From Kangaroo Dogs to Greyhounds

Kangaroo Dog 1853Kangaroo Dog 1853

... or perhaps from Greyhounds to Kangaroo Dogs! Mix this with the birth of Greyhound Racing and you have the story of one type of Sight Hound which not only shaped Australia, but also helped our earliest settlers survive.

Early Australian History

In 1770 when Captain Cook and his crew of 85 people arrived in Botany Bay Australia the botanist Joseph Banks, had a pair of Greyhounds in his 'baggage'![1] As this was before the invention of shotguns, the new settlers had to survive on whatever they could find to eat in their new land. A few years later Governor Phillip also brought his Greyhounds with him when he colonized Sydney in 1788[2]. As the First Fleet contained almost 1,000 people, it would be many years before farms could become sufficiently established to feed the growing white population.

'In the early days of Australia, when game was cheap and flour dear, it was a common saying amongst the hospitable bushmen to their guests, 'Pitch into the kangaroo, boys and spare the damper'. Powder and shot were also very dear then; so if it hadn't been for their kangaroo dogs, the bushmen and their friends would have had mighty little kangaroo to pitch into. So next to bullocks, stringybark, and greenhide, the kangaroo dog helped settle the country'[12].

A Greyhound Chasing a Wallaroo (Rock Wallaby)A Greyhound Chasing a Wallaroo (Rock Wallaby)

By 1793, Arthur Philip's marine officers were complaining that these Greyhounds were incapable of chasing and bringing down kangaroos, wallabies and the myriad of different sized species in between like the rock Wallaby or 'Wallaroo' (pictured)[8]. So crosses began between these early Greyhounds and a conglomeration of other early canines arriving in Australia including the Scottish Deerhound. The result was that a large, strong type of hunting dog weighing up to 80 pounds was selectively bred. Hunts with these provided fresh meat for our early settlers.This new breed was called the 'Kangaroo Dog'.

During the 1800's, Mr Hugh E.C. Beaver reported in the 'The Standard' Newspaper, London:

Greyhounds Hunting c 1820Greyhounds Hunting c 1820

'This dog is essentially Australian, in fact, may be called the national dog of Australia. In the early days, everything was hard to get in the bush - flour was at a premium, (gun) powder and shot (were) not to be lavishly expended, and sheep were not to be killed except in some dire emergency. Kangaroo were plentiful... good to eat, and a dog who was fast enough to kill them, saved mutton, flour, (gun) powder and shot. A good Kangaroo Dog, therefore, was often a perfect godsend to a struggling squatter[4]'.

The Kangaroo Dog as a Pure Breed

Kangaroo Dogs - Modern PaintingKangaroo Dogs - Modern Painting

Descriptions of Kangaroo Dogs are as few and far between as early drawings. With no Breed Standard ever written, no Stud Book records, no photographs and precious few paintings, we have to rely on early writings. The first dog show recorded in New Zealand was in 1882. This was the Canterbury Dog Club held under the auspices of the Papanui Coursing Club[5]. So the following early description is assumed to have been written during the 1850's. It reads:

'They were big, bony dogs with light shaggy coats, their colours ranging from whitish fawn to brindle iron-grey and black. They were imported from Australia to New Zealand to kill the wild dogs which had become a menace to run holders and their sheep. They were declared to be as game Bulldogs, fierce as tiger cats and match any kangaroo that leapt over the plains. They were also one of the few canine species that would kill a bitch[5]'.

In England in 1864 the then Prince of Wales exhibited a 'Kangaroo Hound' at the 2nd International Show in London. At that time in UK, the following description had been written, presumably by the Kennel Club (UK): "Height 28 inches, Weight 65 - 80 pounds, Colour black, black-and-tan, tan-and-white, brindle and pied. Coat short and harsh. Body well-muscled, tucked-up and roomy; tail long and low[9]". Meanwhile also in 1864, at the first Dog Show held on the Australian mainland, 5 Kangaroo (Rough) and 13 Kangaroo (Smooth) were entered[11]. But we could not find any published judging criteria. So Kangaroo Dogs alias Kangaroo Hounds were clearly a type of dog bred purely for function, rather than a Pure Breed.

