In the past, this breed has also been called the Lightning Rag Dog and the Snap Dog. The present name appears to have originated from the word `whappee, which used to mean ‘a small dog that wapps yaps]’. In the 17th century, the name Whippet was used to describe a ‘little cur’. The Whippet as we know it today was developed in the 19th century as a rabbit-coursing dog.
The Whippet has been described as the Poor Man’s Greyhound’ and although many are now kept as prized and highly valued pets, this rather downbeat description does fit the origin of the breed. In Victorian times, the miners in the north of England could not afford to keep Greyhounds for coursing, so they invented their own miniature version and called it the Whippet after the ‘small dogs’ of earlier days. Detailed records were not kept at the time, but it is believed that the breed was created by either (I) breeding down in size from the Greyhound, mating runts with runts, until the animal’s height had been reduced from roughly 30 to 20 in (75 to 50 cm); (2) crossing Greyhounds with Spaniels; or (3) crossing Italian Greyhounds with Terriers (especially Manchester Terriers). It is clear from the appearance of the modern Whippet, with its slender, streamlined shape, that if crosses were involved, the Greyhound elements were strengthened by back-crossing over a period of time.
When first developed, the Whippets were used for competitive rabbit-killing. These contests, in which rabbits were turned out into an enclosure and the dogs were released to see which one could make the quickest kill, permitted the northern miners to indulge in gambling without costly overheads. When their sport was condemned for its cruelty, they turned instead to ‘rag racing’ in which a cloth or fur lure was dragged down a straight track (often no more than a back alleyway) and the dogs were released from traps to hurtle after it. This again only involved modest running costs and their gambling urges could still be satisfied.
The Whippet is sometimes used today for competitive racing, still chasing a dummy prey down a straight track, but this is now usually done simply for pleasure and no longer involves serious gambling. Because of its lighter build, the Whippet has better acceleration than the Greyhound, but cannot reach quite such high speeds. Over very short distances, it could beat its bigger relative, but the Greyhound would soon overtake it.