Published December 9, 2016
When the whippet, a type of sighthound, breaks into a double suspension gallop, it’s breathtaking to behold. It seems to defy gravity. One moment the dog has four legs on the ground—the next, its lean, light body is parallel to the racetrack.
The origins of whippets go back to British greyhounds that were thought to be too small for stag hunting. Since the Middle Ages, the larger greyhounds have always been owned by the nobility. The smaller whippets, because of their size and modest appetite, became the poor man’s racing dog. They kept the children of Welsh farmers warm at night, and were used for poaching and rag racing.
While the Icelandic sheepdog first came to Iceland when Norwegian Vikings colonised the island in the late 9th century, the first whippet is thought to have arrived to Iceland in the mid-1970s, with a British-Icelandic couple.
Perhaps a more familiar sight in the hipper districts of continental cities, the whippet was thought to be an oddity in Reykjavík. Gunnur Sif Sigurgeirsdóttir, the founder of Leifturs Whippet*, the first whippet club in Iceland, says that when the Icelandic veterinarian saw the skinny dog, presumably unfit to survive in harsh Icelandic conditions, he thought the owners should put him out of his misery.
Gunnur got her first whippet when she was living in Norway. “Sighthounds always fascinated me. I thought they were very beautiful and interesting dogs. But I thought greyhounds were too big. We had small children at the time and there was not much room in the car, and then someone said, ‘What about the whippets?’ They were more family size.“
She recalled seeing her first whippet puppy: “My husband [Gunnar] and I saw all these whippets running into the house for feeding. They had big eyes, they were skinny. On the way back to the hotel, my husband said to me, ‘Gunnur, you are not going to fill the house with those creatures, are you?’”
Gunnur bursts out laughing at the memory and points at her dogs: “As you see, against my husband’s wishes, our house is full of whippets.” Right now, including the puppies that will start to move out at eight weeks old, she has six dogs living at home. The most puppies she’s ever had in her house at one time was thirteen.
Breeding is a hobby for Gunnar, who grew up in Sweden surrounded by dogs. “In 12 years, I’ve had 11 litters. I have had puppies from 10 puppies to one.“
She enjoyed it so much that he decided to keep going. The demand for whippets in Iceland, Gunnur explained, is not very big. But people who get one puppy often come back for the second one.
Being the only breeder in Iceland in the early days had its challenges. “When I started,” Gunnur recalls, “I had two bitches and one male dog. I could just not call another breeder and say, “Can I please borrow your stud?” At one point, she imported frozen whippet sperm from Sweden.
Another issue was Iceland’s antiquated dog laws. In 1924, the city of Reykjavík banned keeping dogs as pets, to prevent dogs from passing a type of tapeworm to humans. For a long time, dogs were banned from main streets of Reykjavík. Even today, dogs must be kept on a lead and are banned from public transport. Anyone living in multi-apartment buildings who wishes to get a dog must receive consent from their neighbours. It’s time for these laws and attitudes to change, says Gunnur. “Before, a dog was something you saw on a farm. But things have changed very much since I was a teenager. The kennel club has done an incredible job. And more and more people are now raised up with dogs.”
There are over 100 whippets in Iceland today. Gunnur’s dream is that their number will slowly grow. “After ten or ten years of breeding, I can see my efforts are now getting somewhere. I would like to carry on,” she says.
Leifturs Whippet is planning a club show in April next year, Gunnur says, when the sighthound club will celebrate its seventh anniversary. The plan is to showcase the whippets, the Afghan Hounds, the saluki and Italian whippets before a well-known Swedish judge. “We have invited a Chihuahua club to join us.”
* A “leiftur” is a “flash,” or a “gleam”—a fitting word for the dog well known for its long limbs, light body, keen eyes and speed.