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Dog Training: Are Women Better at it Than Men?

Last week I wrote about a behavioral study that found that women, by in large, are better at correctly interpreting a dog’s growl than men.  The researchers believed the reason behind this is because women are “more in tune emotionally” — which I think plays to a stereotype, but instead of making an argument about how men can be just as emotionally situationally aware as women, it got me wondering: if women are better at hearing what a dog is saying, does that make them better dog trainers?

In numbers, women are dominant when it comes to training companion dogs

Before I get too much further with this topic, I want to put this up front: this is an issue based on sexism and stereotypes. If it weren’t for the original study’s findings, I would probably never have thought women were better at being emotionally attuned to dogs.  I think of dogs as being the great equalizer when it comes to emotions. Everyone can love and be loved by a dog.  Everyone can live happily with a dog.  Everyone can derive great joy from their relationship with a dog.  That being said, dog training isn’t the same as being able to bond with a dog, so let’s look at who’s got the upperpaw when it comes to getting your dog to sit, stay, and heel.

Throughout the last 25 years that I’ve been active in the dog world, my personal exposure to professional trainers has been 100% women.  The canine behaviorists have all been women. In fact, the only male trainers/behavioralists I know of are through some form of media (books, television, internet). After doing a bit of completely unscientific research on the matter, it turns out that women do dominate the companion training arena (this is based on conference attendance and professional association membership).  BUT! But, if we look at field (gun dog, hunting), search & rescue, and protection/k9/military training, we see a very different picture.  Men far outweigh women here, which isn’t surprising if we go back to stereotypes – women are empathetic and work on towards harmony and home life; men are more comfortable with confrontation, aggression, and violence.  The one style of training that appeared to be more evenly divided was agility work, which draws on both feminine and masculine traits – cooperation and communication, as well as a desire to be more physically engaged in the activity.

The sheer numbers indicate that women go into companion dog training more often than men do, but does that make them better at it?  Stanley Coren wrote of one study that went to the heart of the matter in his Psychology Today article: the researchers put a person who just stood still in front of 30 shelter dogs and watched their reactions. The dogs settled down faster if the person in front of them was a woman; if the person was a man, the defensive behaviors (barking, staring) went on longer. Coren extrapolated that as trainers, women might be better as they are able to build a positive relationship faster than men as the dogs view them as less threatening.

I can’t help but think of the two most famous names in companion training today; Cesar Milan and Victoria Stilwell.  These two have very different styles and philosophies, and one could say that they very much fall into those gender stereotypes. Milan is a big believer in the alpha-dominant pack mentality, whereas Stilwell is grounded in positive reinforcement and nurturing good behavior instead of focusing on the negative.  Both styles have their pros and cons, their followers and critics, and I would argue that both styles have a place and time depending on the dog.

No two are alike!

Ah, yes, the dog! Because when we discuss dog training, it really is all about the dog. What does the dog need?  What are the goals of training that particular dog?  Is your dog easy-going and needs to learn the basics? Is your dog very shy and dog-reactive and you’d like to train your dog to be able to go for a walk without flipping out on every dog you meet? Obviously, depending on your dog, your trainer might need to be more nurturing and positive – or he (yes, he) might have to be a more assertive personality with more of a commanding presence.

Just like women and men are individuals whether they are training dogs or not, the dog is also very much an individual with quirks and personality and wants and needs that no other dog has (at least not exactly). While I began this post with the hope of having an answer to the question of who is better, women or men, at dog training it’s completely irrelevant because the only thing about the trainer that matters is the who has the skillset to reach your dog most effectively – and that can’t be summed up with a blanket statement based solely on gender.


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