Showsight Contributing Author, Allan Reznik sat down with renowned Whippet Breeder Iva Kimmelman – Merci Isle Whippets for a lively discussion about breed history.
Where did you grow up?
Iva Kimmelman | Merci Isle Whippets: I grew up in Seattle, Washington.
Do you come from a doggy family? If not, how did the interest in breeding and showing purebred dogs begin?
Iva Kimmelman | Merci Isle Whippets: I don’t come from a purebred fancier family per se, but we always had dogs as companions, many of which were purebreds.
I used to bring home strays, too. (There were no leash laws in those days.) Sometimes, they belonged to someone else, but being dogs, they probably thought I might be a lot of fun.
In 1964, I got a job after school for $1.25 per hour at a kennel in Kenmore, Washington, called Blue Moon. The owner raised Beagles and Bedlingtons, and was developing a breed of fancy cat called Shaded Silver Shorthairs, by breeding Siamese to Persians. Her name was Gay Valentine. She became famous in the cat community. She set the bug in my ear about the joy and rewards of breeding.
It was during my care of the cats and that breeding program, and caring for her dogs, that I realized I wanted to create dogs. I got to help with whelpings and, sadly, cleanup after terrible fights between those Bedlingtons. She was the one who taught me to groom dogs, which is something I did for 35 years.
I had no idea which breed that would be, but I had seen a photo on the cover of Life magazine of a Whippet. Little did I know that image was in a file in my brain.
I was still in high school in 1966 when I went to work at a very fancy kennel that specialized in German Shepherds, many from Germany, called Royal Acres in Woodinville, Washington. It was a very fancy place with lots of land, all fenced with three luxury homes and my house, which was also quite nice. The finest facilities, and the people who ran it took immaculate care of the dogs that were all owned by a very wealthy woman named Bertine Piggott of Piggott Aviation in Seattle. It was quite the experience for a young person with stars in her eyes. I even got mentored a bit by the great Terrier man, Ben Brown.
That is where I met Peggy (named after the great Peggy Newcombe of Pennyworth Whippet fame), my first Whippet. I thought she was skinny and strange because I was into REAL dogs then; big, hairy, you get the picture. She followed me around every day and whenever I turned around, she was a few feet away, looking at me like I was a god of some kind.
Then suddenly, one day, I “saw her.”
It happened when someone mentioned Ricky and that Life magazine cover. Ricky was Eng./Am. Ch. Courtenay Fleetfoot Of Pennyworth who won Westminster in 1964.
It was then I knew which breed I wanted to create.
Who were your mentors in the sport? Please elaborate on their influence.
So many people, and some who do not even know it. There are, indeed, various ways to mentor someone by example, both good and bad. Far too many to mention here.
However, I must mention these: Mike Dougherty, Isabell Stoffers, Doris Ringer, Marie Talbot from Royal Acres, Gay Valentine, Betty Wolkonsky, Jean Balint, Doris Wear, Annie Clark, Paul Lepiane, Bo Bengtson, Susan Vargus (Westgate), John Shelton (Sheridan), and Richard Reynolds (Roving).
Seriously, there had to be hundreds. I learned from every person I met at dog shows and field events, anywhere that dog people congregated. I learned by watching and listening.
What I learned from all of them was that I had a lot to learn. Of course, like most novices, I had my take downs coming. I learned not to talk at ringside or talk about people’s dogs at shows. I learned about good sportsmanship.
The Merci Isle Whippets are widely known, successful and well respected. What breeding philosophies do you adhere to?
Success can come in time for those who are patient with just a litter a year, but to create a pedigree, a bloodline takes real work.
Iva Kimmelman | Merci Isle Whippets : I do not think that I have a unique philosophy other than breeding healthy dogs with good minds as a foundation, with strong pedigrees, and phenotype that adheres to the AKC standard.
I owe everything to the people who bred the dogs in my original pedigrees. It takes an exceptionally long time to create a bloodline unless you breed dozens of litters a year and you really know what you are doing. Success can come in time for those who are patient with just a litter a year, but to create a pedigree, a bloodline takes real work.
I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity in the last two decades to import or purchase Whippets from outside the US to complement my bitches. (So, it is not all about me.) I was not able to do this during most of the 54 years that I have loved Whippets. I just did not have the resources at the time, yet I always had my dogs with me.
It certainly matters to me that others think my dogs are well-made, correct examples of the breed. It also matters to me that my peers respect me for my care of my dogs. I go to a National and to specialties to show my dogs to my peers.
This all starts from the ground up, as far as I am concerned. Sure, there are “famous” breeders in all breeds who breed a great deal and get lots of nice dogs, but it is how my dogs live that matters most to me.
Standing for something, with a moral and ethical compass, has served me well.
Now for some philosophies:
My dogs have certainly gotten better in the last three decades. It is a learning curve, to be sure. I always go back to my mentors and what they said to me. I wish so many were still alive now. I need them sometimes.
