December 12, 2020

Meet Phelan the rescue pup—now America’s fastest dog

By haziqbinarif

Meet Phelan, the female four-year-old rescue dog who just won the American Kennel Club’s inaugural Fastest Dog USA competition.

The wiry mixed breed, whose name derives from the Irish word for “wolf,” completed a 100-yard dash in 6.346 seconds—or 32.3 miles per hour—beating out 130 other dogs that ran in the finals of the AKC Fast CAT Invitational—short for coursing ability trial—held December 11 at the Orlando Convention Center.

Owners Krista Shreet and Ted Koch of Crownsville, Maryland, adopted Phelan—an oatmeal-hued mix of greyhound, borzoi, and Scottish deerhound—when she was a year old.

“We took her in, and she’s stolen our hearts,” Koch says.

Two preliminary trials held this year determined the speediest dogs from each of the 129 participating breeds, from dachshunds to Doberman pinschers.

These top dogs traveled to Orlando for the finals, which were divided into two categories: Fastest Dog USA, for overall quickest canine, and Speed of the Breed, which recognizes the fastest dog of its breed. That title went to a gray miniature poodle, Elliot, and his owner Deborah Burnett of Gray Court, South Carolina.

ESPN, the AKC’s exclusive television partner in the United States,
will televise the AKC Fastest Dog USA event
in a two-hour program on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. on Sunday, December 13.

The inaugural event was open to all AKC-registered dogs who are at least a year old, as well as mixed breeds like Phelan.

Each dog runs three 100-yard trials, and their final speed is the average of those three. The races are part of the American Kennel Club’s National Championship, an annual series of competitions and agility trials that culminates in a Best in Show winner.

Doug Ljungren, the AKC’s executive vice president of sports and events, came up with the swiftest-dog idea a few years ago while watching his German wirehaired pointers chase after squirrels at his home. “How fast can dogs run, anyway?” he wondered.

Ljungren found plenty of statistics on dogs such as Greyhounds and whippets, which were bred for speed, but not for most of the other 190-plus AKC breeds, which led to the inaugural event. Not only will the fastest-dog event expand what we know about the abilities of our best friends, it’s a bright spot in a tough year, Ljungren adds.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the lifestyle changes it has brought, he said in a statement, “have resulted in a renewed appreciation of the relationship we have with our dogs.”

A need for speed

The greyhound, which can reach speeds of 43 miles per hour, is the fastest domestic dog breed. By comparison, Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt’s top speed was 28 miles per hour. (Greyhound racing, a sport many consider cruel and inhumane, is slowly coming to an end in the United States.)

Greyhounds belong to a group called sighthounds, whose lean physiques, long legs, and narrow heads help them reach high speeds. (See photos of dogs living around the world.)

Over the centuries, people bred these dogs as hunting companions, nimble and swift enough to chase down prey. Salukis, a graceful, long-eared breed, were a favorite hunting dog of the Egyptian pharoahs. Whippets, which resemble mini-greyhounds, originated in Victorian England, bred by coal miners who liked dog racing but didn’t have the space or money to keep bigger dogs. And vizslas, a reddish sporting dog from Hungary whose ancestors were the tough, agile dogs of Magyar warriors and nobles, are also lightning fast.

These examples show “you’re not just selecting for speed, you’re selecting for speed within a certain environment,” and for certain roles in the human world, Adam Boyko, a canine geneticist at Cornell University.

Some smaller breeds, such as terriers and Dachshunds, he adds, can be surprisingly fast, since they were bred to quickly flush out vermin, such as rodents and other burrowing animals.

A Pekingese clocked in at 12.97 miles per hour during her December 10 final—perhaps not bad for a breed meant to be carried around in the sleeves of Chinese royalty.

“We’ll make sure her stocking is full”

The COVID-19 pandemic led to some changes in this year’s AKC championship; for example, no spectators are allowed in the stands. The fastest-dog event also had to pare down its rules, with only one dog representing each breed in each division, instead of three as originally hoped, Ljungren says. (See behind-the-scenes photos of dogs competing in the Westminster Dog Show.)

But in other ways, the pandemic has created more opportunities. For the first time, the AKC encouraged American dog owners to send in videos of their dogs completing agility courses; over the past eight months, the organization has received 15,000 clips.

Though unofficial, the video program has allowed people who are isolated or aren’t able to travel a way to experience the AKC and share their love for their pets, Ljungren says. “It’s really quite touching.”

As for Phelan, this is her last event for 2020, her owners said. Everyone will go home, have a rest, and get ready for the holidays.

“We’ll make sure her stocking is full,” Koch quips.

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