Savage murders in a gentle world

The stabbing of a quiet whippet breeder and her elderly mother has shocked the dog world and baffled police, reports Mark Rowe
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JANICE SHERIDAN loved her whippets. She bred them at the isolated home she shared with her 89-year-old mother, Constance, and was due to exhibit at Crufts in March. When police discovered the two women's bodies, repeatedly stabbed with a 6in knife, they turned to the world of pedigree dog-breeding to try to explain the apparently motiveless murders.

Norfolk police found 26 whippets pining for their owners when they broke into the home where the Sheridans had lived for some 10 years, a mile from the Fenland village of Upwell, between Downham Market and Wisbech.

Police are now checking reports that the intensely private Miss Sheridan had a two-year love affair with an unidentified man. They are seeking men she may have met through dog-breeding, though her sister, Diana Penfold, told police: "I think it was accepted that men did not really enter into it. The dogs were her life."

The link is one of few lines of inquiry for the police. "On the surface this is a motiveless crime," said Peter Steward, a Norfolk police spokesman. "We are veering towards the view that it was someone they knew and that the person would therefore have had a plausible reason for being there.

"The dog-breeding around here is a legitimate pastime and we've never had any reports of these women being threatened."

The deaths have shocked whippet owners in East Anglia, who see themselves as friendly and free of many of the jealousies to which breeders of more exotic dogs can fall prey. They feel that a professional rivalry is an unlikely cause, describing the dogs the Sheridans owned as worth little in cash terms.

They struggle to suggest another motive because the Sheridans were so reclusive. Beyond the fact that Miss Sheridan had completed a photographic course, possibly with a view to developing a career in photography, and was known to have worked on a poultry farm, people who knew them for years can throw little light on their background.

"I'd known them for 10 years and no one held a grudge against them," said Patricia de Lacey Munday of the East Anglian Whippets Club, to which the Sheridans belonged. "Everyone in the whippet fraternity knows each other and they weren't the sort of people who would provoke others. They were a little bit reserved and kept themselves to themselves but they were perfectly friendly."

Michael Howgate of the National Whippets Association agreed. "Miss Sheridan wouldn't say boo to anybody. I cannot believe this has anything to do with her dogs."

The Sheridans fitted the description of the typical whippet owner. "Whippets are gentle dogs that shiver and shake when they're cold. They tend to attract peaceful and gentle owners who are usually female. There are not many young whippet breeders and owners around," said Beverley Cuddy, managing director of the magazine Dogs Today.

There are 11 whippet-owners' clubs across Britain. The dog is not a common pet, but can be bred for display shows, as the Sheridans' dogs were, and also for hare-coursing. But the rewards fetched by prize whippets are modest compared with those for other breeds - pounds 350 for a puppy against pounds 1,000 for a bulldog puppy.

The behaviour of judges, breeders and exhibitors in the world of dog shows has aroused disturbing allegations of deliberate damage and death threats to rival competitors' dogs. In one case, a Saluki breeder allegedly left her dog briefly unattended at a show and returned to find its ear feathering had been hacked with scissors. In other cases, two Samoyed dogs were allegedly poisoned and further death threats were made to scare off rival exhibitors.

"When you introduce financial gain into a sport with animals, then there is the potential for an element of dishonesty," said Colette Kase, animal welfare manager of the National Canine Defence League. "But I would be surprised if someone was prepared to murder for the sake of a dog show. It is usually easier to get at the animals and poison or dope them than the humans."