Type is defined by the head and outline of this breed. When you get that right, and they are sound moving, you are halfway there. I was told early on to burn the image of Ricky into my mind’s eye. This considerably basic and honest advice has always served me well. Ricky’s photograph by Neena Leen, published in Life magazine, is one of the most often downloaded and published dog photos ever. That says it all, doesn’t it?
I believe it is fair to say that that is what a Whippet is supposed to end up looking like.
My first Whippet, Verdi of Merci Isle, was a great-grandson of Ricky.
How many dogs do you currently house? Tell us about your facilities and how the dogs are maintained.
I have 10 Whippets in my home, and two males that live just a few miles away with a friend who is just getting started in Whippets.
They all live in my home with me. Otherwise, what is the point of having them? And as we all know, the days of those big kennels with 100 dogs are long gone. This is a good thing for the dogs’ sake.
I have 40 acres of extremely private land abutted by my own conservation land; two acres fenced attached to three indoor/outdoor runs. We plan to clear about three acres in the woods with grass and fencing for exercise and, maybe, setting up a lure machine for training pups this summer.
The dogs have their own room, a separate crate room for feeding only. But they spend their time in my office on numerous beds, or in the kitchen or in other areas when they are not outside in their two-acre running space. It is a good life for all of us. I am so thankful to have them.
I recently moved from a larger home that we shared for 34 years, with lots of room to have one or two litters every year, to a smaller, more private home with lots of land for dogs to run, but not the same facilities to breed.
This is okay. I probably have two or three litters left to do before I need to stop. I must stop eventually, no matter how good I am at it now, or how much I love it. It used to make me sad to look at all my stunning bitches that I created, that cannot be bred due to time and space. Then I just look at them and remember that that is what matters; that I have them to look at and love. Not every great bitch (or dog) needs to be bred.
I had hoped in the past to share some of my superior bitches with others who wanted to start a breeding program. However, as we all know, the world has changed. This is sad, but it is reality.
Iva Kimmelman | Merci Isle Whippets : I have spent time—too much time—on people who I thought were as serious as I am about being a dog breeder, but they have all fallen by the wayside. We are all still friends, but they just do not have the desire and they do not think they have the time to accomplish what I have, so they do not want to bother.
Who were/are some of your most significant Whippets, both in the whelping box and in the show ring?
I am a breeder first, more than a competitor. I truly thrive on the creative process. I spend far too much time doing pedigrees on our Whippet Archives that I will never breed. It brings me much happiness to plan for things that “might have been.”
I show my dogs to their championships and coursing titles, and do not do more. Yes, I attend specialties and National events with champions, but I do not have any desire to compete at the all-breed level.
So, although Ch. Merci Isle Meridian, ROMX and his son, Ch. Merci Isle Burncoat Babylon, are both National Specialty winners (and Meridian was a significant sire, including being behind my best brood bitches), my focus is on my bitches.
I do not think a dog or bitch needs to be a show champion to be bred. However, I am unlikely to breed bitches that will not run after the lure. They are few and far between, but it happens.
Some of my most famous lure coursers, one of which is Ch. Merci Isle Jacaranda, LCM, would not even look at the lure until she was almost a year old. Then she surprised even me, by winning the breed at our AWC National ASFA lure coursing event in 2014 with a competing entry of 158. Two judges, both saw her in the same light.
I have so many great bitches that I am indebted to, but if I must choose just a few, these most certainly are significant: Ch. Merci Isle Hot Flowers, FCH, ROM; Ch. Merci Isle A Distant Mirror; her daughter, Ch. Merci Isle Dreamy Draw, FCH; her granddaughter, Ch. Merci Isle Velvet Hammer, FCH, ROM; her great-granddaughter, Ch. Merci Isle Dove Feather, FCH; her daughter Ch. Merci Isle Jacaranda, LCM; her daughter, Ch. Merci Isle Jona Gold, LCM; and currently, her daughter, Ch. Merci Isle I Could Watch You 4Ever, who is as close to my ideal as I will most likely ever own. I was able to import a wonderful English Ch. bitch, Ch. Barnesmore Red Rose at Palmik, and have her daughter, Ch. Merci Isle Paradise Garden, LCM, and granddaughter, Merci Isle Antipodes (just a few singles away from her show title).
Let me say that each dog that I’ve mentioned has a pedigree that means as much to me as the dogs themselves. If I go back to my very beginnings, those dogs matter as much as what I’ve created, even if I did not create them.
We are all in this game together, this familial hunt to carry on. I am so grateful to the breeders who made these dogs so that I could include them in the Merci Isle recipe.
Then there are the dogs I did not breed myself, but was able to obtain due to the incredible generosity of others who were willing to share.
Ch. Tangen’s The Maverick Cosmonaut, FCh, CRX, ROM; Am./Aus. Ch. Byerley Savile Row, ROMX; and Byerley Jay Dillon At Merci Isle, the latest Australian import. I also brought his stunning litter sister to the States to incorporate with my lines, but I need to find a young upstart to lease her from me for a litter.
