From Kangaroo Dogs to Greyhounds

Famous Greyhound Racing DogFamous Greyhound Racing Dog

... 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

Kangaroo Dogs c 1900Kangaroo Dogs c 1900

Amazing as it may sound, 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] He must have appreciated their hunting ability. 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. The Greyhounds certainly lived up to expectations, chasing and bringing down kangaroos and wallabies that provided fresh meat for those early arrivals. This must have been welcome after months at sea.


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. So from these early Greyhounds and a conglomeration of other early canine arrivals, a large, strong type of hunting dog weighing up to 80 pounds, called a Kangaroo Dog, was selectively bred.

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

'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[4a]'.

Kangaroo Dogs

Kangaroo Dogs - Modern PaintingKangaroo Dogs - Modern Painting

Descriptions of these dogs vary as much as early drawings. With no photographs, one early description was by Miriam McGregor Redwood Published in "A Dog's Life" New Zealand. It read:

'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]'.

So clearly these were a type of dog bred purely for function. 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]'

But over the next 100 years, the Kangaroo Dog's job would become redundant and this type of dog gradually disappeared. But then the Sport of Coursing began to evolve, mainly for the entertainment of the wealthy land owners.

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 dogs that were imported here to race, suffered[1b]. So mainly with the stronger Australian bred dogs like the 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 XXXII 'The Greyhound' Page 236

[4a] ibid. 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