Wonderful, Whimsical, and… Whiny? Real Talk About Whippet Temperament

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Everyone who knows me is fully aware of my life-long love affair with the Whippet breed. My Zoom (pictured above) will be seven years old in June. He was carefully chosen for his pedigree and type. His breeding combines some of the best of American show lines (Starline, Saxon Shore, and others) with some of the best of British show lines (Courthill, Dumbriton). The reason the pedigree is so precious to me is that my two former Whippets are related closely. My heart and soul dog, Rigby, was a grandson of Ch. Starline’s Reign On, and one of my favorite other Whippets, Julian, was himself purchased from Courthill kennels in the UK. When I found Zoom available as a young puppy, and saw the bloodline, I knew he was mine. I wasn’t thrilled that he is a cream (ee red) with fading pigment, but he was close enough in appearance to a regular (clear sable) fawn and white like Rigby that I went with it. I have no regrets. He is everything I could have wanted in a wonderful show bred Whippet boy. He has all the delightful traits one would expect. He’s beautiful, typey, healthy as a horse including having perfect teeth, whimsical, sweet, gentle, bodily-aware, biddable, off-leash reliable, quiet in the house, clean as can be, driven on hikes and in play, hot for the lure, stable, absolutely bomb-proof about storms and other noises, kind with children and other animals, happy to sleep in until noon, and loyal to a fault. The last trait, that precious loyalty, is one side of a double-edged sword, though. Yes, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Whippets have separation anxiety.

I’ve never quite understood the obsessive need that breeders seem to have to deny this, or blame it on unsuspecting pet owners, which they claim “spoil” the Whippet puppy, which basically means treating it like any normal person treats a companion pet animal. I  had this said to me regarding my first Whippet. Other Whippet people told me that I simply spent too much time with my puppy, and that is why he could not handle being crated or left alone. First of all, I was a full-time student his entire puppy-hood. Also, the behavior started when he was nine weeks old, and I’d had him for fewer than 12 hours. The other two dogs my teen-age self had raised (a Schnauzer and a Basenji) had absolutely no issues at all. Young Rigby would toss himself against the front windows of the house and cry, even if my family members were standing right there. He had eyes only for me from the first day, and that never changed in nearly 17 years together. For the rest of his life, I would struggle to keep a dog that, while perfect in EVERY other way, could not be left at a boarding kennel without becoming sick, could not move to a new home with me without having SA (separation anxiety) symptoms for several weeks or months with every new location, could not be left in a motel or at a friend’s house even for an evening, and could only be crated inside of a vehicle. Luckily, he was such an easy animal otherwise that taking him everywhere I went, or leaving him loose in the house and just dealing with any minor damage done to windows and doors (in attempts to watch for my return or follow me) were solutions my life-style allowed me to work with.

My next Whippets were raised with a concerted effort to prevent genetic SA from being any worse than it needed to be. Indeed, none of them had issues to the level that Rigby did, but it took hard work; hard work that I have not had to do with a single one of the other literally hundreds of other-breed dogs I have had come through my home as personal pets, fosters, or clients. Even with all this work, these other Whippets, including Zoom, all have had some degree of SA that is not present in my Golden Retrievers, Borzoi, or other dogs.

Zoom is not too difficult to live with, by Whippet standards, and how sad is it that I have to phrase it that way? He can be crated, but will whine and cry if I leave the house with him crated. He is not one of those sadly common Whippets who escape from crates, drool all over themselves, howl loudly, or break their teeth biting at the crate door. He can be left loose if I make sure the routine I use before I leave is the one that leaves him most at peace. Leaving him loose also involves being certain no other room-mates or other parties will be opening my door while I am gone, as he is high risk to attempt to barge out and go looking for me. He is perfectly obedient off leash with me, but any command from any person that is not me would fall upon deaf ears. Managing him means I have a lot of needed or planned outings I simply skip, since I have often lived somewhere that a dog whining even softly isn’t an acceptable option (so no crating), and I didn’t have my own house where I could trust no one would be entering or exiting the home while I was away (so no leaving him loose). I have become so used to these restrictions on my life that I don’t even think about it anymore. I refuse to live without all the wonderful traits that having a special heart Whippet brings with it, so I accept this way of life.

Whippets are fiercely loyal, one-man dogs, to the degree of a German Shepherd or a Collie. They do not take easily to finding a new home, and they bond tightly with one member of the household to the exclusion of everyone else in most cases. This is a very important part of why I, and many others, so enjoy the breed. It is also why I’ve never had one that needed a leash, in spite of what one might hear about sighthounds as a whole being unreliable off leash. Good luck getting my Whippet to leave my side! Anyone who wished to do so would have to leash him themselves, and forcefully drag him away from me. Any Whippet owner who has had a professional handler or a friend show his Whippet for him has had the experience of having to hide ring-side to watch, or the Whippet would stare at the owner the entire time and not show properly for the handler.

