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Are Women Better Dog Trainers Than Men?

Women seem to dominate the field of companion dog training.

Matt Drobnik photo Creative Commons license
Source: Matt Drobnik photo Creative Commons license

I was at a weekend dog training workshop designed for people who were dog obedience competitors. A cluster of us had gathered around the coffee pot during one of the breaks and one of them, a very successful dog trainer who had one many titles and honors for her dogs, poked me with her elbow and announced, "Here again we have proof that women are better dog trainers than men." I looked at her with some puzzlement. It was true that the person giving the workshop was a woman who had a high reputation in competitive dog obedience circles but I didn't quite get the point that she was trying to make. But then she clarified what she meant when she continued, "Just tally up the number of people here. By my count there are 41 dog trainers attending this, and only 7 of them are men. By my math that means that 83% of the trainers in the room are women. Since only the best trainers attend workshops like this to hone their skills, this is just another bit of proof that women are better dog trainers than men." The group laughed and the banter went on for a few minutes longer with one of the men suggesting that perhaps men didn't attend such seminars or workshops because their training abilities were already at such a high level that they didn't need improvement. This comment produced guffaws and howls of disbelief. However by this time the coffee break was nearing its end and we were being called back to continue the session.

At one level this dog trainer's comments were quite insightful. Many people have noticed that, when it comes to dog trainers who work with companion dogs, the overwhelming majority seem to be women. This is not the case when it comes to those who train field dogs or protection dogs. In those areas the majority of trainers seem to be men. It has often been argued that these areas have a majority of male trainers because field dogs are associated with guns and hunting, which are less interesting to women, and protection dogs are associated with more macho and confrontational settings which women tend to shy away from.

The degree to which women tend to dominate the companion dog training and competition field is quite amazing. To look more closely at this I contacted some friends of mine in several different cities in North America. I asked them to simply count the number of people at the next dog behavior seminar or workshop that they attended, and to break it down by the number of men and women. I ended up with a count of 311 attendees, of whom 261 were women. That means to say that 84% of the people attending these events which were designed for trainers who want to improve the performance of competitive dogs were female.

Of course, attendance at a training workshop does not necessarily mean that the individual is a better trainer — the people that come to such events might have more interest in dog training but not necessarily more proficiency. Therefore I looked for additional evidence about the gender difference among companion dog trainers. Since the best trainers tend to associate themselves with professional organizations targeting dog training, I consulted the membership list of the Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers. The CAPDT doesn't publish a breakdown by gender, however their list includes the first and last name of each member. I ran through that list (eliminating any first names which were ambiguous as to the sex of the individual), and came up with 274 names, of which 234 were women. That means that 85% of the membership of this professional dog training association were women, which is quite close to the breakdown that I got for attendance at dog training workshops.

Of course simple membership in an organization still does not necessarily guarantee ability so I looked for further evidence. The Animal Behavior Society runs a program which rigorously tests individuals and can ultimately lead to a certification which gives a person the title of Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB). These are the people that you are best advised to consult when your dog has a major behavioral difficulty. There are not very many of these highly skilled individuals, however I obtained a list which contained 47 names of these animal behaviorists. Consistent with the other results was the fact that 42 of these were women. That means that 89% of these people whose main focus is to remedy dog problems through training, are women.

Why is it the case that women tend to dominate the field of companion dog training? Unfortunately the scientific literature is not very helpful on this point. Perhaps one hint as to why women may make better dog trainers comes from a study by Deborah Wells and Peter Hepper who are psychologists at the Queens University of Belfast in Northern Ireland. Their study was published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science*.

This study was rather straightforward. It looked at the reaction of 30 dogs who were housed in a shelter. At various times a person would simply come and stand in front of their cage, not attempting any form of interaction at all. The amount of time that the dog spent at the front of the cage, barking, looking towards the human, wagging its tail, and engaged in activities of sitting, standing, moving, resting, was recorded. They found that the sex of the people standing near the dog made a difference in the dog's behaviors. Dogs stopped barking or defensively staring at the person much more quickly when the individual was a woman. These researchers concluded that dogs seem to respond in a more defensive-aggressive manner toward men than toward women.

The implications of this for dog training should be quite obvious. The very first step in training a dog is to establish some sort of rapport with the animal. Clearly a dog that is worried or hostile, is not going to accept guidance and leadership from a trainer. Thus it may well be that women have an advantage over men as dog trainers, at least at the beginning stages of training, since the dogs are less likely to be defensive or aggressive around them. Still, whether this advantage is enough to explain why four out of five companion dog trainers seem to be women is not clear, and certainly needs some systematic research.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

*Data from: Wells, D. L. and Hepper, P. G. 1999. Male and female dogs respond differently to men and women. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 61: 341–349.