Raising a Banner
In the competition obedience world, whippets are what is referred to as a “nontraditional breed.” This is a nice way of saying that, if you want to go anywhere in the obedience ring, you don’t get a whippet. You get a “traditional breed,” like a sheltie, or a golden, or a border collie, or a German shepherd. In other words, a breed that is specifically designed to work closely with people, one that has great trainability, eager response, and high drive.
Whippets are basically none of those things. They are an interesting combination of independence, sensitivity, and always-ready-to-run. It’s not to say they can’t learn, or that they don’t care about pleasing their people. But they are not as hard-wired to do so as those familiar traditionals usually are.
So, as a person whose first love in the arena of doggy sports is obedience, the obvious question is: Why do I have a whippet?
The easy answer is that I just like them. I have loved sighthounds for most of my life. Greyhounds, salukis, Afghans, deerhounds… All those lean, long-legged, hunting breeds have always drawn me. As a shy and unhappy teenager growing up in southern California, I longed to rescue a retired racing greyhound from the adoption center near our home. The answer from my frazzled parents was always a fervent “no!” But every once in a while, my dad would get tired of hearing me whine about it, and he would drive us up into the San Gabriel Mountains to visit the available dogs. Standing in their spacious paddocks, with the sleek, majestic hounds striding around me, are some of my only happy memories from that troubled time.
Decades later, I read more about whippets (essentially the smaller version of the greyhound), and discovered that they are considered to be the most reliable of the sighthound breeds when interacting with small animals. Because I live with multiple cats, smaller dogs, and rabbits, and because I still wished for a sighthound someday, whippets bounded a few pegs higher on my most-wanted list.
So that was supposed to be the easy answer! But there may be a deeper explanation. The possibility does exist that I just might enjoy a good challenge.
When Banner finally joined the family three years ago, I was committed to preparing him for the competitive obedience ring. I didn’t know how far we would actually get, but I was absolutely going to give it a try.
However, that was three years ago. There have been a few roadblocks since then. Covid was, of course, the biggest one. The shutdown kept us from training, kept us from showing, and kept me from dreaming.
And besides that, working with Banner has been a learning curve, for me more than for him. I’ve discovered that whippets are just plain different. They are not like other dogs. They think differently and react differently, and demand a trainer with a soft hand and a determined heart.
They require very good treats. They are easily startled and easily distracted. They do not have the “drive” or the “work ethic” of more typical working breeds. They get discouraged easily, and they get bored easily.
With Banner, I keep our training sessions short, sweet, positive, and packed with high-value treats. There is very little repetition, a lot of cheerleading, and small but solid steps from one skill to another. I don’t ask for much at one time, but when I do ask, I make sure he’s ready, and I expect him to follow through and try for me.
So that’s what I’m hoping for this weekend. It’s his first obedience trial ever. Banner is entered in the Beginner Novice class, the easiest and most basic obedience class you can choose. We’ll be at the Lawrence dog show, both Saturday and Sunday, and I will be a nervous wreck! He, on the other hand, will either be all over the place and totally flaky, or else he’ll be wearing his intense and focused game face where he works like a machine and can’t put a foot wrong. There really isn’t much in between.
I’ve decided that, of all my dogs, Banner is the one who will make me a good trainer. I am asking a lot of him, and he’s asking quite a lot of me, too. And if I can’t figure things out, then I probably wasn’t good enough for him anyway. It wouldn’t be the other way around.
So wish us luck, everybody! We’re off and running! Here comes the whippet!