Many years ago, when a friend got a Whippet, I set up a challenge to myself. I planned an article for my column in the AKC Gazette called “How to Train a Whippet.” The thing is, I had never been asked to train a Whippet. Was this a problem? I wasn’t sure.
Of course I started by reading and re-reading the breed standard, the blueprint for making the dog. And then I interviewed as many Whippet people as I could. I backed up and thought about not only the breed, but the group the breed was in. And then I studied and thought about the body of the Whippet, because the body of the dog will give you an enormous amount of information about who inhabits such a body, about potential abilities, likes, dislikes. And then I read the breed standard again. And again.
I did a lot of my interviews at Westminster. Because it is a benched show, I had access to nearly everyone who was showing a Whippet. And before you jump down my throat, as some of you are already dying to do, if you know how to interview, you can get the answers you need. Period. It didn’t matter that some of the people I spoke with did not live with a Whippet. It didn’t matter that some of them only trained their Whippet for the show ring. What did matter – good to know if you are looking for a new breed for yourself – is that I first asked “What are the (insert any number) best things about the Whippet?” and then let them talk for as long as they wanted to. And then I asked, “What characteristics of the Whippet might be difficult for an inexperienced owner?” And, happily, because I’d let people tell me all the things that were wonderful about the breed, they were very forthcoming about what might be a problem. During one of the interviews, I had a Whippet asleep on my lap. And that also told me a lot of what I needed to know.
Does breed matter? Indeed it does. Training a Whippet is not like training a Beagle or a Mastiff or a Border collie. Training any dog means first understanding who he is and who he isn’t, how he moves, how he plays, whether or not he hunts and if so how, what he was bred for in the first place, what he feels like to your fingers, how sensitive he is, how he feels about his person. Why just yesterday, a very nice man walking along West 23rd Street in New York City, where I was walking with my Border collie, Sky, asked if he were a Border collie. ”Yes, she is,” I replied. ”I can see,” he said. ”She’s herding.” I smiled and continued on my way, not in the mood to tell a stranger something he probably didn’t want to know in the first place. Sky was not herding me or anyone else. In fact, what I saw as we headed home was not “eye” but tail as she used her sweet pointy nose as a wedge to cut through the humanity out walking on a beautiful day and make room for us to walk at her preferred speed and not just meander with the crowd.
So the lesson is, don’t stop at the most obvious fact you learn – Border collies herd. Instead, dig deep. I wrote my column and got more positive response than I expected, including a letter from a Whippet breeder in Florida who wrote, “Dear Carol, You must have been hiding in the bushes while I was training my dogs…”
Breed matters. Studying the blueprint, the history, the body, then carefully observing the individual, always prepared to be surprised as you find out more and more about your best friend, your student, your sidekick. The secret to training many, many breeds, as professionals are asked to do, is to do your homework and then allow the dog to fill in the blanks. After you learn all you can, approach the dog empty, being open to what he can teach you before you jump in and start to teach him. Individuals differ, but so do breeds, and that’s important to know before you begin to train.
I still have never trained a Whippet, but I feel the research I did and the observations I made would make a good beginning for a friendship that would lead to mutual education. The better you understand your student, the deeper the friendship will be and the more he will be able to learn and to teach you back. But don’t forget that generous praise…