The whippet looks like a miniature greyhound. It is a sight hound, meaning it hunts by sight rather than by smell. Other sight hounds include the borzoi, Afghan hound and saluki. Although much heavier in size and appearance, the Scottish deerhound or Irish wolfhound are also sight hounds.
While possessing great steed and strength, the whippet is also the epitome of grace and refinement. As a housedog, he is amenable and gentle and quite happy to be a lapdog. He needs to have company, either human or canine. He is affectionate and playful though not always particularly obedient. He needs to be socialised as a puppy to other small, fluffy pets. Being genetically wired to chase anything that runs from him, he should never be walked without a lead. The whippet is a family dog and good with children. He can be aloof with strangers but is normally too friendly to be a watchdog although he may announce the arrival of visitors.
The whippet had its origins in England. It is not a particularly old breed. Many miners in the industrial areas of England and Wales owned a whippet.
When bear- and bull-baiting became unfashionable, snap-dog coursing took its place. After placing a number of rabbits in an enclosure, dogs were set loose to 'snap up' the rabbits, the winner being the one who killed the most. To give stamina and strength to the dogs, terrier blood was introduced. These dogs were known as snap-dogs. In the 1860s when rag-racing took over from snap-dog events and became a popular Sunday pastime, the whippet's popularity increased.
Speed was the important factor in rag-racing and the infusion of terrier blood ceased. Large cash prizes as well as opportunities for betting made rag racing very popular social occasions. Families took great pride in their dogs. The possibility of earning a little extra income ensured that the dogs were in general well treated. Some clubs required pedigrees. In others, dogs were graded by weight or performance. A handicapping system based on weight meant the optimum weight for a racing whippet was 16 to 17 pounds. Rabbit coursing whippets weighed nearer 25 pounds.
A unique method was used to start the dogs in a rag racing event. The owner would run beyond the finishing line waving a piece of rag while a handler held the dog at the starting point.
The dog would be held by the collar and the butt of the tail keeping the hindquarters off the ground. When the signal to start was given the dog was thrown forward (landing on its feet hopefully) and in full stride to race the 200 yards to its owner. Skilled handlers were in high demand by owners.
Wives and children were often co-opted to walk the dogs. These Sunday outings became family occasions in a life of, generally, hard work and tedium. While the whippet has a similar body type to the greyhound, working men could not afford to buy or feed a greyhound and, at one stage, the whippet became known as the 'poor man's race horse'.
English mill operators took the first whippets to the United States and in 1888 the whippet was recognised by the American Kennel Club (AKC). The whippet was given official recognition by the English Kennel Club in 1891.
As already stated, the whippet is like a miniature greyhound. The ideal height at the withers is 19 to 22 inches for dogs and 18 to 21 inches for bitches. The whippet is elegant, balanced and athletic with a very stream-lined appearance. The whippet is the fastest domesticated animal for its weight and can reach speeds of 35 mph.
The expression is intelligent and alert. The skull and muzzle are long and lean and the eyes large and dark. The rose ears have a fine texture and lay against the neck when the dog is relaxed. The nose is dark. It has an arched neck and a broad, firm back leading to muscular and strong hindquarters. The brisket is deep giving plenty of room for heart and lungs. The long tail tapers. The legs are straight and of good substance. The toes are well-knuckled and the feet have thick, tough pads. In action, the whippet covers maximum ground with minimum effort. The strides are long and low, with great freedom of movement.
Like the greyhound, the whippet can be any colour or combination of colours. He has a short, smooth coat and sheds lightly all year round. He has hardly any ‘doggy’ odour and is very clean, grooming himself fastidiously. He is also a very neat and tidy eater and overall is a very low maintenance dog. Such a short coat as the whippet has gives him no insulation against extreme conditions. He is inclined to feel the cold and will be much happier living inside although he needs plenty of regular exercise. Whippets become very attached to their owners. They are easily house-broken and enjoy repetitive play. Lure racing and agility (and playing Frisbee) are ideal pastimes for the whippet. He needs free time off the leash so he can race around madly but this needs to be in a secure area.
The whippet lives for around 12 to 15 years. There is a genetic eye disease which occurs very occasionally and male puppies sometimes have undescended testicles. Due to the lack of body fat, they may be hyper-sensitive to barbiturates which are found in some anaesthetics and chemicals. Occasionally whippets have an arrhythmic heart beat at rest. This is normal for a whippet. The heart will display a normal rhythm when exercising. Whippets are not as prone to hip dysplasia, ear infections and digestive problems as other breeds may be.
In 2007, a mutation in the myostatin was found to be related to their athletic ability. Myostatin is the protein produced in the skeletal muscle. Dogs with one copy of the mutation are generally very fast while those with two copies become very muscly and are known as 'bully whippets'.
Muscular development, a graceful outline and terrific speed are all-important for the whippet. If they don't all these in full measure, they are still affectionate and loving companions.