing greyhound that Oscar won in a bet. Animal lover Felix wants to keep the dog as a pet; gambling enthusiast Oscar wants to race it. This dilemma fairly reflects America's attitude toward greyhound racing.
“This is a profusely illustrated, tightly reasoned, and very well-written book. . . . The book directly engages the growing literature on the history and culture of animal welfare, as well as the large established literature on works on ethics and nonhuman animals while providing a thorough and needed history of the cultural and political context of [greyhound racing].”
—Journal of American Culture
“All in all, Going to the Dogs is an original contribution to the history of both sport and American popular culture. The study offers a multifaceted argument to explain the changing image of dog racing in the twentieth century. In telling the story that may be unfamiliar to anyone but greyhound enthusiasts, Thayer is able to shed new light on a range of more familiar historical questions—the expansion of an entertainment market, the relationship between class and spectator sports, and the development of animal protectionism in the United States—and, in the process, convincingly shows that the study of greyhound racing tells us ‘more about ourselves as Americans than anything else.’”
—Journal of Sport HistorySee all reviews...
“If only all personal interests led to academic projects as good as this one! . . .[A] welcome book that deserves an audience among and beyond fans of a declining sport.”
—Journal of American History
“Thayer’s book is a foundational study and deserves a broad readership among students of commercial leisure, gaming and capitalism, entertainment and tourism, dogs, and animal advocacy.”
—American Historical Review
“Thayer ably traces the sport’s decline to the rise of the animal rights movement, increasing opportunities for Americans to gamble, a series of animal-mistreatment and corruption scandals that rocked the industry, and, perhaps above all, ‘a tremendous shift in the role of dogs’ from our economic servants to our coddled companions.”
“Hollywood celebrities, such as Jimmy Durante, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Gleason, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, Burt Reynolds, and Jayne Mansfield, were often pictured in the winners circle or at promotional events at the Florida dog tracks. Some, like Gleason, who broadcast his show from Miami Beach, were owners of racing greyhounds. . . . But the novelty and excitement of dog racing, especially as it was packaged for consumers in Florida, was gradually superseded by an overwhelming array of new entertainment options—including NASCAR—that eventually drew in larger crowds than dog racing ever could or did.”
—From Going to the Dogs
“Gwyneth Thayer’s fascinating book examines the rise and fall of organized greyhound racing against the backdrop of major themes in American history—money, power, urbanization, and shifting moral sensitivities. Remarkably objective and impeccably researched, it traces the transformation of the greyhound from rural hunting dog to working class racing dog to an icon of the animal rescue movement. Going to the Dogs is cultural history at its best.”
—Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why Its So Hard to Think Straight About Animals
“Thayer’s authoritative chronicle of the development of greyhound racing in the United States dispels myths, and her unbiased assessment of changing culture and attitudes is thoughtful and intelligent.”
—Louise Weaver, Assistant Vice President, St. Petersburg Kennel Club
“As Going to the Dogs makes clear, greyhound racing is rife with significance as an outgrowth of rural folk culture, a factor in regional identity, a common and once popular amusement, and a flashpoint in debates concerning animal welfare, the gambling industry, and the human-animal bond. Gwyneth Thayer’s study of the rise and fall of the ‘sport of Queens’ in America is no shaggy dog story; its a smart, focused, and thorough account that goes to the heart of greyhound racings past, present, and future, treats it seriously as a cultural phenomenon, and creates meaning for the reader.”
—Bernard Unti, The Humane Society of the United States
“Once among the most popular spectator sports in twentieth-century America, dog racing today is fiercely contested and largely disappeared. Gwynn Thayer’s lively and insightful history traces its rise and fall, examining how regional and particularly lower-class sport and gambling practices developed into a lucrative national greyhound racing industry, how legal decisions privileged horse racing over dog racing, and how changed American feelings about dogs as pets, rather than compromised animal athletes, contributed to dog racing’s demise.”
—Erika Doss, author of Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in AmericaSee fewer reviews...
This book, the first cultural history of greyhound racing in America, charts the sport's meteoric rise-and equally meteoric decline-against the backdrop of changes in American culture during the last century. Gwyneth Anne Thayer takes us from its origins in "coursing" in England, through its postwar heyday, and up to its current state of near-extinction. Her entertaining account offers fresh insight into the development of American sport and leisure, the rise of animal advocacy, and the unique place that dogs hold in American life.
Thayer describes greyhound racing's dynamic growth in the 1920s in places like Saint Louis, Chicago, and New Orleans, then explores its phenomenal popularity in Florida, where promoters exploited its remote association with the upper class and helped foster a celebrity culture around it. By the end of the century media reports of alleged animal cruelty had surfaced as well as competition from other gaming pursuits such as state lotteries and Indian casinos. Greyhound racing became so suspect that even Homer Simpson derided it.
In exploring the socioeconomic, political, and ideological factors that fueled the rise and fall of dog racing in America, Thayer has consulted participants and critics alike in order to present both sides of a contentious debate. She examines not only the impact of animal protectionists, but also suspected underworld ties, longstanding tensions between dogmen and track owners over racing contracts, and the evolving relationship between consumerism and dogs. She captures the sport's glory days in dozens of photographs that recall its coursing past or show celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Babe Ruth with winning racing hounds. Thayer also records the growth of the adoption movement that rescues ex-racers from possible euthanasia.
Today there are fewer than half as many greyhound tracks, in half as many states, as there were 10 years ago-and half of them are in Florida. Thayer's in-depth, meticulously balanced account is an intriguing look at this singular activity and will teach readers as much about American cultural behavior as about racing greyhounds.