If all of this is making you wonder why I, or anyone, would still keep this breed, let me once again underline all the things about them that make them so much more pleasant and desirable in some ways than many other breeds. They are so clean, so delightful, so charming, so quiet, so healthy and hardy, so lovely to look at, non-barking, cuddly, gentle, calm, sensible… the list goes on. They are the easiest and most fun to train of all sighthound breeds, and they do very well in running sports where other sighthound breeds can be hit or miss due to often having poor lure drive, a problem hardly any Whippet has. The loyalty and intuitive nature of the Whippet is unmatched. They know the moods of their owners. My best friend jokingly calls my Zoom a “mood Whippet” because one need only glance at Zoom to know what state of mind I am in. He is my shadow, following me about, watching me, worrying over me if I am sad or upset, and celebrating with me when I am joyful. Their quiet nature and clean, tidy appearance makes them welcomed and admired even by those who do not care for dogs, or are generally wary of dogs. They are easy keepers rarely affected by allergies, diet problems, or dental or other health issues (my experience). They do not have a doggy odor, even without regular bathing, and the shedding is minimal. The list goes on.

So, why do most Whippets have at least some degree of separation anxiety, and can a Whippet still be such a wonderful, loyal, one-man dog without the other side of the coin, the SA? There are theories as to why the breed might have a tendency towards SA. One of my own is that the intuitive and sensitive temperament is tied with some level of insecurity. What I find interesting is that both Zoom and my Rigby are/were otherwise incredibly bomb-proof, rivaling service dog caliber Labradors and Golden Retrievers in stability, lack of fear of noises or storms or crowds, and absolute stability in any situation- EXCEPT one where their owner leaves them. Another theory is spelled out in this blog post by Scottie Westfall, who is a canine historian, as well as having spent time with Zoom. As for the question of whether one can have the intuitive and intense loyalty without the SA, my guess is that the answer is no.

I’ve had one Whippet, a race bred dog, who did not have SA. She crated up just fine, and while she was bonded with me and pleased when I came home, she exhibited no stress signs at all when I left the house. She responded to it the same way my Golden Retrievers and Borzoi always have. She would look a bit longing or hopeful, then when she realized she wasn’t coming, she’d shrug it off and go lie down and sleep while I was away. She was a very gentle, calm, sweet house dog, and she was never any trouble. However, she did not have the close bond or devotion of my show-line animals. She also had a rather nervous temperament in all the ways my others do not. She was sensitive to being bathed, handled and groomed. She was some-what wary of violent thunder storms, fire works, shouting children, and busy crowds. Other racing dog owners insist she was an odd-ball for being this touch sensitive and jumpy, and I lack extensive personal experience with other race-bred animals. While they appear to be sweet, happy, driven, and very fun animals, a handful of them do seem weak-nerved in comparison to my stable show-line Whippets, who would never flinch at things like routine grooming and nail trims, big dog show venues, loud noises, or large crowds. The flip side, of course, is that the race-line dogs do not seem to have the rampant or difficult to live with SA issues.

At this point, I am not sure if this trait can be bred out of the Whippet breed, even if we wanted to do so. Certainly, I think removing any animal that exhibits extreme (drooling, teeth breaking, howling) crate or separation anxiety from a breeding program is obviously a good idea. I feel the same about timid or nervous or jumpy or noise sensitive animals. However, if we were to remove all of the Whippet’s sensitive and needy and handler intuitive behavior, would we lose much of the charm of the breed? Would we lose that bodily awareness and sense? What about that intuitive sweetness? This is aside from the fact that so few animals that do not exhibit *any* of these negative traits exist in the breed that it would be impossible without out-crossing. I  have toyed with the possibility of out-crossing Whippets with Silken Windhounds, who have had their SA and other Whippet traits diluted with laid-back Borzoi blood. I do admire the Silken temperament a great deal. Of course, anyone familiar with the mainstream dog world knows that this will likely never happen.

All of this is interesting and entertaining to think about, but the real bottom line, for me, is that breeders need to be honest with future owners about Whippet temperament. The breed is not helped, nor is one’s reputation as a breeder, by pretending SA is not a Whippet breed trait. Blaming puppy owners for genetic behavior issues is a poor choice, too. Why not be up front about it, as some breeders are, and help the new owner determine if his life style suits the breed? Why not offer to give tips and advice to help raise a Whippet puppy that will have as few problems as possible with his sensitive and bonded temperament? If we cannot, or even should not, change our beloved breed, can we at least accept him for what he is, and be open with each other and potential owners?

I never want to spend a day or night of my life without a show-bred Whippet boy cuddled up beside me, or happily at my heels. For every moment of irritation, there are a million more moments of pride, joy, friendship, and love that only a Whippet can bring. Let us be honest about all of our dogs, and why we love them.

 

 

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