The respected Australian author Walter Beilby wrote in his 1897 book,'The Dog in Australasia':

Kangaroo Dogs Hunting c 1856Kangaroo Dogs Hunting c 1856

'For the information of those outside our colonies, and perhaps a few in it whose lives have been spent in the cities, I may say that the name kangaroo dog is applied to any large mongrel which can catch or assist in running down kangaroos. In the early days when these indigenous animals were plentiful - in fact, pests - all sorts of dogs were bred for the purpose of destroying them, the cross chiefly used being that of a Deerhound and Greyhound[7].'

Beilby adds that by 1878 when Kangaroo Dogs were entered in Australian Dog Shows, they were

'sometimes adjudicated upon by (so-called) English judges who have never seen a kangaroo extended out of a "gentle hop' in the Zoological Gardens[7a]'.

In the absence of an Australian Stud Book, over the next 100 years sadly the Kangaroo Dog gradually disappeared. This was because his job had became redundant. But simultaneously with his decline the Sport of Coursing evolved, mainly for the entertainment of wealthy land owners. So Coursing Clubs became the guardians of Greyhounds[10], presumably also keeping their Stud Books which preceded any Australian ones. Please follow this link: Australia's 150 Years of Dog Registration.

The Sport of Coursing

Greyhounds with SlipperGreyhounds with Slipper

The Sport of Coursing had its beginnings 1850's and 1860's when two Kangaroo dogs were coursed against one another using a wallaby as the lure[3]. The first Meeting to formalize this sport was held in Naracoorte in South Australia in 1868[1a]. By 1873 hare to be used as lures had been imported into Barwon Park in Geelong, Victoria by the same Mr. Austin who introduced rabbits for the same purpose[3a]. The hunter would be mounted on a horse and the hunt would take place in open country.

As this attracted more and more spectators, the sport of Coursing evolved. Then Greyhounds were released into an enclosed area rather than riding around in open fields. Rules and Administration grew with the sport.

Greyhounds being slippedGreyhounds being slipped

Coursing consisted of two dogs at a time competing in a series of heats. The dogs wore special collars called 'Slips', allowing allowed them to be released at a moment's notice. So the man who released the dogs was called a 'Slipper'. He would run around behind the Greyhounds and release them at the appropriate moment. The winner was the first dog of the pair to catch the prey. Competitions with several dogs consisted of a series of heats in an elimination process consistent with whatever Rules were in place at that time.

From Coursing to Greyhound Racing

Early Greyhound RacingEarly Greyhound Racing

As the number of spectators further increased, the area in which the dogs were released became an enclosed circular course. This allowed several Greyhounds to race at the same time. So we have the spectator Sport of Greyhound Racing we know today with its purpose built tracks and appropriate facilities for both the dogs and the spectators.

Two Greyhounds CoursingTwo Greyhounds Coursing

But as the Australian conditions were so much harsher than the green English countryside, many famous English racing Greyhounds that were imported here to race, suffered[1b]. So mainly with the stronger Australian bred Greyhounds descended from Kangaroo Dogs, the sport prospered. Coursing or Racing Clubs were set up across the country. By the late 1800's, racing Greyhounds was ranked Australia's third fastest growing sport behind horse racing and cricket[1c].

Scotsman Henry Belfrage Nimmo was one of the Greyhound Coursing enthusiasts who arrived in the Western District of Victoria around 1862[6]. He brought his passion with him and became a founding member of the Camperdown Coursing Club. The tasty meals Coursing also provided is obvious by the following which he wrote late in his life, 'Old Bell' being his favourite Greyhound:

Henry Nimmo with 'Old Bell'Henry Nimmo with 'Old Bell'

Though eighty-two, and time is fleeting,
I fain* to see another meeting (* means 'eager' or 'willing')
Of coursers true
In friendly rivalry competing
For ribbons blue.
You wonder how that sleek, plump hare
In conflict with 'Old Bell' would fare?