Please comment positively on your breed’s present condition and what trends might bear watching.
Iva Kimmelman | Merci Isle Whippets : There are so many gorgeous Whippets all over the world. Our breed is SO strong right now and has been for a while. However, seeking perfection cannot ever be satisfied completely, can it?
The breed has gotten so much sounder and better in front and they have better side gait, although too much sometimes.
I have been sharing Whippet photos of the past from old magazines and books on a Facebook thread. I started to do this in October of 2020 to bring some happiness to my family of Whippet fanciers during a difficult time for all of us.
Iva Kimmelman | Merci Isle Whippets : We have many fine, talented breeders in the US. I do think that dogs in England, Sweden, and Australia are so strong, even with the different standards. I especially LOVE Whippets from Australia, the UK, Sweden, and Finland.
I am concerned about Whippets from some breeding programs being too extreme. They are “Greyhoundy” Whippets with flat backs, narrow skulls with no stop at all, and small eyes, set obliquely on the head.
Fads come and go, but if breeders remember that this is a galloping, sprinting breed, they should remember that the trot is just to check for soundness.
Our AKC standard wants width between the ears, and these dogs are wide between the eyes, as asked for in other standards around the world. These dogs may have gorgeous bodies, but they lack type. If you cannot tell the breed by the head, something is wrong. I dislike the wording “barely perceptible stop” in our standard. It has allowed bizarre- looking heads to seep in.
The successful breeders are doing fine, with just a few outliers not caring about heads and breeding only for side gait in the show ring. They usually do not course or race their Whippets. If they did, they would see the weakness they perpetuate.
We want balance of proportions, NO exaggerations, and moderation all-around. Whippets cannot move fast while dragging a lot of excess baggage with them.
Alas, racing is the real bottom line with Whippets. If they are not fast, they do not do well—and extremes do not have speed. The finish line is the bottom line.
I do not use racing as a litmus test for my own program, preferring lure coursing or even open field coursing, which I did in my past in California. However, for those who feel strongly about the subjectivity of the show ring or lure coursing, the bottom line at a race meet is the finish line. The dogs decide.
The sport has changed greatly since you first began participating. What are your thoughts on the state of the fancy and the declining number of breeders? How do we encourage newcomers to join us and remain in the sport?
Iva Kimmelman | Merci Isle Whippets : This is the million-dollar question. We have no control over time, change, and the future. My mother used to respond to my childhood yearnings about “why that has to happen” with, “Blessed is the veil that hides the future.” I did not understand what it meant then, but I do now. Dogs live in the now and I think we need to do the same.
Yes, we can perhaps shape our hobby to be more welcoming, and therefore inviting to newcomers, but in the end, people who want to breed dogs in the right way, with good care, companionship for the dogs, and strong animal husbandry must feel something about the animals in their care and not their own human egos.
Dog shows were created to find breeding animals by standards of perfection. I think it was a grand idea in the beginning, made up by men in a time when they probably had a lot of time and money to spend on their dogs.
I just want to know that the dogs themselves matter more than any awards. If it goes back to that, then I honestly believe that our hobby can come back to some place of decency. It was originally about the dogs and their purpose, and that is what needs to matter now.
Getting newcomers interested in a breeding program has no answer from me. I have tried several times and failed. They sounded great, they seemed to be focused, but there was lack of sacrifice.
I was close to the pocket when I first started on my journey to create lovely Whippets. I had to save and plan. But I did. I fed good food, took good care of my dogs, planned breedings, and entered shows.
Iva Kimmelman | Merci Isle Whippets : I advertised. I learned early on that I wanted to be remembered for my efforts, and the way to do that was to be in print magazines. Part of my thread on Facebook included promising my followers that they were never going to be remembered—other than in magazines and books. Facebook will be gone, as the feed just scrolls down.
Where do you see your breeding program in the next decade or two?
I have a special bitch that has come back to me after living with her co-breeder/co-owner as a sort of gift, and I am just so at peace with what to do with her. She will be bred in the late spring of 2021. I knew who I would breed her dam to, even before she was born. I plan to breed this bitch to that same dog. However, he is going on 11 and, therefore, I have a backup plan. I always have a backup plan.
Finally, tell us a little about Iva outside of dogs: your profession, your hobbies.
I am a retired CEO of a corporation that owned a chain of high-end pet supply stores called Pet Source, INC in Massachusetts. We sold to a large, venture capital conglomerate in 2016.
The many interests I have with my husband of 36 years this March are on hold, like everyone else. We love museums and travel, as well as fine restaurants. Now we hike in our woods, and I live and breathe my dogs as always.
I used to collect and exhibit model horses, but that is on hold now, too. And I mean high-end, artist resin horses that can be quite costly. But if you want to win, you need the best. Just like in dogs. I hope 2021 will be better for all of us.