History of the Whippet

By Bo Bengtson
AWC Historian & Archivist
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Please note: This article is largely derived from “The Whippet – An Authoritative Look at the Breed’s Past, Present and Future,” by Bo Bengtson, published by Kennel Club Classics, 2010. 

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A Breed is Born

Detail from the 1400s Unicorn tapestry, Cluny museum, Paris.

There have been dogs that looked exactly like Whippets for many hundreds, even thousands, of years. Small, smooth-coated, Greyhound-type dogs are pictured with great frequency from antiquity up through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in both paintings and sculpture. However, they were not generally called Whippets until in the mid-1800s, when the modern concept of “pure breeds” was established. The first dog show was held in 1859, and with the foundation of the Kennel Club in England in 1873 and the American Kennel Club in 1884, the dog sport as we know it today began to take form.

The early Whippet-like dogs had been used for hunting hares in the open field, a terrain where a dog’s speed and ability to catch its prey were the primary considerations, as opposed to tracking or following a scent. Consequently, these dogs and the larger breeds that are used for open field hunting (coursing) by speed and sight are called Sighthounds: the group consists of Greyhounds, Salukis, Borzoi, Scottish Deerhounds, Irish Wolfhounds, and several other breeds. (The much smaller and more fine-boned Italian Greyhound was developed primarily as a decorative pet.) The gracefulness and aesthetic appeal of the coursing hounds were no doubt additional reasons these dogs are so often depicted in aristocratic settings. However, until the beginning of dog shows and recorded pedigrees there was no clear separation between the breeds, and crosses between e.g. Italian Greyhounds and Whippets are known to have occurred well into the 1900’s.

Italian Greyhounds or Whippets? by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (French rococo painter, 1686-1755).

Huntsman with a Whippet, by Edward Haytley (English, active ca. 1740-1764).

The common notion that the Whippet is a relatively new creation is due to the fact that, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the small Whippet-like dogs in Great Britain came into the hands of people who could not afford to keep greyhounds. The Whippet became known as “the poor man’s greyhound” and was frequently used for poaching and rabbit coursing to fill the pot. Later the Whippet’s instinct to follow a fluttering rabbit-skin was used as the basis for flat-out “rag racing,” the forerunner of today's mechanized track racing and lure coursing. The racing Whippets of England’s north counties became so popular that this “new” breed suddenly began to attract nationwide attention.

Miners racing their Whippets in the north of England, 1912.

Early Whippets were sometimes crossed with terriers, which were supposed to give the breed more toughness and fighting spirit. This also provided the rough coats sometimes seen in Whippets well into the twentieth century. Wire-haired Whippets have always been regarded as crossbreds in Britain, but they were occasionally shown in America as late as the 1920s, but are now extinct in registered stock. The FCI, which governs canine affairs on the European continent, officially listed wire-haired Whippets as a separate breed until the late 1960s. In recent decades, American breeders have produced several strains of longhaired mid-sized sighthounds, variably called Silken Windhounds, Windsprites or International Longhaired Whippets, by crossing Whippets with coated breeds such as Shetland Sheepdogs and Borzoi. These dogs have so far not become recognized by either the AKC or the FCI, however, and a purebred Whippet is always smooth-coated.

Origin of the word “Whippet”

Which breed? The bitch and her puppies appear to be Whippet sized,
based on plants and butterfly. Micromosaic, very rare, ca. 1820.
Photo courtesy of Hamshere Gallery.

Although the word Whippet (or corruptions of it) was recorded as early as in the sixteenth century, it did not necessarily mean then what it does today. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines a Whippet in 1550 as “a lively young woman; a light wench.” Later the word came to be used for a “nimble, diminutive or puny person,” by 1610 for “a small breed of dog,” and as late as 1841, the Whippet was described as “a dog bred betwixt a greyhound and a spaniel.” Around the same time, on the European continent a school of artists known as les animaliers were sculpting exquisite bronzes of Whippets and Italian greyhounds. They clearly defined the differences between the breeds, which are so much more varied and subtle than mere size, although it is true that one particular bronze by Pierre Jules Mêne (1810-1877) has been labelled alternately as a Whippet and as an Italian greyhound in the art-sales catalogues. Mêne was one of the most talented animalier sculptors; his best work now sells for $10,000-15,000.

All this changed with the appearance around the turn of the twentieth century of the first serious British Whippet breeders. The first known mention of Whippets as show dogs dates from 1876: according to C. H. Lane's now rare Dog Shows and Doggy People, the annual exhibition of “Sporting and Other Dogs” in Woodside Park, Darlington, that year featured “classes including Whippets, Non-Sporting Puppies, etc.” apart from the usual gundog classes. This may not have been the only — or even the first — show where Whippets were classified: the same year the famous dog writer Stonehenge mentions when writing about Italian greyhounds that some of these weighed as much as 10 or 12 lbs and would “these days be classed as Whippets,” implying that the latter breed must already have been fairly well established on the show scene by then.

Unsigned late 19th century oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of Hamshere Gallery.

