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The gender gap in dog training

The gender gap in dog training

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Several years ago I attended a two-day seminar on dog training given by renowned animal behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell in Big Sky. McConnell was interviewed by a reporter from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle after the first day and was asked why so few of the some 230 attendees were men. McConnell said maybe the men got lost on the way and were afraid to ask directions to the seminar.

McConnell’s response appeared in the paper the next day and thankfully I wasn’t around to read the letters to the editor on subsequent days. Trish McConnell certainly isn’t anti-male and I think her quip about males meant she thought the question was lame and was poking fun at the male reporter.

The question was relevant. My unscientific observation over the past years is that women make up the vast majority of dog trainers, canine behaviorists, animal rescue workers and people simply taking their dogs through obedience classes. In most obedience classes I’ve taken or given, women have outnumbered men by at least 3 to 1. In my class of 10 people at the San Francisco Academy for Dog Trainers, I was the only male student.

Is this the correct ratio in dog training circles? If so, why has this happened? How does it affect dogs? And are we ready to change the old adage to say dogs are a woman’s best friend? These are key questions in the debate and I’ll take a crack at them.

My personal observation is that women overwhelmingly outnumber men in the companion dog training field, although if you factor in military and guard dog training, sniffer dog training and working dog training the numbers may not be skewed as much. Indeed, at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers’ annual conference the line to the women’s restroom during breaks can stretch out the hotel door while the men’s restroom is virtually unoccupied.

One of the major reasons for this imbalance is a change in training methodology. Men used to dominate the dog training field following WWII. Then things changed. Positive reinforcement began taking hold as less aversive means of training became popular. A kinder, gentler method of teaching dogs evolved through rewards based training involving treats, more praise, jolly talking and using soft voices to correct. This new methodology seemed to exploit the natural temperament and orientation of women.

Also, women seem to gravitate more toward care-giving and nurturing professions than men. Perhaps women outnumber men in dog training for the same reason they outnumber men in teaching, nursing and animal rescue work.

The positive aspects of female ascendency in dog training are many. A survey taken by The Association of Pet Dog Trainers of its membership several years ago noted that women seem to be more patient, more willing to follow instructions, better at reading canine body language and paying attention, and are less structured than men in training dogs.

Hold on guys, we have good points too! Men seem to be better at setting limits, more consistent in approach, more assertive and able to control dogs and better at handling “pushy” dogs. Good dog training certainly does not require one to be feminine.

I think the most unexpected but significant problem of male underrepresentation in dog training and rescue work is lack of dog socialization to men. The vast majority of gender fear and aggression in dogs I see at the shelter is directed toward men. Men are bigger and more physical, talk louder and are more intimidating to dogs than women. They often wear facial hair and hats. Dogs need men around to become conditioned to masculine traits.

Our dog Tucker’s litter was brought to the shelter on a cruelty case when he was five weeks old, and he spent nine months there. Shelter staff and volunteers were overwhelmingly represented by females. Tucker was definitely shyer around men than women and it took us over a year to positively condition him to men.

It is important to recognize the value of both male and female styles of training and interacting with canines. Each gender should strive to learn about and use the tools and methods of the other to improve their relationships with their dogs. Being positive and being strong are not mutually exclusive terms.

So come on, guys, get more involved in training. Volunteer to walk and train dogs at the shelter. Come on, gals, encourage them! A better balance between male and female will benefit the genders of both species.

Tom Kandt is shelter trainer and behavior consultant at the LCHS. He is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and graduate of the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers. Reach him at tkandt@yahoo.com.

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