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Whippet Good

Pictures & article courtesy of Herald Sun, Melbourne

They’ve thieved for gypsies, raced for a living and put dinner on our tables

in the Depression. Now they’re making a comeback in Victoria. Bob Hart explains the attraction of the icon of the English working-class, the whippet. WHIPPETS attracted the attention of Britain’s roving bands of gypsies, who quickly saw the possibilities. They called them ‘‘pocket greyhounds’’, carried them in poaching pockets under their overcoats, and made dishonest dogs of them.

Gypsies taught whippets to pull down and retrieve live game—rabbits, hares and pheasant—from grand estates. Gamekeepers, however, would shoot the dogs whenever they saw them. So the gypsies responded by developing a line of black whippets they would release just on dusk; these were almost impossible to see, let alone shoot. Legend has it that the establishment then had black whippets banned from the show ring in an attempt to breed them out of existence. Whippet Good ArticleThey failed, of course. And these days, solid black whippets have a special, racy appeal because of their shady past. Once you have owned a whippet—and, yes, I confess to being the owner of a black whippet called Bart (right)— you are unlikely to switch to any dog a whippeteer would regard, snootily, as ‘‘a lesser breed’’.

WHIPPETS are smallish, quiet, sweet-natured dogs that run like the wind. Only faster. And for those and other reasons, their popularity is increasing at a cracking pace in Victoria. The short-haired speed machines come in pretty much any colour — fawn, tan, brindle, white, black, blue and any combination thereof. There are no rules. They are easily house-trained, impeccably clean and almost devoid of doggy odours. They are dogs, some would say, for people who don’t really want a dog.

Whippets, unlike some of their owners, are known for their athletic ability. And yet they are indoor dogs — perfectly happy curled up on a couch or, in the winter months, under a doona. And they love kids. They are neither fragile nor delicate, though they should be kitted out with a warm coat for winter walks.

Whippets can also demonstrate speed and agility that will often save their bacon: few breeds can match their ability to turn on a 10c piece and accelerate quickly to about 60km/h — a speed that will keep them well clear of the jaws of a rogue pitbull or an illtempered rottweiler. But though whippets are now more popular than they have been since between the world wars, their numbers still fall well short of the most popular dog breeds — a circumstance the Whippet Association of Victoria, curiously, hopes will continue.

As the association’s secretary Rae Mitchelson explains, growth in a breed tends to come through unregistered ‘‘backyard’’ breeders disinclined to explain the special needs of whippets to those prepared to write a cheque — usually about $700 — for a pup. These dogs, sadly, all too often find their way into the whippet rescue system operated by the association.

‘‘Whippets are a gentle and sensitive breed without a nasty streak in their bodies,’’ Mitchelson says. ‘‘But that does not mean they are suitable for everyone. They are not, for example, for anyone who wants a puppy to chuck in the back yard and leave to train itself. ‘‘Whippets love companionship: if you leave one outside in a lonely back yard, it will look for a way to escape and try to find a better place to live. ‘‘Also, whippets are not suitable for boisterous or wild families. ‘‘Too much rough and tumble and, again, a whippet will set off in search of somewhere quieter.’’ Whippets are of moderate intelligence, easily trained to do most things, but are hopeless in traffic. Most have the road sense of a blind koala. Almost. They are prized in the bush for their rabbit-hunting skills — something that allowed them to earn their keep during the Depression years in Australia when a whippet could keep ‘‘burrowing mutton’’ on the table of a family in dire circumstances. But it is as city dogs with a recreational twist that the breed is now enjoying a resurgence. Despite their modest proportions — an adult whippet can weigh from 10kg to almost 20kg — and charming dispositions, whippets are not toys.

Whippet racing is popular in Victoria: the fact that owners can enjoy a day out —in Healesville in the Yarra Valley, say, where our photographer caught up with a group of Victorian whippeteers — is a bonus to whippet ownership. On some courses, such as Tooradin, the whippets are started in boxes, like greyhounds. But on others, such as the scenic Healesville track, they are ‘‘slipped’’ by their owners to chase a lure over distances from 150m.

These days, whippet racing is purely a social activity in Victoria. But this has not always been the case. Whippets were hugely popular in Victoria in the 1920s and ’30s as competitive track dogs. Professional whippet racing, however — which once involved punters, bookies and, inevitably, dubious tactics — ended with the start of World War II and has never been revived. THE breed is not ancient, like greyhounds and the tiny italian greyhounds, as some people believe. The fact that italian greyhounds, often mistaken for whippets but smaller and more delicate, appear in paintings dating to Roman times is responsible for some of the confusion. Whippets emerged as a distinct breed late in the 19th century in the UK. The miners in England’s northeast bred them — from greyhounds, italian greyhounds and English bedlington terriers — as racing dogs: unlike the greyhounds owned and raced by the aristocracy, whippets were cheap to feed and easily accommodated in miners’ tiny cottages. That was how the legend of the English working man with his cloth cap and whippets began: there was a time when whippet racing was said to be a more popular sport in England than soccer. And given the way the Poms play soccer these days, those times could easily return. Pictures Mike Keating

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