Breed Recognition

It took nearly fourteen more years for the Whippet to become recognized by the Kennel Club in England. At its meeting on April 16, 1890, the club decided henceforth to accept Whippets into its stud book and to offer classes for them at the shows. The brown-and-white Zuber, born in 1889, became the breed’s first champion, probably in 1896, although the records are not conclusive. A century and a quarter later, Zuber is still at the back of every Whippet pedigree in the world.

The first two whippet champions, Zuber (left) and his son Enterprise. Oil painting by William Eddowes Turner, 1892.

In 1899, a group headed by the Duchess of Newcastle asked the Kennel Club to acknowledge the newly formed Whippet Club as the official breed organization. The application was granted, with the duchess as the club’s first president. The emergence of a breed club had a stimulating effect on the interest in Whippets in their native country. The number of Whippets listed in the KC Stud Book doubled within a year, dwindled to a mere trickle during World War I and then rose again, increasing through the 1950s and ‘60s until the Whippet in the early 2000s was among the most popular among all breeds in Great Britain, usually with over 3,000 registrations per year.

Ad for the Manorley whippets in England, 1902.

The English Whippets that are carried the breed forward include Zuber’s grandson Ch. Shirley Wanderer (1902) and Wanderer's most famous son Ch. Manorley Maori. A little later came Ch. Willesbeaux (who was exported to the U.S.), his great rival Ch. Watford Brilliant, and two dogs from an otherwise unremarkable kennel that had great influence on American Whippets. Ch. Towyside Tatters was selected as the focus for a tight breeding program at Tiptree, which affected Whippet development in both England and America profoundly after World War II, and Ch. Towyside Teasle was exported to America, where she produced the foundation bitch for the great Meander kennel.

Up through the 1960s and ‘70s, a stream of English champions made headlines in America. For the future, the most influential British kennel of that era was unquestionably Laguna, which was founded on Tiptree stock. Laguna dogs are behind hundreds of champions in England, America and the rest of the world, mostly through its great stud dog Ch. Laguna Ligonier. From the 1980s onwards, the British influence in the U.S. has diminished considerably, while instead American Whippets — latter-day descendants of the great English imports — have been shipped overseas and won champion titles in most countries, including Great Britain.

The first American Whippets

Despite Britain's early lead in purebred dogs, the Whippet was in fact officially recognized earlier in the U.S. than in England. In the AKC Stud Book, Volume V, 1888, a Whippet is listed under the heading “Miscellaneous” — a white dog with “brown and yellow” markings registered as Jack Dempsey. In 1893, a bitch called Boston Model became the first known Whippet winner by being placed first in a mixed class for various breeds at the annual American Pet Dog Club show in New York. As early as in 1896 at least six Whippets were shown at what was already the most important dog event in America, the Westminster Kennel Club show in New York. This is now the second-oldest sporting event in America, older even than Crufts and all but a very few dogs shows in Europe. Westminster receives tremendous publicity each year when it is held in New York in early February.

The first real Whippet kennel in America, Bay View, appeared in 1903, and the following year the light fawn Bay View Pride, a male by unregistered parents, born in March 1902, became the breed’s first American champion. The Bay View kennel, in Rhode Island, didn’t last long, however, and after its demise, practically the only active breeder for several years seems to have been the Lansdowne Kennels outside Philadelphia.

It is clear, however, that the Whippet established itself as a contender in all-breed competition, both on the East and West coasts, as soon as the Best in Show award was first offered on a regular basis in 1924. Results from that first “official” year are not complete, but the previously mentioned Ch. Towyside Teasle appears to have become the breed’s first Best in Show winner in America by taking the top spot at the Rochester show in New York of May 15, 1924. Just a few months later, on December 13 the same year, the black English racing bitch Sidlaw Sloe Eyes of Arroyo won Best in Show at the Los Angeles Kennel Club show over an entry of 1,000 dogs. The Arroyo kennels in Pasadena provided the breed with some glamour through its Hollywood connections, organized successful race meets, and employed as a kennel manager James A. Young, whose daughter Christine Cormany remained active in Whippets until her death in the 1990s.

Roughly speaking, Whippet history in the United States was dominated by four great kennels during most of the 1900s. From the 1920s or ‘30s up through much of the 1960s there were the Meander and Mardormere kennels, both large establishments that produced scores of champions and competed fiercely with each other for the top spots. Meander, owned by the Misses Shearer of Virginia, established what came to be known as an “American type” of Whippets, usually longer-legged and more streamlined than their imported forebears, while the Mardormere kennel, owned by Mrs. Margaret Anderson of Long Island, produced a smaller, curvier, more English type. The Meander dogs won primarily at American Whippet Club specialty shows, while Mardormere took most of its big wins at all-breed shows. In 1958, the Mardormere import Ch. Laguna Lucky Lad became the first Whippet to win the Hound group at Westminster.

Ch. Mica of Meander, a legendary American whippet from the 1930s.