... Next day there'd be hare soup to spare...

1928 Greyhound Coursing Cup 1928 Greyhound Coursing Cup

Greyhound Racing

Once the mechanical lure was introduced in 1927, most major centres across Australia had Clubs and Greyhound Racing Tracks as evidenced by the solid silver Rose Bowl pictured which was competed for one of these Tracks, at Werribee, Victoria in 1928.

This beautiful Rose Bowl in its neglected state (top photo) came into my hands by a chance conversation with a person who was moving house. After contacting Neil Brown from AGRA (Australian Greyhound Racing Association), the Cup was collected and meticulously restored (lower photo). I understand it is now on display at the Werribee Mansion where it belongs. This beautiful Rose Bowl represents the historical significance of the growth of the Sport of Coursing which developed into the Greyhound Racing industry we know in Australia today.

References and Further Reading

Published in Dog News Australia (Top Dog Media Pty Ltd Austral NSW) Issue 8, 2015 Page 10, also

  • "An image of a Kangaroo Dog' Published in Dog News Australia (Top Dog Media Pty Ltd Austral NSW) Issue 6 June 2018, Page 10

[1] Anne Rolins, "All About the Greyhound" Published 1982 by Rigby Publishers, Adelaide ISBN 0 7270 1757 8. Chapter 2 'The History of Coursing' Page 19

[1a,b] ibid. Chapter 2 'The History of Coursing' Page 19

[1c] ibid. Chapter 2 'The History of Coursing' Page 21

[2] First Fleet Fellowship Inc "List of Provisions and Livestock"

[3,3a] M.G.Agostini, "The Greyhound in Australia" Published 1969 by F.W.Cheshire Publishing Pty Ltd, Sydney National Library of Australia Registry Number AUS 69-2771 Chapter 1 History Pages 3-4

[4] Vero Shaw B.A, in 'the Illustrated Book of the Dog' (Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co, London, Paris & New York) 1881 Chapter  LXIX  Australian Dogs, 'The Kangaroo Dog' Page 515

[5] Miriam McGregor Redwood Published in "A Dog's Life" New Zealand Re-Printed in 'Dogsbody, The Story of the New Zealand Kennel Club' by Stewart Lusk Published by the New Zealand Kennel Club Private Bog Porirua 1983 Foundation of the Kennel Club Page 4


[7] W. Beilby 'The Dog in Australasia' published George Robertson & Company in 1897 Chapter on 'The Kangaroo Dog' Page 430

[7a] Ibid.,Chapter on 'The Kangaroo Dog' Page 431

[8] Steven Miller, 'Dogs in Australian Art' Published by Wakefield Press, Adelaide (2012) ISBN 10:1743050178,  Page 146

[9] Clifford Hubbard, 'The Observer's Book of Dogs' Published by Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd, London England 1963 Page 177

[10] C. S. Turner, 'Tyzack's Annual' Compiled by T. W.Tyzack and C.S.Turner  Published by the Victorian Poultry and Kennel Club 1912 Printed by Bellamine Bros. Printers, 66-70 Flinders Lane Melbourne, Introduction Page 5.

[11] Catalogue of the First Exhibition of Sporting & Other Dogs, Thursday & Friday April 7 & 8, 1864 promoted by the Council of the Acclimatisation Society, printed in Melbourne by Mason & Firth, Printers, Flinders Lane West Page 7

[12] Robert Kaleski, 'Kangaroo Dogs' Wild Dogs Working Dogs, Pedigrees and Pets, Edited by Jack Pollard 'Dogs Generally Page 1.