Stoney Meadows and Pennyworth

After Meander and Mardormere followed two great breeders, both of whom started in the 1940s and are generally considered to have followed in their predecessor’s tracks. Each was responsible for at least a hundred AKC Whippet champions, and both remained Whippet lovers until their deaths in the early 2000s. The Stoney Meadows kennel of Doris Wear was established in Maryland on a Meander foundation, while the Pennyworth breeding program started in New Hampshire with the acquisition of some dogs from Mardormere. Although these two great kennels cooperated far better than their predecessors had done, it’s a stated fact that each whenever possible preferred the type of Whippet they had started with. 

The parallels even include an English import that won the Hound group for Pennyworth at Westminster — Eng. & Am. Ch. Courtenay Fleetfoot at Pennyworth, who in fact managed to do so twice, in 1964 and 1965, with Best in Show there in 1965. He is still the only Whippet to have gone all the way to the top at this legendary show, and in 1965 also became the only Whippet ever to have been crowned the year’s Top Dog of All Breeds.

A host of new breeders and exhibitors have swelled the rank of winners, as Stoney Meadows and Pennyworth wound down their activities late in the 1900s. Mrs. Newcombe’s daughter, Claire Newcombe, remains an active judge and officiated at the AWC national specialty in 2007, the year after her mother’s death.

Following the Westminster tradition of winning Whippets, Ch. Sporting Fields Clansman and Ch. Starline’s Chanel both won the Hound group there, in 1981 and 2010 respectively. They also hold the record for the largest number of AKC all-breed Best in Shows won by a Whippet male and female, respectively, with around 60 and 85 wins, respectively.

The number of Whippets registered by the American Kennel Club fluctuates annually around 1,500 — considerably fewer than in England and an even smaller percentage of the total number of all dogs registered. The growth was much more recent in the United States, however; in the 1930s and 1940s only a few dozen Whippets were registered each year, and as late as 1960 the total was still under 200 a year — about one-tenth of the figure in Britain at that time. By the mid-1960s, the annual figure reached 500 and a few years later 1,000, about 1,500 by the mid-1980s. AKC no longer releases total registration figures, but their data indicate that the Whippet is somewhere on the upper half of the 175 breeds registered. It has gained some ground over the past decade, advancing from 66th place among all breeds in the late 1990s to 56nd place in 2012.

Whippet Specialties

The first specialty show for Whippets held in America, hosted by the short-lived Whippet Club of America, was held in Westbury, Long Island on October 12, 1923, attracting 59 Whippets, which made a hundred entries in 28 classes. Judge J. Z. Batten awarded Best of Breed to Ch. Nomad Nancy of Oxon, imported from England and the founder of a dynasty of winners in the 1930s. The club also hosted a well-supported National Whippet Derby in Washington, D.C. in 1927, but had ceased to exist by the end of the 1920s. 

The present parent club, the American Whippet Club, was founded in 1930 and started holding specialty shows in 1931. At first, the specialties were held only in the East and on an irregular basis, but from 1947, there were annual shows and since 1954, an additional specialty in California was added. The first AWC Midwest specialty came just a year later, and for the next 30 years the club established a pattern of three AWC specialties per year: one in the East, one in the Midwest and one in California. A Southern AWC specialty was added in 1985, and in 2002, two more events were added in the AWC North Central and South Central regional specialties. With an increasing number of independent clubs hosting specialty shows there are now usually 15 or 16 Whippet specialties each year in the United States. 

The first AWC specialty, on June 7, 1931, saw BOB going to Ch. Mica of Meander. The shows in the 1930s and ‘40s seldom attracted more than a couple of dozen entries, but the 1952 specialty attracted a record entry of 60 Whippets, with Best of Breed going Ch. Garden City’s Sleepy Mouse. After that, entries dropped off again and did not reach higher figures until the early 1960s.

The first AWC show with more than a hundred Whippets was held at Santa Barbara KC in 1969, with Ch. Hollypark Honey Bee winning Best of Breed. At the same show in 1977, Whippets for the first time surpassed the 175-dog limit that AKC imposed as the maximum for one single judge; Ch. Gold Dust’s Twenty-Four Karat won Best of Breed. In 1981, the 200 figure was first reached at the AWC Midwest specialty, with BOB going to Ch. Delacreme Avant Garde. In 1985, the first AWC Southern specialty was held with the Classic City Kennel Club in Georgia, attracting 123 entries with the top spot going to Ch. Whippletrees Icy Hot.

The first AWC National Specialty took place in Columbus, Ohio on April 18, 1987, with what was then an all-time world record of 340 Whippets entered, and BOB under judge Mrs. W.P. Wear over a field of 69 champions going to the Winners Bitch, Morshor’s Majestic Ball O’Fire, later a champion. It was determined that the National Specialty would become an annual fixture, always held in April but moving around the country from one region to another each year. Later shows have offered so many activities that the national specialty now takes nearly a full week. On occasion, the number of Whippets entered has exceeded 600, often with over 100 champions competing for Best of Breed, and the number of entries, including also the field activities, approaching 2,000. It is now by far the biggest Whippet event in the world.

Note

This article is largely derived from “The Whippet – An Authoritative Look at the Breed’s Past, Present and Future,” by Bo Bengtson, published by Kennel Club Classics, 2010. 

 

 

 

 

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